Smart Ball insights ahead of the 2023 Guinness Six Nations

This Guinness Six Nations is set to be a showstopper.

This Guinness Six Nations is set to be a showstopper.

Not only is it now a World Cup year, but the Six Nations includes the two teams at the top of the World Rugby Rankings: Ireland and France.

Further to this, both England and Wales have faced recent disruption in their coaching staff, with Borthwick and Gatland returning to their respective international camps.

All the while Italy are improving – having beaten both Wales and Australia in 2022 – and Scotland will be confident of retaining the Calcutta Cup away from home in Round 1.

Northern Hemisphere rugby is currently a hive of contrasting styles and tactical innovation.

Lending a deeper insight into these currents of change in the elite game, the Smart Ball returns for its second major international competition.

Granting unprecedented insights into players’ skill levels, the Smart Ball relies on a web of beacons around the pitch which track the position of the ball 20 times per second.

The insights and data will be presented across broadcast and digital channels by Sage, who is the Official Insights Partner to the Six Nations.

Using a metric described as ‘Territory Gain’ – how far the ball travels parallel to the touchline – the true value of, and strategy behind, kicks can often be discerned.

A great application of this measure is to penalty kicks. An average of 22.7 penalties were awarded in the ANS and over half of tries scored in the competition originated from lineouts.

Therefore, penalties can be decisive attacking platforms at international level.

Who maximises this advantage when kicking to the corner?

The largest territory gain recorded in the autumn from a penalty kick was made my Blair Kinghorn, who propelled his side 47.5 metres downfield in their nail-biting contest with Australia.

The centimetre-level accuracy of this system allows the ball to be tracked in three dimensions and in real time, producing a host of metrics which provide an entirely new perspective on players and teams.

One such measurement is the deviation of a goal kick from the centre of the posts.

This reveals both the most meticulous kickers from the tee, but also highlights those agonising margins which can stand between victory and defeat in the topflight.

One such example of a painful miss came at the outset of the Autumn Nations Series, when Blair Kinghorn’s place kick was just 70 centimetres away from securing a famous victory against Australia to open Scotland’s campaign.

Throughout the ANS, the perfect kick – one which sails dead-centre through the sticks – was achieved just three times.

Gareth Anscombe achieved this feat twice, once against New Zealand and again against Australia.

Owen Farrell kicked the third kick against Argentina from 34.4 metres out – a level of precision which can only be celebrated with this ground-breaking technology.

As well as highlighting moments of individual brilliance, findings derived from data collected from the Smart Ball that are presented by Sage can grant broader tactical understanding.

For example, a key difference in identity between Ireland and France is their kicking game.

In the autumn, France made the most kicks in play and Ireland the fewest.

Using a machine learning algorithm on the data collected by the Smart Ball, the movement of the ball can be identified as a certain type of kick or pass.

This allows us to automatically see the breakdown of a team’s preferred kicking style.

With territory paramount in modern international rugby, both Ireland and France’s modal kick type was the clearance kick, with the former making 14 and the latter 37.

Perhaps the standout difference in kicking strategy is these teams’ use of the up-and-under – a high kick which travels a short distance to enhance the probability of retaining possession.

France kicked 10 garryowens – as the up-and-under is colloquially known – to Ireland’s two.

This indicates that France are less interested in holding onto possession unnecessarily, happy to apply pressure on teams by either regathering their kicks further up the field or squeezing errors from their opposition.

This is hardly surprising given the dominance of their Shaun Edwards-inspired defence.

Ireland on the other hand, judging by their kicking strategy, see relentless attack in the opposition half as the optimum strategy.

France also made more grubber kicks and crossfield kicks, however, the two teams who made the most attacking kicks – intended to be contestable – were England and Wales with 30 apiece.

The insights afforded by the Smart Ball are by no means limited to kicking.

There are a plethora of measurements made by the Smart Ball technical infrastructure which can identify the most accurate passers, as well as the teams who play the quickest from the breakdown for example.

In terms of pass speed, the indomitable Antoine Dupont had the fastest average in the autumn for a player who threw more than 50 passes, registering an electric 24.8 miles per hour.

Looking at the rotations of the ball in the air, the Smart Ball also measures pass efficiency – how smoothly the ball rotates on its axis – and spin rate – how quickly it rotates.

Scotland’s Ben White boasted the best efficiency, averaging 93.02%, and Italy’s Stephen Varney whose average spin rate was 7.03 revolutions per second.

As well as these very specific metrics – which can be used to evaluate a player’s skill level – more tactical and stylistic qualities of players and teams can be revealed.

For example, ground reload time is the time between when the ball is raised from the floor, hence ending the breakdown, and delivered from a player’s hands.

Looking to up the tempo in his cameos from the bench for England, their most-capped men’s player Ben Youngs averaged a rapid ground reload time of 0.63 seconds.

Reload time can also be applied to passes in open play. The fastest reload time – how quickly a player can move the ball through his hands – recorded in the ANS was 0.3 seconds.

An exceptional passer on the gainline, Paolo Garbisi achieved this reload time eight times – five more than any other Six Nations player.

The tactical awareness which the Smart Ball is capable of producing is truly revolutionary at the apex of the game and will only become more capable as it continues to be exposed to world-class international rugby.

In terms of attacking strategy, the teams with the highest average pass distance – who attack the widest – are France and England, with Wales and Ireland opting for a more direct approach.

The relative merit of these contrasting styles will surely be exposed in this season’s Six Nations, with this championship a final opportunity for teams to assert themselves before the World Cup.

Is it better to stretch defences or crash through the middle?

Hold the ball or assert yourself in defence?

Play quickly or stay controlled?

With the data and insights that are presented by Sage, the Smart Ball has the power to find the fine margins between the titans of the international game, in a season which will be remembered in posterity, in a tournament home to the best teams in the world.