The Leinster, Ireland and Lions great is keen for the sport to make the most of scientific advancements

Brian O’Driscoll talks technology in rugby

There’s a wry smile on Brian O’Driscoll’s face as he reflects on how much jerseys changed during his playing days, from the huge cotton numbers that looked three sizes too big in 1999 to the skintight versions that were a struggle to get off in 2014.

“Those jerseys retired a few front-row forwards before their time was up – there was no hiding any more,” he quips.

Brian O’Driscoll talks technology in rugby

Brian O’Driscoll in a loose-fitting jersey at RWC 1999 (AFP/Getty Images)

While some props may yearn for a return of baggy shirts, technology has helped rugby in other ways, be it analysis, injury prevention, finding new audiences…

O’Driscoll believes advances in science could also make a big difference when it comes to brain injuries. World Rugby is trialling eye-tracking technology in this area while a saliva test was 94% accurate in a head injury study.

“From a rugby perspective it’s about the tech around detecting concussions, in real time on the pitch, so you’re not having anything slip through the net,” says O’Driscoll. “That’s an area of concern across the amateur and professional game. Rugby wants to limit concussions and safeguard future generations.”

Leinster fly-hald Harry Byrne is taken off for an HIA (Sportsfile/Getty Images)

Technology has also led to big changes in how sport is shown on television, from player mics to new camera angles. O’Driscoll is part of the BT Sport team so what does he think have been the biggest improvements in rugby broadcasting?

“BT likes to be forward-thinking,” says O’Driscoll. “The demo pitch in the BT studio allows you to run through something like the breakdown rather than just talking about it and we’ve got brilliant feedback on that. I know some of the demos have been shown at clubs in the UK and Ireland, to try to explain what the coach is trying to achieve.

“Also, at half-time, there may have been five or six tries but if you get the best try, draw it up on an iPad, people can understand why it happened. It’s not just telling people what you see but why you’re seeing it, why it happened. There might have been a held jersey or someone slipping, so it’s highlighting that.”

The downside of technology is that our attention spans have got shorter so sport needs new ways to engage audiences. One thing O’Driscoll would like to see is the GPS data players generate during a match reported in real time to provide more of an insight into how much ground players cover, the forces involved in a tackle or the speed people are running at. The dilemma that needs solving is who has the rights to share that data.

“Who wants to give up the IP (intellectual property)? Who owns the IP?” asks O’Driscoll. “It would be brilliant if we could share that information. If we want to expand the game, to get to new markets, there are areas you have to be willing to go. Sometimes you give up something to get something in return.

“That could almost drive competition too. People want to be part of leaderboards over the course of a season – who covered the most distance? Who got the highest speed? All of that is exciting and it’s how you can captivate people on a week-to-week basis rather than dipping in and out.”

O’Driscoll is one of the judges in BT Sport’s Innovate 21 competition, which is looking for new ideas in sports broadcasting – perhaps that will lead to other ways to draw in viewers.

BT have already introduced innovations this past year. Take Watch Together: with the pandemic preventing fans from being in stadia or pubs to watch matches, BT developed a way for friends to watch a match via the app while being able to see each other and chat.

The winner of the Innovate 21 competition, which closes on 31 July, will have the opportunity to develop their idea with BT. O’Driscoll says: “I’m looking forward to seeing something new coming in. You never know where the next brilliant innovation will come from.

“Who would have thought you could watch a game with some of your pals on a phone? It’s brilliant tech. The ingenuity and innovation of people can flabbergast you.”

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