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The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

By Ben Smith
(Photos by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images/(Photo illustration by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

One of the early experiments involving machine learning was done by the Icahn School of Medicine in New York to predict cancer in patients.


Fed with the data of 700,000 patients, the model began spotting new patterns in the data that to the human eye, weren’t visible or didn’t make any sense. The AI model proved to be very good at finding patients with early-stage diseases. As a side, it also figured out warning signs of other disorders like schizophrenia.

The conundrum was researchers running the project had no idea how it was doing it, and still don’t.

As with the case with most AI models, the more data you have to train it, the better the results you get.

They are predictive machines, evolving towards superhuman-level intelligence. The applications are going to have wide use cases but in the realm of professional sport, obtaining the AI advantage is going to be a necessity over the next decade.

You don’t even need to explain the rules of the game. We’ve learnt that the AI models can learn the rules just by watching. Ingest years and years of game footage, it will understand the sport at a level greater than any human could.

You can start to imagine the impact this is going to have. And if you don’t have it, it will be used against you.


An AI model trained on enough games of professional rugby will find every weakness or vulnerability in every single player on the field. Just like the cancer research team found, it will soon find patterns that are unrecognisable to the human eye.

If it watches every game that a professional player has played over their lifetime, it will take into account every single read in defence that they have made, what they do when presented with this picture or that picture, what players they struggle to tackle, what technique they use. Every single decision.

All of that information will be calculated in seconds and result in the AI planning and strategising on how to take advantage.

Armed with that information, it will come up with the perfect play to expose those players. Going further, it will come up with the perfect game plan to win against any combination of 23 players.


If there is a match-up where one team theoretically loses 99 times out of 100, the model will be able to find the formula for the one outcome they can win and show them how to do it.

Upload every game possible from the team of an opposition coach and the AI will figure out every tactic they’ve ever used, every flaw in their plans, and predict what they will do next and the best way to play.

The job of the analyst is going to become rather easy, but the knowledge obtained at such speed will lead to incredible outcomes in game strategy and play.

Teams will have to continually come up with new plans, which will be driven by AI. Coaches who can’t or won’t evolve will get weeded out.

Even in the realm of managing your own team, the technology will be invaluable.

It will be able to detect the slightest changes in a player’s running style, perhaps indicating that player isn’t 100 per cent fit and has a problem.

If the model has all that player’s training data and has been trained on hours and hours of footage of that player’s movement, it will start predicting with scary accuracy whether an injury is likely to occur.

To be clear, the AI is never going to be able to win games of rugby, which are always decided by humans on the actual field. That is sport and won’t change.

The physical attributes still matter greatly, the skill, strength, size, power and the conditioning of the players. No AI can overcome a disproportionate mismatch in this area.

But between two teams that are evenly matched, the one that has superhuman level intelligence feeding them information about the battle at hand is going to improve their chances of victory greatly.

And between the top four nations right now, Ireland, France, South Africa, and New Zealand, where very little separates them, that is going to matter.

Professional sport is always after one per cent improvements, this is going to add far more than one per cent.

Right now it takes hundreds of millions of dollars to build these models. And they lie in the hands of very few, the tech giants who are building major data centres and feeding them as many data points as they can get their hands on.

But once model access is obtainable, professional sports teams will start building their own AI models for competitive use.

If one of the big four rugby nations were able to get a hold of one right now they would increase their chances of winning the 2027 Rugby World Cup greatly. By 2031 you would think this will be widespread.

Quite quickly the AI advantage is going to be a necessity as teams that adopt AI will gain an edge that is far superior to those that don’t.

That is the AI advantage.



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Diarmid 9 hours ago
Players and referees must cut out worrying trend in rugby – Andy Goode

The guy had just beasted himself in a scrum and the blood hadn't yet returned to his head when he was pushed into a team mate. He took his weight off his left foot precisely at the moment he was shoved and dropped to the floor when seemingly trying to avoid stepping on Hyron Andrews’ foot. I don't think he was trying to milk a penalty, I think he was knackered but still switched on enough to avoid planting 120kgs on the dorsum of his second row’s foot. To effectively “police” such incidents with a (noble) view to eradicating play acting in rugby, yet more video would need to be reviewed in real time, which is not in the interest of the game as a sporting spectacle. I would far rather see Farrell penalised for interfering with the refereeing of the game. Perhaps he was right to be frustrated, he was much closer to the action than the only camera angle I've seen, however his vocal objection to Rodd’s falling over doesn't legitimately fall into the captain's role as the mouthpiece of his team - he should have kept his frustration to himself, that's one of the pillars of rugby union. I appreciate that he was within his rights to communicate with the referee as captain but he didn't do this, he moaned and attempted to sway the decision by directing his complaint to the player rather than the ref. Rugby needs to look closely at the message it wants to send to young players and amateur grassroots rugby. The best way to do this would be to apply the laws as they are written and edit them where the written laws no longer apply. If this means deleting laws such as ‘the put in to the scrum must be straight”, so be it. Likewise, if it is no longer necessary to respect the referee’s decision without questioning it or pre-emptively attempting to sway it (including by diving or by shouting and gesticulating) then this behaviour should be embraced (and commercialised). Otherwise any reference to respecting the referee should be deleted from the laws. You have to start somewhere to maintain the values of rugby and the best place to start would be giving a penalty and a warning against the offending player, followed by a yellow card the next time. People like Farrell would rapidly learn to keep quiet and let their skills do the talking.

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