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Phil Davies' 'reasonably instantaneous' smart ball promise

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Phil Davies isn’t set to fly out to South Africa until July 6. The World Rugby director of rugby has other things in his in-tray to attend before heading to Cape Town, but his hope by the time he arrives in the Mother City for the Junior World Championship play-offs is that the potentially groundbreaking smart ball will have lived up to the hype.

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It was May 17 when the game’s global body confirmed that the staging of the U20s tournament for the first time since 2019 would be the perfect testing ground to see if this in-ball technology can provide immediate feedback on every kick, pass and throw.

What it says on the tin is that beacons positioned around the pitch will determine the exact position of the ball up to 20 times per second, 3D real-time tracking that can assist match officials with five aspects of play – forward passes, made touch location, touched in flight, ball over try line, and crooked throws.

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It’s an intriguing tick list that had its genesis in the smart ball’s introduction during last November’s Autumn Nations Series. A raft of stats emerged on the back of those Test matches – for instance, passing length. It was claimed that Ireland and New Zealand, two of the teams that emerged with unbeaten campaigns, had the shortest average passing distance of 6.04 and 6.16 metres respectively.

Digging deeper, we were also told that the average speed of a spin pass was 22.1mph and that the average hang time of a retained box kick was four seconds across the Autumn Nations Series, the ball moving 18.8 metres parallel to the touchline to allow a chasing player to compete.

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All well and good if you were fascinated by a new ream of stats. World Rugby, though, following on from its World Rugby Shape of the Game Conference in London last November and March, wanted something different – the use of smart ball technology that could potentially help its officials make accurate decisions more quickly, tackling some common but challenging aspects of the law.

Three months from that latest conference gathering in England, this Saturday in Paarl and Stellenbosch will trial the fruits of that inquisitiveness – six age-grade matches split across two venues with hopefully loads of opportunity to find out about the smart ball and its reliability in five different areas.

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Davies – who joined World Rugby in February 2022 as the DoR successor to Joe Schmidt – will watch from afar with intrigue. “We had CEOs, coaches, all the key stakeholders at the first Shape of the Game conference last November and we have looked at various ways we can introduce technology,” he told RugbyPass.

“The simple one is the shot clock which had been in France in the Top 14, and the other one was a smart ball that had been used by the Six Nations in the autumn internationals and we just wanted to see if it had a wider scope than just do forward passes.

“The boffins of our organisation spoke to Sportable and asked, ‘Can we look at other aspects like not straight at the lineout, knock-on as you cross the line, those sorts of things?’ For us it’s about getting more quicker, consistent and accurate decisions to support the flow of the game in terms of speed and continuity and then also from a match officiating perspective, trying to keep the game flowing and support our match officiating.”

As with all trials, the devil will be in the detail. So how will the referees on deck in Paarl and Stellenbosch this weekend be relayed the smart ball findings? “It’s reasonably instantaneous,” promised Davies. “What will happen is the TMO will be told by the Sportable operator and the TMO can then let the referee know.

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“In time hopefully the messaging can go directly to the referee. It’s a trial phase and in all trials, there is a margin for error, and you learn from experiences.

“That is how it is going to be done basically at the moment: from the Sportable operator to the TMO and then to the referee – and also at the same time the referee can make his or her own judgement. If it is not a game-defining forward pass that leads to a try or it is marginal, it is still down to the referee as the sole arbiter on the field. That is the main thing.”

There are still some anomalies, such as the smart ball being able to relay whether a ball has crossed the line but it can’t say that it has been grounded and that a try should be awarded. “Crossing the line is literally crossing the line,” cautioned Davies. “One of the things they are working on is whether it actually gets grounded. That is one of the things that we have got to work it.”

More straightforward, hopefully, will be forward pass analysis. For years, it’s an area of the game that created arguments, particularly commentary on the position of a player’s wrists when a pass is released. It’s a debate that Davies now hopes can be silenced.

“Unlike Hawkeye in tennis and the technology that has been brought into cricket, it is never about the umpire in those sports but it is in rugby, it is about the referee if the pass is forward, the position of the wrists and everyone shouting ‘forward’ at the ref.

“This is trying to bring a bit more accuracy into the game using technology which makes the referee’s job easier, but it is going to take a bit of time. A forward pass is about the speed of rotation of ball, running speed of the players, so all that is taken into account. It’s going to be interesting.

“We have a document of what the smart ball can do and the type of information it can give and it’s now just waiting for the tournament to start and the trial to go and then we will get feedback over the pool stages and at the end of the tournament as well. Everybody is aware of what it is about. Now it is all about seeing it in action and how it operates.”

The 59-year-old Davies won 46 Test caps as a prop with Wales during the amateur era, going on to coach professionally at a myriad of clubs – including guiding Leeds to 2005 Powergen Cup glory – and guiding Namibia at back-to-back Rugby World Cup in 2015 and 2019, that latter tournament featuring the novelty of the African minnows enjoying a fleeting 3-0 lead over the All Blacks in a pool match.

Off the top of his head, was there a contentious decision during his career that could perhaps have been resolved by the smart ball being around at the time? “That’s a very good question. Maybe a couple of lineouts here and there. I can’t pinpoint one in particular, but maybe a couple of lineouts possibly.

“In our days playing, certainly the technology wasn’t about. Nowhere near it. In coaching, some of the camera angles or the ability to have certain video replays at certain angles were always helpful, so hopefully the technology will, moving forward, give us a bit more accuracy and consistency and support the game as a whole and particularly the match officials.”

Smart ball isn’t the only watch-this-space innovation at the Junior World Championship. A TMO bunker concept has been used in this season’s Super Rugby Pacific, enabling the review of a yellow card during the 10-minute sin-binning to see if the decision merits upgrading to a red card, and it will now be trialled in South Africa with a view to possibly taking the initiative forward into Test rugby ahead of the upcoming Rugby World Cup.

With this in mind, it was apt that Davies was talking to RugbyPass while at the Aviva Stadium, the ground that witnessed two of the most hotly debated refereeing decision during the recent Six Nations – the yellow carding of France’s Uini Atonio that resulted in his three-week suspension and the red carding of England’s Freddie Steward which was rescinded at a disciplinary hearing and downgraded to a yellow card offence.

“The TMO bunker is again all about being able to help the referees,” explained Davies. “The referees are making decisions in real-time, as are the players, on the pitch. Sometimes the coaches in the box have the benefit of hindsight with the video replay and the referees haven’t got that. The bunker is there to provide that.

“If it is a clear and obvious yellow card that is fine, but sometimes the game is so quick if there is a 50/50 decision now there is an opportunity to go off the field for the foul play review officer in the bunker to have time to make a little bit more of a considered decision.

“They have got seven or eight minutes whereas the referee has got a few seconds. Hopefully, that will give a little bit more time to be able to come to hopefully the right decision, whether it remains a yellow card or if it gets upgraded to a red card.”

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