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10 February 2015

Evolution: Rugby And Technology

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On The Pitch

Rugby has changed. The big names of the 1970s would be disorientated by the modern game – and not just because it’s tricky to picture Bill Beaumont in a skin-tight shirt. Fitness regimes have been revolutionised. Tactics have evolved. Rules have been altered in the scrum, at the breakdown and in the line-out. Even the scoring system’s moved on. Most pointedly of all, however, technology has assumed a crucial role. On any given international match day, the video referee can now be the ultimate arbiter of which way a result goes.

Since being introduced in 2001, the role of the Television Match Official has become a high-profile one. The post-try “to-be-or-not-to-be” video system has become as familiar a part of the sport as the pre-match anthems. There have even been talks with Hawk-Eye, the firm whose technology is used in tennis and cricket, to further aid the process. And it’s not just the man upstairs who has his own say in decisions. Referees these days have radio links to both touch judges, meaning quicker consultation – and eyes on both sides of the scrum.

Players, too, are becoming more involved with on-field technology. Just last month, Saracens became the first side to have impact sensors taped behind their ears as part of a programme to judge the impact of concussion. As with so many aspects of modern life, rugby continues to develop a tight relationship with technology. But the factory-line cyborgs equipped to rack up fifty points against the All Blacks? Still in production.

Off The Pitch

If things have been transformed for those on the pitch, they’ve also been reshaped for those off it. Following a match as a fan has never been such an involved prospect. The referee’s collar microphone broadcasts a live feed of every decision, every reprimand and the thud of every nearby tackle. Special headsets are sold at matches for those who want to listen in. “Ref Cam”, meanwhile, offers a live broadcast of its own, giving a view of the action so up-close you can almost smell the Deep Heat. Expect to see far more of it.

Twickenham stadium itself is rumoured to be the first ground in Europe to prioritise free high-density WiFi for fans, making instant video replays on smartphones in the stands a viable proposition. That’s assuming, of course, that you haven’t already watched a re-run of the action on the big screens.

And if you’re not at the match? While Teletext and Ceefax might once have been the most effective (if patience-testing) way of keeping tabs on a live game, today’s range of mobile apps allows for instant updates on the unfolding action. They even get used by fans in the stadium popping out for a bathroom break – so no more awkward “what was that roar for?” moments.

Rugby gets called a game for ruffians played by gentlemen. In 2015, it’s also a game for technophiles.

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