Opinion: The Autumn Nations Series proved the smart ball can revolutionise the game

Smart ball from the Autumn Nations Series. Credit: Alamy
Smart ball from the Autumn Nations Series. Credit: Alamy

The Autumn Nations Series saw teams use a smart ball developed by Gilbert and Sportable to produce real-time data from live matches to enhance analysis and viewing of the game.

Before diving into whether or not the ball has enhanced viewing and statistical analysis, it is crucial to understand the full scope of the ball.

Everything to know about the smart ball

Developed by Gilbert and Sportable, it is fitted with an RFID chip that allows sensor beacons around the field to pinpoint its location a whopping 20 times per second whilst tracking the ball in 3D and real-time.

The ability to track the ball in this way opens up an array of immediate information on every pass and kick. Subsequently, opening the door for new metrics, including distance to try line, kick speed and hang time, longest kick and passing statistics such as speed of pass and reload time.

Viewing experience

Any avid rugby viewer during the Autumn Nations Series would have seen some of the new statistics integrated into the broadcast.

‘Distance to try line’ was used often when teams were kicking for touch, particularly on attack, giving the viewer an accurate idea of their team’s position. With camera angles and perspectives skewed through the broadcast it is not always clear to viewers where the ball went out and this metric completely transforms that.

From an analysis perspective, this metric is powerful because it showcases how well a kicker is finding touch and how close to the line, allowing comparisons to be made between kickers.

Another fascinating metric involved with the broadcast was ‘territory gained’. This statistic would commonly show after a kicking battle between the two teams as the players in back play attempt to move their side upfield, but often results in a back-and-forth of kicks until one of the players eventually kicks to touch.

This is extremely useful to viewers who may not have noted who held the territorial advantage before the kicking battle ensued and clearly highlights who got the upper hand in the duel. Again, from an analysis standpoint, this can help identify where and how teams lose or gain territory through their kicking game.

The final notable metric used in the broadcast was ‘pass distance’ for those long balls flung out to the man out wide or a long pass in back play. Once again, camera angles and perspective make it tricky for viewers to get an accurate feel of just how far the world’s best can actually pass, with some over 20 metres and others even further.

What does this mean for analysis?

The game is still coming to terms with the extent of data output from the smart ball, and the distribution or availability of the statistics will only improve with time. Still, the new technology has certainly been a game-changer.

The Autumn Nations Series produced a brilliant analysis of how Argentina’s kicking game played a role in their impressive 30-29 win at Twickenham in round one. The analysis looks at how half-back pairing Gonzalo Bertranou and Santiago Carreras created a complementary variety in their approach.

“Enter Carreras. Where the average length of an Argentinian box kick was 29.3 metres, the kicks in play made by the fly half travelled an average distance of 43.65 metres, the longest of which travelled 55 metres and made a huge 53.5 metre territory gain,” the Autumn Nations Series’ official website wrote.

“Whilst this strategy didn’t lend itself to ball retention, it meant that England were kept at arm’s length from any real scoring opportunities in the second half. Happy to play without the ball and let the home side make mistakes, Argentina had just 38.1% possession during the match, and attacked for a total of 9 minutes and 24 seconds to England’s 16:42.

“Los Pumas’ kicking game also benefited from the increased flexibility of a kick from 10. Aiming for space in the backfield, Carreras varied his kicking by aiming seven of his clearance kicks left and five of them right.”

Similarly another analysis was done on how the All Blacks used cross kicks to exploit England’s backfield in their 25-25 draw at Twickenham.

“The real kicking headline from this match was the cross-field assault on England’s backfield by New Zealand,” it read.

“With one such effort granting the rugby world the opportunity to see Reiko Ioane in full flight (kick 4 in graphic), the All Blacks made five kicks laterally across the pitch, four of which were retained.

“Using the tracking technology which locates the Smart Ball, we can see New Zealand’s confidence in this strategy and their ambition to attack from deep.

“Four of their five kicks – excluding Jordie Barrett’s from a scrum – came from inside their own half, with each progressively further into their red zone.

“The first of these was 5.6 metres behind halfway, the second 10.9, the third 23.4 and the final flourish, which led to Ioane’s try, was just 18.1 metres from the New Zealand try line.

“This demonstrates the trust of New Zealand in their strategy exploit a frailty in the English backfield, repeatedly making similar kicks even when in potentially compromising field positions.”

Verdict

The benefits of the smart ball are clear and obvious; it enhances viewing for fans and transforms analysis. However, now that the technology is available, the next step is to optimise how it is used.

The statistics need to be visualised during the game. Fans will want to know who has the furthest kick, pass and so on. Doing so could promote a better understanding of how important the kicking game is in rugby.

The analysis from the Autumn Nations Series were brilliant and interesting to read but were relatively limited in the context of how little of the series was discussed in this fashion.

Ultimately, the smart ball is a fantastic addition to the game and should be integrated as much as possible across the board. Statistics and metrics must be used more in-game and should be readily available for rugby’s minds to break down and analyse what has transpired. All we ask for is more.

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