High-tech rugby – Sensors, data and the self-policing rugby match | Science and technology
RUGBY UNION, it is often said, is a game for thugs that is played by gentlemen. “Played by lawyers” might be a more accurate dictum. The rules are famously complicated. Scrums—organised shoving matches between the two teams’ burliest members—are regarded as a dark art even by other players. Open, running play can be stopped and wound back for any number of arcane infringements. The recent Rugby World Cup competition, held in Japan, is regarded as a big success by those keen to boost the sport’s popularity. But it was marred by arguments about how to interpret complicated new rules forbidding dangerous shoulder charges and high tackles. (World Rugby, the game’s governing body, offers referees a handy flowchart to memorise, which provides for eight possible outcomes.)
All this is an irritant to players and referees, and a turn-off for viewers, who struggle to follow the action or work out why a particular decision was made. But a British firm called Sportable thinks it might be able to improve things, by wiring up rugby players—and rugby balls—with high-tech sensors.
Sportable was founded in 2014 by Dugald Macdonald and Peter Husemeyer, a pair of rugby-mad South Africans. It makes lightweight, sensor-stuffed garments that can be worn under a jersey and which measure impact forces in 80 separate places on a player’s body. The sensors are attached to transmitters that communicate with receivers at the edges of the playing field. By monitoring the time it takes for signals to arrive at different receivers, and applying a little mathematics, it is possible to work out where a player is on the pitch at any given moment, and how quickly he got there.
Such data, says Mr Macdonald, are attractive to teams looking for an edge over the competition. Previous efforts have relied on the Global Positioning System of satellites, which offers much lower accuracy. The firm has tested its technology with several professional clubs, including Saracens, the reigning champions in the English Premiership.
Where the fun starts, though, is when similar sensors are put into the ball. It can then, metaphorically, squawk if passed forward (which is illegal in rugby), and there will be no doubt, by comparing the positions of ball and player, when a player is offside. A smart ball will be able to monitor other rules, too. It was, for instance, tested successfully in a five-a-side version of the game called Rugby X, in which you are not allowed to kick the ball higher than ten metres. Since few referees are equipped with theodolites, enforcing this rule has been hard. Now it is easy.
This article appeared in the Science and technology section of the print edition under the headline “Computer says: offside”