If you are lucky enough to be at one of the Six Nations Super Saturday games this weekend, and a ball kicked into touch lands in your lap, don’t bother thinking about hiding it up your jumper and sneaking it home as a souvenir. The folks who made it have a very particular set of skills – and they will find you.
Peter Husemeyer will not tell me exactly how much it costs to make the Gilbert Smart Ball (“not exorbitant”, he insists), but it’s worth enough that they do need to recover them, and it wouldn’t be hard. Quite apart from all the other data generated by the chip inside the ball, it has GPS.
“At a game a couple of years back during Rugby X [a variant of rugby sevens played on a quarter-sized pitch] at the O2 Arena a ball got kicked into one of the suites,” the co-founder of technology company Sportable tells i.
“The guys got the ball and managed to get one of the teams to sign it. And then after the game, we had to come and say, ‘Guys, I’m so sorry…’.
“That’s where the tracking becomes infinitely valuable.”
Of course, lost and found is not the ball’s main value. For teams and fans alike, the data it is able to capture and relay is worth far more.
Before Scotland’s clash with Ireland for example, anyone in possession of the statistics generated by the smart ball could have told you how the game would look – even if they had never seen either side play.
Finn Russell, Scotland’s most charismatic playmaker for decades, has the longest average pass length of any Six Nations fly-half at nearly 10 metres. Ireland conversely have the shortest pass length in the championship, the whole team shipping the ball just over six metres each time, on average.
In rugby terms? Scotland would play a more expansive game while Ireland would try to outmuscle their opponents. Every pass logged pointed to that conclusion.
Now that was no secret, but it is not just the quality of data available: it is the immediacy. The technology inside every Gilbert rugby ball used in the championship relays information to Sportable’s team immediately, before being presented, split seconds later, to the millions watching at home on screen by Sage.
Sage are careful not to overload viewers with information. For a large majority of people, their country’s Six Nations fixtures may be the only games of rugby they watch all year.
“You want to make sure that they’re just digestible and easy to understand, and that they answer key questions,” Husemeyer says.
“So that’s why this year we decided to go with the immediately and easily understandable things like territory gained. It’s so important for people to understand, because when you kick that is the currency right? It’s territory.”
It’s instantaneous. The second the ball crosses the touchline, the data is displayed on the screen.
“Territory gained: 25.2m”
It’s hard to overstate how much hard work and science has gone into that small graphic.
Peter Husemeyer grew up in South Africa, where sport is in most people’s blood. At Bishops Diocesan College, everyone played rugby, and while he loved it, Husemeyer did not love playing it.
“You weren’t even allowed to *not* play rugby,” he says, pointing out at that his business partner Dugald Macdonald makes up for his own lack of rugby prowess: his father of the same name was a Springbok and his uncle Donald Macdonald played for Scotland seven times. Macdonald Jr even earned an Oxford blue in rugby.
“I was more into cricket,” adds Husemeyer.
“I wish I was more of a serious cricketer than I was, but I love cricket – and after that then pretty much every nerdy endeavour you can imagine on the side: chess, programming, the usual.”
The nerdiness paid off though. After two degrees at the University of Cape Town, Husemeyer came to England to study nuclear engineering at Cambridge and, as part of a programme set up with Rolls Royce, completed his doctorate.
And that is how he ended up at Nasa.
“They use nuclear power in space a lot, if you go further away from the sun than Mars,” Husemeyer added.
“By the time you get out to Jupiter, you’ve got 25 times less solar power per unit area, so it’s not really easy to power a mission with with solar power at those distances.”
When he and Macdonald decided to “become captains of their own ship” and set up Sportable, they looked on with amazement at what HawkEye were doing in cricket and tennis, and said “let’s do it in another sport”. The challenges of powering a space ship hundreds of millions of miles should have made the vagaries of rugby seem like child’s play by comparison.
“Round balls are easier problems to solve because a sphere looks like a circle from all angles,” Husemeyer explains to i, as requested in layman’s terms.
“So you just look for circles and that’s quite easy. Oval-shaped balls are continuously changing shape and orientation, either an ellipsoid or it’s a circle or it’s something in between at a different angle. So it is quite tricky.
“Sports played on large fields as well are difficult because your cameras are further away and so often you have fewer pixels to be able to find the object of interest. So that’s why we decided that we would put an actual radio tag in the ball.”
Husemeyer produces one of the units from his inside blazer pocket. It is not much bigger than a 50p coin but square, and a little thicker. It has battery, charging, electronics and the radio relay technology all built into it – yet weighs just over 11 grams.
Do players notice?
“The weight of the balls about in rugby, it’s 455 grams, and so as a percentage of that weight, it’s very low, and it’s actually easy to offset that weight by adding counterbalances and changing how much glue you use on your panels.
“Gilbert and us have worked really hard over the last four years to make sure that the ball is absolutely elite bit of sports product. It’s no different to what players are used to.”
That opinion is ratified by former fly-half Paul Grayson, who scored more than 3,000 points for Northampton and England during his career, the majority of them with his boot.
And fans who get their hands on the ball are unlikely to notice the difference either. But just remember to throw it back, or you might get a quiet tap on the shoulder shortly after full-time.
All data and insights that are generated by the Gilbert Small Ball are presented by Sage, who are the official insights partner to the Six Nations.