Are women working harder on the rugby pitch than men?

Dr Eddie Bradley training sessions with elite players at Darlington Mowden Park (DMP) Sharks Ladies Rugby Football Club

Published on 18 September 2019

While the Rugby World Cup is upon us as 20 nations descend on Japan to battle it out for the men’s trophy, a Sunderland academic’s research is helping to enhance the women’s game on the field.

University of Sunderland sports scientist, Dr Eddie Bradley, has spent the past three years monitoring training and performance during matches of elite players at Darlington Mowden Park (DMP) Sharks Ladies Rugby Football Club, currently playing in the Women's Premier15 League.

During his observations he has uncovered some interesting findings in comparison to the men’s game which has led to improvements in the top level players’ performances and resulted in a research paper: Quantification of Movement Characteristics in Women’s English Premier Elite Domestic Rugby Union.

Dr Bradley says compared to the men’s game where specific roles and players perform in different ways, the women’s game is much more homogenised, and these slight differences between female players has led to more movement around the team until they find their strongest position.

“This actually develops the game in an interesting way, making it fascinating and exciting to watch, because of the similarities within the players, they can play in a lot more positions and there is a lot more running in the game,” he explained. “While there is not as much use of scrums and the power game like the men’s, it’s fast paced and probably more dynamic.”

Dr Bradley believes this is due to women entering the game at a later stage while boys begin playing rugby right from primary school.

He says: “A lot of female players don’t start playing until they get to university, and don’t know where they should be playing, so it takes a few years to decide what the best position for them is and move around quickly. Boys are often playing from primary school, and tend to be identified for specific positions from an early age.

“I think it would improve their game if girls they were playing from an earlier age, they will develop their skills in specific positions that could lead to improvements in their game. However, it’s also not a bad thing for the team to see positions changing, for example, you may get props who can run really fast and that’s great for the game.”

The research findings indicate that the demands placed on female rugby players are position specific and differ from male players. Global positioning system (GPS) sensors were used to collect data over the course of 129 competitive games from the Tyrrells Premier15 league. The research also enhances the overall limited data currently available on women’s Rugby Union.

DMP Sharks have had great success in the national game with a number their players signed up as England internationals including Sunderland graduate Katy Mclean, Tamara Taylor, Heather Kerr, Georgina Roberts, Jo Brown, Abbie Scott and La Toya Mason.

Director of Rugby at DMP Sharks, Justin Loveridge said:  “Eddie has been a fantastic member of the team during the last couple of seasons providing the team with expert advice and equipment. This has allowed the players to benefit from GPS data and speed gates which has helped us track their performance during training and matches.

“The research that Eddie has put in during the seasons has been invaluable to us as a coaching team and had significant impact on how we prepare the team to perform on a match day.  It has highlighted a number of areas where we could improve from our drop off in work rate during second half of matches to the number of high-speed moments in a match to training. This has seen us monitor our performances carefully through Eddie to improve in these areas, and helped us finish stronger.”

He added: “Eddie’s research has been a great help from use of high-quality equipment to informed advice to the data which has been collected. This has not only been from a strength and conditioning perspective but also from a rugby viewpoint to help with how we train.”

Dr Bradley, a Senior Lecturer in Biomechanics, is also feeding his data back to the Rugby Football Union (RFU), to demonstrate how the players are developing, and how the coaching, strength and conditioning work is progressing, through analyses of the data.

“This is just the starting point, there’s so much more to look at as the popularity of the women’s game continues to grow, from fitness and tackles to how hard each player is working during a match. Many of the players are using our data to benchmark against themselves, now they have the results of how far they’re running and sprinting which is so important for their own development.”

To read the full report, due to be published, go to: https://sure.sunderland.ac.uk/id/eprint/10947/

Dr Eddie Bradley is a Senior Lecturer in biomechanics with a background in clinical biomechanics of the hip (PhD). Currently, he is Programme Leader for BSc (Hons) Sport and Exercise Sciences. He has a keen interest in sport.