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Matt Williams: Smart balls and AI set to augment our on-field officiating

Despite tech developments, teams like progressive Ireland will continue to refine talent for brilliant execution

Rugby is not immune from the impact technology is having on our society. The newly introduced “smart ball” and its internal technology that interacts with sensors placed around the stadiums at each Six Nations match is producing reams of data.

While some of the data produced is highly informative, the real issue is that this is only the tip of the technological spear that is about to hit our game. Even so, it is nonsense to hear the theory being espoused that technology will transform the game into a statistically driven version of Moneyball.

The stupendous number of variables in rugby constantly wipe out statistical predictions. Ireland’s five-tries-to-one performance in Marseille is the perfect example. Every pre-match statistical analysis had France winning.

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Napoleon believed that strategy is a commodity, while brilliant execution is an art form. This still holds true as the art of creative coaching remains a significant weapon.


I fully understand that the refereeing community will detest what I am about to say, but that does not make it wrong. The greatest impact technology will have on our game in the near future will be when artificial intelligence (AI) is introduced to accurately augment our on-field officiating.

If AI was functioning at Murrayfield two weeks ago, as many are predicting it will in the near future, then the try that denied Scotland victory in the final seconds would have been awarded. The current technology let down referee Nic Berry, the television match official and the game.

Conversely, AI would have yellow-carded Duhan van der Merwe in the first half when he brought down Gael Fickou on the Scots try line with a high “seat belt” tackle. Van der Merwe immediately regained his feet but was a step offside when he intercepted a pass that likely stopped a French try. All of this happened so quickly that it was humanly impossible for the officials to process all the information, analyse it and come up with the correct decision.

Understandable human frailty in action. AI will remedy that.

In the opening two rounds of the championship, the many offside infringements by England have mostly gone unpunished

As the Scots prepare for their Calcutta Cup clash with England, they may again regret that AI is not yet supporting our referees. England’s compact rushing defensive system desperately wants to sprint off the line to stop any chance of getting the ball out wide to where their system has more holes than a golf course.

In the opening two rounds of the championship, the many offside infringements by England have mostly gone unpunished.

Once again let me defend our referees. It is humanly impossible to adjudicate on the tackle contest, the ruck and watch defensive lines simultaneously. The current system where our assistant referees (ARs) report offsides to the referee is, and always has been, an abject failure. Glued to the sidelines, like old fashioned touch judges, the ARs are not in the correct physical position to judge the multiple offsides that the millions watching on TV can plainly see.

A strategic aspect of the rushing defensive systems used by the Springboks, England and now Leinster, is to pile pressure on the referee. By repeatedly straying offside, rushing defensive systems place enormous pressure on the referees to not repeatedly penalise as that could be perceived as the official being unduly harsh.

I have been told that soon AI will be able to automatically create a virtual offside line at every ruck and inform the officials of players who are offside. It will be impossible to infringe without being detected. This will restore the time and space to the attack that defences are robbing and take huge pressure off the officials.

If AI returns equilibrium between the attack and defence to our game, then bring it on.

The art of great attack can still dominate even the most cynical and statistically driven defences

Having won consecutive victories over both the Springboks and France, astonishingly, Ireland’s creative attack appears to be kryptonite to even the most effective of defensive systems.

The art of great attack can still dominate even the most cynical and statistically driven defences.

This art is best described by legendary San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Walsh. He described his offensive philosophy as “designing an offence that asks more questions than the defence can answer”. For E = mc² in physics, see Walsh’s words in attacking strategies across all team sports.

Walsh would have enjoyed the intellectual challenge of watching Ireland’s creative, agile attack constantly outmanoeuvre the cyborg physicality of rushing defences. The art of that attack lies inside the multiple options in-built across their plays. This makes pre-game planning for the opposition defensive team a nightmare.

The perfect example of the multiple options Ireland have inside attacking plays can be found in the variations of how they utilise their blindside wingers. In one of Ireland’s excellent first-half tries against Italy, James Lowe, coming from the blindside wing, was used as the decoy which created the gap for Hugo Keenan in the lead-up to Jack Crowley’s try. Later when Calvin Nash was on the blindside, he was the effective ball carrier who broke clear in the lead-up to Dan Sheehan’s first try.

Warren Gatland has kept his promise and moulded this young Welsh team into a collective that is very hard to beat

Of course none of this works without the Napoleonic art of brilliant execution.

If you are the Welsh defensive coach, which option do you plan for? Or do you try to cover both? If you cover both, then Ireland have a third.

Warren Gatland has kept his promise and moulded this young Welsh team into a collective that is very hard to beat. The Welsh hope this brave, spirited and determined young side can tap into the gritty DNA of their past and make Ireland pay a dear price for every metre of ground gained and every point on the scoreboard.

The difficult reality for Wales is that Ireland’s artful attacking execution appears to be asking far more questions than their courage alone can answer.

At least, that’s what the stats say.