World Rugby is collaborating with Sportable and Gilbert to undertake the world’s first trial of smart ball technology in a live match officiating capacity at the World Rugby U20 Championship in South Africa in June.
Celebrating 200 years of a sport that was born from innovation, World Rugby is exploring how the emergence of new technology and artificial intelligence can help shape the future of the sport, aiding the flow of the game and taking fan experience to the next level.
The complex art of officiating is one such focus area, and in line with the outcomes of the recent Shape of the Game conference, it is hoped that the Gilbert smart ball will help match officials make accurate decisions more quickly, tackling a number of common, but challenging aspects of law.
These areas include whether a ball has been passed forward, whether the ball is over the try-line, whether the ball has been touched in flight and line, where touch has been found and whether a lineout throw was straight.
How the technology will work
The smart ball is tracked in 3D and real-time with beacons positioned around the pitch to determine the exact position of the ball up to 20 times per second and provide immediate feedback on every kick, pass and throw.
At the World Rugby U20 Championship, the smart balls will assist match officials with the following use cases where visual assessment alone can be challenging and time-consuming:
- Throw forward
Assist with decision making on forward passes by measuring the relative velocity of the ball relative to the player as it leaves their hands, so indicating whether the ball has been ‘thrown forward’ in the act of passing.
- Made touch location
With an accurate location for where the ball makes touch, the Gilbert smart ball ensures the lineout is taken from the position the ball exited the pitch.
- Touched in flight
Informing decision-making around whether a ball was touched in flight (e.g. partial charge down) by recognising changes in spin and trajectory caused by a touch of the ball.
- Ball over try-line
Live location of the ball will determine whether the ball has reached the try-line.
- Lineout throws
Provide instantaneous feedback indicating whether a lineout throw is not straight by measuring the angle of the throw from release to being touched by a player.
A direct feed will be made available to the Television Match Official, who will be able to use the information to provide feedback to the referee.
The smart ball is already successfully delivering rich insights and data to aid broadcast and digital experiences, but recent testing has also demonstrated its potential to assist with officiating decision-making, tackling game-defining decisions, and reducing the focus on referees and the wider match official team in often tricky areas.
With the future stars of the men’s test arena showcasing their ability, the World Rugby U20 Championship will also be the innovation hub for future technology innovation. Confirmation of the trial follows the announcement that the TMO Bunker will operate at the tournament, the first time that it has operated in an international competition.
World Rugby Director of Rugby Phil Davies said: “A fast game is a good game, and it is right that we explore technology that has the potential to help aid the flow of the game, reduce stoppage time and speed up match official decision-making.
“Rugby refereeing is perhaps the most difficult officiating job in sport. There are multiple decisions or non-decisions that are made at any given moment and the advancement of broadcast and social media means that such decisions are poured over long after the event.
“The evolution of smart ball technology opens the door to assist match officials in reaching accurate decisions more quickly, removing subjectivity and reducing the chance of error. While this is a trial and the technology is new, we are excited about its potential and look forward to seeing it in action at the World Rugby U20 Championship.”
Sportable CEO and co-founder Dugald Macdonald added: “We are excited by the opportunity to further showcase the full capabilities of the Gilbert smart ball in the upcoming World Rugby U20 Championship.
“After the successful implementation of smart ball technology to enhance the fan experience through broadcast graphics and digital content, we are looking forward to this next phase and the introduction of our officiating solution that the Smart Ball provides.
“We are fully supportive of the Shape of the Game work that World Rugby are conducting and delighted to be playing a part in moving the game forward.”
Gilbert CEO Richard Gray added: “We are delighted that World Rugby have selected the Gilbert iNNOVO Smart ball powered by Sportable for the first global event to use the new technology. What better way to mark Gilbert’s 200 years in rugby than to launch such an innovative collaboration that will help improve the game on and off the field of play?”
It is not anticipated that smart ball will feature at Rugby World Cup 2023 from an officiating support perspective given the emerging nature of the technology and the need to undertake a full review of outcomes before determining next steps.
World Rugby will also trial the TMO bunker at the World Rugby U20 Championship as part of an ongoing review of the technology to aid decision-making and if successful, could be trialled in test rugby prior to Rugby World Cup 2023.