Background: The use of global positioning system (GPS) devices with the inclusion of microsenor technology in rugby league enables measurement of player activity profiles to understand the demands of match-play and optimise on-field performance.
Objective: The aim of this review was to systematically review the use of GPS and microsensor technology to quantify player activity profiles in match-play, and conduct a meta-analysis of relevant movement variables in order to present the contemporary and emerging themes within rugby league.
Methods: A systematic search of electronic databases (MEDLINE, SPORTDiscus, CINAHL, Web of Science, Scopus, ScienceDirect, EMBASE, and Google Scholar) from the earliest record to February 2015 was conducted. Permutations of key words included GPS, microtechnology, activity profiles, match demands (movement or physical demands), and rugby league. A meta-analysis was conducted to provide a pooled mean and confidence intervals on comparable data from at least three studies.
Results: Twenty-seven studies met the eligibility criteria and included 1270 male participants. The studies reported on GPS use in elite competition (n = 16) with limited representation of other competition standards: sub-elite (n = 6), amateur (n = 1) and junior (n = 3). All studies reported on movement variables (distance, relative distance, speed and accelerations), with studies analysing movement at high speed (n = 18, 66.7%), evaluating collision or impact variables (n = 15, 55.6%) and determining the metabolic energy (n = 2, 7.4%) associated with rugby league match-play. Activity profiles of varying positions, positional groups and levels of rugby league competition were described. Meta-analysis indicated that the total distance covered by backs and adjustables were both greater than forward positions, but adjustables covered greater relative distance than forwards and backs. Speed zones were typically categorised into six speed zones ranging from 0 to 36 km·h(-1), or into low- and high-intensity movement. Vast inconsistencies were apparent across studies in categorising movement at high speed, posing difficulties for comparison. Meta-analysis indicated that, although the number of repeated high-intensity effort (RHIE) bouts in elite players were similar to sub-elite (and both greater than juniors), the number of efforts per RHIE were significantly greater in elite than sub-elite players. Differential pacing strategies were adopted according to player selection (whole-match vs. interchange), time period within match-play and match outcome, in order to maintain high-intensity performance or to challenge for a win. Sizeable inconsistencies were also identified in the definitions of reported collisions (classified as mild, moderate and heavy) and impacts (six zone categories provided by manufacturer), making comparisons across studies difficult. Collision profiles were different between competition standard and position where elite players and forwards sustained more moderate- and high-intensity collisions than sub-elite players and backs, respectively. The recent inclusion of GPS-derived metabolic indices to activity profiles has also accentuated the distinctive workloads of positional groups during match-play where adjustables demonstrate the highest energy expenditure and metabolic power.
Conclusions: This review and the results of the meta-analysis have demonstrated that positional groups have varied kinematic and metabolic demands. During match play, forwards sustain the greatest number of collisions and RHIE bouts, outside backs participate in more high-speed running and cover the greatest distance, and adjustables work at high intensity covering the greatest relative distance with the highest metabolic cost. Therefore, specific training for each positional group should address their match requirements. In addition, sub-elite players exhibit lower intensity of play compared with elite players, as indicated by lower relative distance and less number of efforts per RHIE bout despite similarities in total distance covered and number of RHIE bouts. To prepare them for elite-level play, their training should incorporate higher intensity drills in which greater relative distance and number of efforts per RHIE bout are performed. Furthermore, the lack of consistency in the definition of speed zones, high-intensity movement, collisions and impacts, underscores the difficulties encountered in meaningful comparisons of player activity profiles between studies. Consensus of these definitions would facilitate direct comparisons within rugby league.