On the pitch technology that will be a
gamechanger for Irish rugby

Summary: High-performance teams, including the Irish rugby team, are embracing new technologies for a competitive edge.

Team Ireland huddled together during rugby match in stadium

This article originally appeared on the Irish Times on September 15, 2023.

At the ultra-competitive level of elite sport, even the smallest of tweaks can make all the difference when it comes to winning or losing. For the Irish rugby team, embracing cutting edge technology as a means of enhancing their performance at the Rugby World Cup was an easy choice.

Knowledge is power and the team is benefiting from advanced real time video analytics enabled by Vodafone’s 5G mobile private network (MPN) connectivity. Provided in partnership with Ericsson it means rucks, scrums and lineouts are visible from every angle thanks to eight different high-resolution cameras as well as footage from overhead 5G connected drones. The bounty of data delivers near instant feedback and can be quickly analysed which gives the team and their coaches the full picture of their performance.

The 5G MPN technology is a core element of the squad’s World Cup preparation, and was heavily tested at the IRFU’s High Performance Centre in Blanchardstown recently before being brought to France in a bespoke 5G connected van for the tournament. As the possibilities became more and more apparent, the IRFU’s head of analytics and innovation, Vinny Hammond, was won over by this solution.

Already used to dealing with large amounts of data in his role, Hammond says it was immediately clear that the capabilities offered by the 5G MPN technology were going to be a literal gamechanger.

Along with his analysis team of John Buckley, Alan Walsh and Jack Hannon, the faster download and upload speeds and lower latency offered by the 5G network have allowed the team to “push new boundaries” when it comes to real time performance analysis. And having their own 5G mobile private network allows them to plan for all scenarios home and away safe in the knowledge that reliable connectivity won’t be a problem.

“Being on our own 5G network gives us that level of security and reliability that we really need, and we’ll have the added benefit of that connectivity in France with our private 5G connected van, linking back to our high performance centre, to reduce reliance on third-party connectivity,” says Hammond.

Vinny Hammond observes the  players close-up

Impact on and off the pitch

Chris Byrne, mobile solutions specialist with Vodafone, had foreseen the possibilities offered by emerging 5G technology when it came to analysing performance on the pitch, having worked as a GAA performance analyst with his club and county in Donegal before taking his proposals to the IRFU.

“Vinny was really keen and knew he wanted something that could really be impactful to assist with analysing the team’s performance and that’s what we have delivered.” he explains.

Hammond agrees, saying he didn’t want the tech to be a “burden”. “The important bit for us is that we didn’t just lash a load of technology at something that wasn’t a problem,” he explains. Legendary Irish rugby player and current member of the coaching team, Paul O’Connell, was keen to point out that while there can be a tsunami of data, ultimately it helps them to clarify what they originally thought and proceed appropriately - and quickly. “It’s such new technology, but the opportunities that it gives us are incredible.”

The IRFU's Private 5G connected van in France

The future possibilities of 5G

According to Hammond, this is just the beginning of the journey when it comes to the IRFU and 5G. “It’s exciting because we don’t know what we will be able to do in a year’s time or 18 months’ time, but this is the foundation of it.”

This sentiment is echoed by Byrne, who says further deployments of technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence will massively augment the current capabilities of 5G when it comes to helping the Irish rugby squad prepare for major matches and tournaments.

“Right now, the information comes in as unstructured video data –and the team’s analysts tag the video to make it usable,” he says. “The natural next step would be if you could use AI and machine learning to analyse this data and speed up the processing, freeing up more time for Vinny and his team to work on delivering meaningful information to the coaches and players.”

Alan Wash, performance analyst IRFU, Paul O’Connell, Irelands forward coach, Vinny Hammond, head of analytics and innovation with the IRFU; player Jack Crowley and John Buckley

High performance sport is ultimately no different from high performance business when it comes to using advanced technology to ensure the best possible output, Byrne says. He likens the IRFU’s set up to a business context where its analysts could be considered the business intelligence team, its coaches the c-suite and management levels, and its players to the teams on the ground who deliver change based on instructions given.

He says that 5G will allow businesses to be more flexible and efficient which before would only have been possible using cabled infrastructure. Byrne is adamant, however, that 5G is not a competitor with wifi- rather, the two technologies will complement each other. “Wifi is an excellent wireless technology, and ideal for IT or office type use cases. When it comes to mission critical operational technology (OT) use cases, you need a wireless network like 5G, which can provide a quality of service and reliability unavailable on wifi today.”

We will soon see 5G rolled out in mission critical comms such as health and safety comms, robots, and automated vehicles, he says. “That's where it will make a huge difference to the bottom line of the business, any business.”

Back on the pitch, as the boys in green give it their all in France - the hope is that 5G MPN gives them the edge, and these game changing technologies continue to evolve high performance teams and businesses.

Click here to read more on how 5G MPN can open new opportunities to Irish businesses.

2023, "On the pitch technology will be a gamechanger for Irish rugby", Irish Times, September 15. Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/sponsored/2023/09/15/5g-mobile-private-network-enabling-high-performance-for-the-irfu/

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