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From NASA to Murrayfield: Rugby's Smart Ball its next revolutionary step into technology, with new data at 2023 Six Nations

Rugby's artificially intelligent Smart Ball is a gateway to more information, clear decisions, reduced time delays in sport and officiating; Smart Ball first used in a Test at Murrayfield in autumn, and will be used during 2023 Six Nations; Co-founder worked for NASA before move into sport

Smart Ball,

Rugby's next step into technology has arrived, with a revolutionary Smart Ball in use during the upcoming Six Nations. It is providing interesting new data now, but its potential to enter into game-defining decisions is enormous, and a game-changer...

What if there was technology available to immediately pinpoint exactly where a penalty kick to the corner crossed the plane of touch? Or the hang-time of a box-kick? The winners of a tactical kicking battle?

What if a key pass within the move for a try could be proven to have been forward? Were players offside or ahead of a kick? Were they back the required 10 metres from a quick tap? Was a lineout delivery straight? Was the ball grounded on or beyond the tryline among a host of boots and bodies?

The ability to be able to answer, or more pertinently, for referees to have access to the answers to these questions in the moment, with accuracy and speed, would truly revolutionise the sport of rugby union.

Scotland's Duhan Van Der Merwe challenges Australia's Andrew Kellaway, Smart Ball
Image: Scotland's game with Australia in the autumn was the first Test in which rugby's Smart Ball was used

When Scotland hosted Australia in the opening match of the recent autumn internationals on October 29 at Murrayfield, near the pitch lay a series of rugby balls plugged in and charging, akin to iPhones or laptops. The same occurred at each autumn Test throughout Europe over the next month. These were Smart Balls.

Rugby's Smart Ball, produced by data analytics company Sportable and rugby ball manufacturer Gilbert, with Sage as official insights partner to the Six Nations, can provide certainty in answers the sport has yet to provide. And they can do it now.

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Rugby's artificially intelligent Smart Ball is a gateway to more information, clearer decision-making and reduced time delays

Before tennis implemented Hawk-Eye video replays for line calls (2002), or cricket introduced Hawk-Eye technology (later DRS) for LBW dismissals and video replays for disputed catches, stumpings, no-balls or run outs (2001), rugby had ventured into the world of technology with use of the TMO, or Television Match Official.

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The TMO in Test Rugby is as old as the Six Nations itself, coming into first use in the year 2000, with the aid of technology something rugby showed no qualms in embracing; post the era of TMO and video officials, read Hawk-Eye, GPS stats and ref cams.

TMO, rugby
Image: Rugby adopted video technology into the sport in 2000 in the form of a TMO

South Africa vs England in Pretoria, June 2000, was the first Test match to adopt the use of a TMO, checking then for whether a try had been scored, if a foot/player was in touch, and for foul play. Scope for decision-making via video technology has grown in the years since.

The success in rugby of video replays being used to assist officials was noted by other sports, and soon adopted by the likes of tennis and cricket, before cricket took it on further with the use of hot-spot and ultra-edge technology.

Football, as is well documented, lagged behind for decades, before finally introducing goal-line technology in 2012, and their VAR system of referrals in 2018.

Rugby as a sport, by contrast, has constantly strived for improvement through any means and been open to technology. Two decades on from their first bold steps into changing the way the sport was viewed and officiated, a new technology-led revolution is in sight, as rugby again looks to break new ground.

Sexton, Smart Ball
Image: The Smart Ball will let players, teams, leagues and referees in to a whole new wealth of stats

The autumn proved an introduction to what the Smart Ball can do, but it is categorically just the start. And with a multi-year Six Nations contract signed, the potential is huge.

Sportable, Sage and the Smart Ball enable the broadcasting of "unseen magic", but more than that, it is a gateway to more information, clearer decision-making and reduced time delays in officiating and performance. It is the future, and it is a game-changer.

Smart Ball, Six Nations
Image: The Smart Ball will be used in each Six Nations game this year, and going forward in a multiyear arrangement

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Former Wales captain Sam Warburton chats through how the Smart Ball works and what insights it provides

How does the Smart Ball work? Microchips and algorithms meet bootlaces and spin passes

Each rechargeable ball, in a phenomenal feat of engineering, contains a micro-tracking chip within which does not affect performance or flight, and communicates up to 20 times per second via radio frequency technology with 10 beacons placed around the stadium.

Smart Balls, Rugby
Image: The Smart Balls are rechargeable, and are plugged in before each Test

The net result is that, after five years and thousands of hours of research, trialling and development, the artificially intelligent Smart Ball can instantly track, in real time and 3D, ball location and movement within centimetres, and is even able to instantly differentiate the type of kick made, be it a box-kick, tactical kick, kick to touch, kick for goal or grubber kick.

It can then provide information such as distance, hang-time, speed and spin within milliseconds, meaning the endpoint of a kick or the length of time it hung in the air is provided upon the ball's landing, wirelessly, with no delay.

Watching fans are thus afforded access to the distance, speed, gain and effectiveness of kicks or passes within seconds on broadcast. 'Reload time' can show which players have the quickest hands, for example.

Smart Ball
Image: As well as a wealth of kicking stats, 'Reload Time' allows the Smart Ball to illustrate quick hands from players

Two of the ways in which this information has been presented to viewers is through what Sportable term 'Snap Stats' and 'Story Stats.' The former are triggered automatically to show on screen, while the latter supports head-to-head data analysis between players/teams.

Snap stats examples, Smart Ball
Image: Sportable present 'Snap stats' during live match coverage from information gathered via the Smart Ball
Story Stats Smart Ball example
Image: Sportable can also present information gathered in a 'Story Stats' form

Often, and for years, fly-halves like Johnny Sexton or Owen Farrell have reacted unhappily at where an assistant referee has marked the ball out from a kick to touch. Similarly, there are shouts of 'not straight sir!' heard over ref mics regularly with regards to crooked lineout throws.

Owen Farrell
Image: Accuracy within centimetres can be provided for the point at which penalty kicks from the likes Owen Farrell crossed the plane of touch

And what of the multitude of occasions players are adamant they have grounded the ball for a try but on-pitch vision and television camera angles prove inconclusive? Or conversely, the times when a defending player claims to have held the ball up? Smart Ball has the capacity to clear all these up.

Smart Ball, rugby
Smart Ball, rugby

Detecting a forward pass is a far more subjective area than might otherwise be thought, due in most part to the concept of relative velocity. But trials are being undertaken in Australia's NRL with regards to this aspect.

Fans are being drip-fed the information that is and can be attained via the Smart Ball at this point, but further possibilities are huge.

Insights so far reveal 90 per cent of scrum-halves can achieve a four second hang-time with box-kicks, but only 30 per cent combine a four second hang-time with an accuracy of under four metres from a target. There is also yet to be a box-kick executed with a five second hang-time (4.9 seconds the highest so far).

Smart Ball insights
Image: Head-to-head comparisons within games and competitions, are presentable due to the Smart Ball
Smart Ball stats

The average territory gained on penalty kicks to touch has been shown to be 17 metres, despite total kick distance of clearance kicks averaging 47 metres, meaning there is huge potential for increased territory gain from penalty kicks to touch.

Entry into the realms of assisting officials with decision-making seems inevitable going forward.

From NASA to the Six Nations - how did this all start?

Two friends from South Africa, a job at NASA, and intrigue into the impact of a hit in an ice hockey match. In a nutshell, they are the origins of the Smart Ball which will be in use during the Six Nations.

Smart Ball, Six Nations
Image: Sportable, the analytics company behind the Smart Ball, was formed in 2016, with co-founder Pete Husemeyer leaving a role at NASA

Sportable co-founders Pete Husemeyer and Dugald Macdonald were friends from school, went to university together in Cape Town and then both embarked on postgraduate degrees in the UK - the latter at Oxford, and the former at Cambridge where he studied a PhD in nuclear engineering.

Husemeyer went from Cambridge to an internship with NASA, which ultimately turned into a three-year job. While in the USA and watching ice hockey in 2015, he witnessed a "momentous body-check" and immediately wanted to know the force involved and why this wasn't on the broadcast.

Sportable co-founders, Smart Ball
Image: South African duo and friends Dugald Macdonald and Husemeyer founded Sportable in 2016

Macdonald sensed the commercial opportunity and in 2016, Sportable was born with a "vision to transform the way sports are played, watched and managed". And instead of tracking just the force between players in contact, the aim was forged to track everything.

Smart Ball
Image: Sportable are currently developing 'capability in a range of other sports to help solve similar existing issues'

From player tracking, the focus is now on the Smart Ball and its remarkable algorithms: "We make hardware and we sell data."

Rugby will not be the end of the story, either. Sportable say they are currently "developing capability in a range of other sports to help solve similar existing issues".

Revolution in sport with technology to the fore is coming, and it may well be starting during this Six Nations.

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