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'The result of years of hard work': Smart Ball comes to England

By Kim Ekin
(Photo via Premiership Rugby)

The Premiership Rugby Cup will this Friday become the first professional northern hemisphere competition to trial the Smart Rugby Ball, provide new, real-time data-led insights in partnership with Sportable, BT Sport and Gilbert.

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Ex-England out-half Paul Grayson, a Gilbert Rugby ambassador, has been at the forefront of the new smart ball development, working with Sportable CEO Dugald Macdonald and their team of scientists to develop a ball that will be used in all 15 remaining Premiership Rugby Cup matches this season.

The innovation will enable BT Sport to open up a range of metrics that TV audiences in the northern hemisphere have not had the opportunity to see until now. Hang-time and accuracy on box kicks will show how difficult they are and how brilliant some players are at them.

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Meanwhile, the territorial gain will give a good picture of how brave kickers are being when going for touch from a pen kick and ground reload will give an idea of how quick scrum-halves are at getting the ball away from a ruck.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) chips inside the ball communicate with sensors around the stadium up to 20 times every second. Sportable’s artificial intelligence (AI) tool then automatically enables precise information and insights about the ball’s movement when it is passed and kicked to be seen in real-time by teams and coaches, fans at the game, and packaged up by BT Sport for use in its broadcast of this Friday’s Newcastle vs Leicester Premiership Rugby Cup game.

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Macdonald said: “We’re delighted to be working with Premiership Rugby on the first live deployment of the Gilbert Smart Ball in a tier-one rugby union competition in the northern hemisphere. We are thrilled to be working with such a forward-thinking organisation like Premiership Rugby.

“Their team has embraced all features of our technology and together we have a fantastic opportunity to enhance the game even further both on and off the field. This is the result of years of hard work, investment and cutting edge scientific thinking, so it’s super exciting to now see the Smart Ball being embraced by leading rights holder Partners across the globe.”

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The Premiership Rugby Cup competition has already trialled a system where match officials can speak directly to supporters to explain on-field decisions and now the levels of innovation will move to the ball.

Phil Winstanley, the Premiership Rugby director, said: “We are constantly looking at innovations and ways to grow the game and we are delighted to have chosen to trial this new smart ball.

“This season we have brought live Premiership rugby back to terrestrial TV, launched PRTV Live – so all Gallagher Premiership Rugby matches are now available to watch live – and now we hope this new rugby ball will help provide greater insight for a new audience while deepening our relationship with our current fans.

“The smart ball also gives our players and coaches the ability to improve performance on the field and in training with unique data. Touring our clubs with the ball in recent weeks has shown us that the players and coaches can’t wait to get started with it.”

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Alongside the benefits to teams and fans, the project will also be used to assess the value that the Smart Ball can add to officiating through the automatic detection of forward passes. This won’t be a fan-facing activity in the first instance, but research on the forward pass could prove pivotal in informing enhancements for match officials moving forward and assist in the broader, continuing efforts to avoid long TMO delays and speed up the game.

THE EXPECTED NEW KICKING AND PASSING INSIGHTS
1. Fastest/longest passers;
2. Which teams play a more expansive game through longer, wider passing;
3. Passing trends off left/right hands;
4. Who are the most powerful, most accurate kickers;
5. Which players/teams are taking more/less risk in their clearance kicking game and gaining more territory;
6. And which players/teams are setting up turnover and disruption opportunities through effective hang-times on box kicks, restarts and up and unders.

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