Paul Williams wants rugby to embrace its inner nerd

Opinion: Rugby needs more technology, not less

Rugby has always had a weird relationship with technology. Whilst sports such as tennis and cricket have absorbed as much kit as possible, rugby has always looked at new technology in the same way a 1970s South Walian would have viewed pasta.

Even now, many years into the TMO experiment, people are still unsure to the point that lessening its impact was even referenced at the most recent World Rugby conference. A decision which seems incongruous with what’s happening in the game over the past six months.

Over this period, refereeing decisions have been scrutinised to a level that is both understandable but also unacceptable. Modern day coaches, especially at Test level, can have their career distorted with one decision. Teams can be relegated, and players can be dropped from match day squads due to a misguided blast on the whistle. But on the flip side, that Wayne Barnes’ family decided not to celebrate his 100th Test at Twickenham, due to the potential fallout, should make rugby supporters feel genuinely saddened.

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The reality is that although refereeing decisions have never been more scrutinised, they’ve never been more accurate. If you polled rugby fans, you’d assume that refereeing is the most inaccurate that it’s ever been. But the opposite is true.

The reason for the perceived inaccuracy is that we can now see every decision for a second time. Something that wasn’t possible for the first 70 years of the game and a facet only open to officials for the past decade. The TMO process has been key to this transparency. It may not be perfect, and you may not agree with it every time that it’s used, but have you any idea how many decisions were made incorrectly in 1910? If you could rewatch those games with the benefit of a TMO, half of the results would probably have been wrong and Rassie Erasmus would have needed a new quill, every week for his letters to the press.

The fact is, rugby is a far more objective sport with technology than without, and it needs more. Humans alone can’t referee rugby, it’s too complicated. Even Medusa would have needed another half a dozen snake heads and matching whistles to cope at the breakdown.

Rugby needs more technology

An illustration of rugby and tech (Getty Images)

But the solution may not be far away. This autumn saw greater use of technology within the ball. Created by Sportable in partnership with Gilbert, for the first time with Six Nations sides we were able to measure how far the ball has travelled, how high and for how long. It’s a fantastic innovation and it has already added another layer of enjoyment into the game.

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But this is currently the first step. If we’re able to put tech into the ball, why not the boots? Adding the tech to the boots of players would solve one of the greatest problems in the game – offside. If you can tell where the ball is and where the boots of the players are, you could in theory know where the offside line is – in a millisecond. The same can be said of any offside in a kicking dual, which is notoriously difficult to referee. If you know where the ball is and each set of boots, you’ll know who has and hasn’t retreated. The number of solutions to this tech jump seem limitless and could help eliminate some of the most infuriating aspects in the game. Including the forward pass which currently requires you to have a degree in physics, geometry, and the surrealist lithographs of C. Esche.

This might seem like some weird ramblings of a tech-obsessed nerd willing it to be 100 years into the future. But it’s not. The technology exists.

In thirty years, we’ve all gone from not having a single smart phone in our hands, to all having one. Why hasn’t the referee got the same kit in their hands giving them instant access to data. If I can get instant access to which buses are travelling where, in Cardiff, via accurate GPS, why can’t a referee have access to similar data that tells him which player’s boot wasn’t 10m from the ball when it was played from a scrum? Would it be so weird if in a decade a referee had a small portable digital ‘referee assistant’ in one hand and a whistle in the other. In fact, you wouldn’t even need the whistle; you could just hit a button on the smart phone to make a whistling noise – if the noise is that intrinsic to the game.

Rugby and its refereeing seems to have hit a professional crossroads in 2022. With the demands of what is required to accurately referee a game being beyond that of normal human beings. But thankfully, soon there may be an app for that.

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