Rathbone: Back to the Future

Clyde Rathbone
by Clyde Rathbone

Indulge me for a moment by stepping aboard my time machine as we embark on a short trip to 1970.

We’re here to investigate some of the changes that have occurred in Rugby and to ponder just how drastically the game will be redesigned in the future.

At this point you might be wondering if this really is the best use of what appears to be amazing time travel technology - those are the kind of pesky thoughts that ruin perfectly good articles, so push them from your mind and dive into the stupid with me as your tour guide.

One of the first things you’ll notice is the glaring discrepancy in the size of players then and now. Back in 1970 the average back weighed in at approximately 80kg, while his physically (and mentally) slower comrade in the forwards usually didn’t even crack three figures on the scales.Wallabies Captain in the 1970's Geoff 'Bunter' Shaw played was a robust centre. Photo: ARU MediaThe game is faster, the players are bigger and this trend seems set to roll on. But how good could a player from a bygone era have become had they been exposed to all the support modern players enjoy? I’m trying to drill down into how dominant an already dominant player could have been.

What would happen if we married rare natural ability to modern advances in nutrition, strength & conditioning and recovery etc. I’m specifically interested in the potential benefits that only required access to new knowledge. This is an interesting question because it helps us think about where current gaps in our understanding of high performance might lie.

There are a host of reasons why the best players from generations past did not optimise their preparation for Rugby in the ways that modern players do, but a lack of knowledge must rank highly among these.

Putting on our futurist hats allows us to wonder what kind of knowledge might provide the next quantum leap in sporting performance.

The science of genetics and nutrition is sure to unearth numerous performance enhancing benefits. Despite significant advances in our understanding of performance nutrition, there remains a lot of guesswork and crude experimentation involved in attempting to optimise the diet of an athlete. Imagine if a simple test procedure enabled an athlete to know with certainty which foods were best suited to their particular genetic profile.

And what of the untapped potential of the human brain. For as long as I can recall a striking dogma has pervaded professional sport. That of the 'pressure player' or the 'big match performer'. We tend to utilise these terms as though they represent some kind of inherent, uncoachable trait that some players are blessed with. And yet everything we’re learning about the brain suggests it is far more complex and malleable than we’ve imagined. What will sport look like when a winning mindset is well understood and as coachable as rudimentary motor skills?

While it’s difficult to pinpoint where the next breakthrough might take athletes, the changing face of sports entertainment is easier to predict. The televised product is already making it difficult for stadiums to lure patrons, and this is a battle set to get much more difficult with the looming influence of virtual reality.

ANZ stadium will host more Rugby in years to come. Photo: ARU Media/Stu WalmsleyFully immersive virtual experiences are set to highlight the difference between being at the game and being in the game. The Foxkopter and 'Ref Cam' are the first tentative steps along a path that will completely overhaul how we experience sport. Imagine a sophisticated micro camera smaller than a pin head attached to every player on the field. Forget watching Izzy when you can slip on a headset and be Izzy.

Wherever the game goes in future one thing is certain - It’s going to be better than ever.

Clyde Rathbone captained South Africa to a Junior Rugby World Cup in 2002 before immigrating to Australia, playing 73 matches with the ACT Brumbies and 26 for the Wallabies. He is co-founder technology of Karma.wiki

The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the ARU.