Welcome to the future: Saracens to use new 'smart ball' that could end forward pass, scrum feed and touch-kick rows

Charlie Morgan
·3-min read
How the smart ball works - GETTY IMAGES
How the smart ball works - GETTY IMAGES

The world’s first 'smart rugby ball', which could one day end debate over forward passes and wonky scrum put-ins, will hit a major milestone in its roll-out on Saturday when Saracens host Coventry in a friendly at StoneX Stadium in Barnet.

Sportable, the data science company name-checked by England head coach Eddie Jones three months ago, developed the product in conjunction with leading rugby ball manufacturer Gilbert over the last four years.

Using real-time, 3D tracking technology at centimetre levels of accuracy, it is able to gather “unique data” on the hang time, distance and spin rates of kicks and passes.

Having worked with Saracens, Ealing Trailfinders and Coventry in training sessions and pre-season matches over recent weeks, with a “deep focus” on tactical kicking, it plans to publish match-day data from this weekend on social media.

“We can identify the trends of sweet spots between distance and hang-time combinations,” explained Dugald Macdonald, co-founder and chief executive of Sportable.

“Teams will know how fast their players can travel. For example, if most of their chasers can reach 5.5 m/s from a standing start, they will know what has to happen with the strike to give them a higher probability of getting any given box-kick or restart back.”

Sportable, also working with a number of Premiership clubs, was praised after England’s 18-7 win over Ireland last November by Jones, who said it was helping his backroom staff to “measure work off the ball”. As well as the smart ball, the company has developed player tracking that offers a number of possibilities.

Its interface, seen by Telegraph Sport, allows coaches to monitor defensive line speed in real time and to highlight the respective locations of players simultaneously.

In attack, for example, this could help two playmakers to stay a pass away. In defence, it could ensure that chop-tacklers and jackallers remain close together.

Previously, team analysts in rugby union have pulled together their insights from a combination of global positioning system (GPS) data and their own manual coding of match footage.

Because it is able to track both the ball and the players’ relative positions, Sportable produces a far clearer picture that should alter the landscape of analysis in contact sports.

Data is collected as the ball is tracked
Data is collected as the ball is tracked

It has also developed wearable tools to measure force in tackles, technology that can help packs to coordinate their pushing in scrums.

Although the pandemic has limited Sportable’s opportunities to establish agreements with competitions in order to test match-day situations, it is hopeful of helping out officials in the not-too-distant future.

Taking the guesswork away from forward passes, not-straight scrum put-ins and skewed lineout throws is one of Macdonald’s passions.

“It is all in the interest of improving the game in terms of integrity and fan experience,” he said.

“Integrity is critical. We’re not saying the current processes lack that, but people are being alienated by the time that these referrals take and the total run-time of games compared to actual rugby time.

“The real-time data can go to pretty much any digital device – smart watches, for example. In some cases, we would have a central control room, from which someone could send a voice alert to the referee on the pitch.”

Because its technology is far cheaper than HawkEye systems, taking just five minutes to set up in any stadium, Macdonald also hopes that it will be able to clear up any grey areas lingering over kicks to touch.

“We have a creative and exciting solution for that,” he said. “You have LED screens around the pitch in every rugby stadium and our system is calibrated perfectly to a pitch.

“We can build a 3D map of everything around the pitch and then pipe in our data to the LEDs for the touch-judge.”