The Science Behind Rugby Jerseys

mattgiteauionxjerseyRugby jerseys have come a long way from their humble potato-sack beginnings. Now, synthetic and high-tech, they are arguably as important to a successful side as a strong tackler or golden boot. And 2007 marked the pinnacle of that evolution.

The jerseys have undergone somewhat of a change in recent years. Traditionally an all cotton affair, polyester now dominates the mix, with more and more sides incorporating the synthetic fibre into their jerseys as the fabric becomes cheaper. Of course, the shift to synthetic hasn’t just been a matter of finance; polyester absorbs less water, while its inherently slippery texture make the jerseys harder for opponents to grab.

But it was the advances made in the 2007 World Cup that really lit up our Gizmodean eyes; it was then that the world was introduced to the ionised jersey phenomenon. Developed by iconic Kiwi brand Canterbury, the IonX shirts—or ‘wearable steroids’ as those clever little marketing mites soon dubbed them—were made from a fabric containing embedded negative ions which reacted to sweat.

Fancy scientific label aside, the ionised jersey was (and still is) said to boost player performance by increasing blood flow, oxygen delivered to the muscles, average power output (by 2.7%), as well as speed up recovery. As Prof. Mike Caine, head of the Sports technology and innovation department at Loughborough University—the UK's unofficial home of sporting excellence—explained in '08; "With the benefit of time and further studies it should be possible to understand how to maximize the potential of IonX, however it is already clear that the garments have the potential to make a valuable contribution to the performance of athletes during training and competition.''

That said, ionisation itself was not exactly a new technology; the process had long been understood and used by former Eastern bloc sporting bodies. But in the traditional rugby world the technology caused a stir. While teams such as eventual World Cup winners the Saffas, the Aussies and Scotland were more than happy to trial IonX jerseys, several others (presumably France and England) questioned whether the fabric was legit and sought clarification from the World Anti Doping Agency.

In response, the agency issued a statement explaining that because there was no hard scientific evidence supporting the claims that changes in the body ion charges or magnetic field distribution enhance performance, nor were there any actual drugs in the IonX fabric, there was no reason to ban the use of IonX shirts.

Two years on and the IonX jerseys are still in use — and jumping codes. Premiere League team Portsmith and La Liga's Deportivo La Coruna are just the latest in a long line of teams to wear the jerseys.

Of course, as with anything in technology, the science behind rugby jerseys is still developing. It will be interesting to see what irons out at the next World Cup in 2011.

Playing with balls is Gizmodo AU’s week-long look at the technology behind the sports we love, from the jerseys to the balls and everything in between. Go the Two Blues!

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