Opinion: Rugby needs more skill, not less

Opinion: Rugby needs more skill, not less

Rugby has always had an odd relationship with technology. While sports such as tennis and cricket have absorbed as much kit as possible, rugby has always looked at new technology the way Nanwarien looked at pasta in the 1970s.

Even now, years after the TMO experiment, people are still not sure to what extent mitigating its effects was even mentioned at the recent World Rugby Conference. The decision seemed at odds with what had happened in the past six months of play.

During this time, the referee’s decisions were scrutinized to an extent that was both understandable and unacceptable. Modern coaches, especially at the Test level, can have their careers warped by one decision. Teams could be relegated and players could be kicked out of matchday squads for blowing the wrong whistle. But on the other hand, Wayne Barnes’ family decided not to celebrate his 100th Test at Twickenham due to the potential fallout should cause genuine sadness to rugby supporters.

related: Biarritz prop has fascinating second life in tech

The reality is that while referees’ decisions have never been more scrutinized, they have never been more accurate. If you had done a poll of football fans, you would have thought that referees were the least accurate ever. But the opposite is true.

The reason for the inaccurate perception is that we can now see every decision a second time. This was not possible for the first 70 years of the game, and for the past decade this aspect has only been open to officials. The TMO process is key to achieving this transparency. It might not be perfect, and you might not agree with it every time, but do you know how many decisions were made wrong in 1910? If you can re-watch these games with the help of TMO, half the results are probably wrong, and Rassie Erasmus needs a new quill every week for his letters to the media.

In fact, rugby is a game with skill that is much more objective than a game without skill, and it requires more. Humans alone can’t referee football, it’s too complicated. Even Medusa needs another six snakeheads and matching whistles for malfunctions.

Rugby needs more skill

Illustration of football and technology (Getty Images)

But the solution may not be far away. This fall, there’s been more use of technology at prom. Created by Sportable in partnership with Gilbert, for the first time we have been able to measure a ball’s flight distance, height and duration with a Six Nations team. It’s a fantastic innovation, and it already adds another layer of fun to the game.

related: Where to put the perfect kick, according to Sportable

But this is only the first step. If we can get technology into the ball, why not in the boot? Adding technology to players’ boots will solve one of the game’s biggest problems – offsides. If you can tell where the ball is and where the player’s boot is, you could theoretically know where the offside line is within a millisecond. The same goes for any offside in a double kick, which is notoriously difficult to referee. If you know where the ball is and every shoe, you’ll know who’s retreated and who hasn’t. The number of solutions to this tech jump is seemingly limitless, and can help eliminate some of the game’s most irritating aspects. Including the forward pass that currently requires you to have a degree in Physics, Geometry and C. Esche’s Surrealist Lithograph.

That might seem like some weird gibberish that a tech-obsessed nerd would like to see happen 100 years in the future. but it is not the truth. Technology exists.

In thirty years, we have gone from not having a smartphone in our hands to having one. Why don’t referees have the same toolkit in their hands, giving them instant access to data. If I can instantly know which buses are going where in Cardiff with accurate GPS, why can’t the referee access similar data to tell him which player’s boot is not 10 meters from the ball? Wouldn’t it be weird if umpires held a small portable digital “referee assistant” in one hand and a whistle in the other a decade from now? In fact, you don’t even need a whistle; all you need to do is press a button on your smartphone to make the whistling sound — if that sound is native to the game.

Football and its referees appear to be at a professional crossroads in 2022. The demands required to accurately officiate a game exceed those of a normal human being. But thankfully, there’s an app for that soon.

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