‘It works’: How a NASA engineer may have ended rugby league’s forward pass controversy

Cody Walker of the Rabbitohs looks dejected after being called for a forward pass in an NRL match against the Panthers last season. Picture: STUFF SPORTS.

The age-old issue of definitively ruling on forward passes appears a step closer to being solved after a trial of revolutionary technology during the NRLW season was hailed a success.

London-based firm Sportable, which inserts a microchip into the Steeden to determine whether the ball leaves a player’s hands forwards or backwards, teamed up with the NRL to road test its solution during six games of the recently completed NRLW season.

During those matches, the referees called four forward passes. The Sun-Herald can reveal that Sportable, which ran a test in the background that had no effect on the games, detected those four passes and also two others it believes were thrown forward.

The company has forwarded the data it collected to NRL head office for examination, but feels the results are proof its system works. If Rugby League Central agrees, it could be an important first step towards the technology being introduced into the NRL in a bid to finally end the most contentious issue since the game came into being in 1908.

“The findings are really interesting,” Pete Husemeyer, a former NASA nuclear engineer who formed Sportable with Dugald Macdonald and Dan Davson, told The Sun-Herald from London.

“We detected all of the forward passes the refs detected and we even detected a couple more. As it currently stands, the refs will go over those ones with a fine-tooth comb and then we will put our heads together and see where we are.

Sportable will be really happy if the NRL is happy with the technology. If they are happy to put it to games, that’s brilliant. If they feel they need a bit more time to gather data, that’s also fine.

“The underlying algorithm itself is a sound algorithm; it’s doing what we expected it to do, it’s doing what we trained it to do.”

Asked if he felt the technology provided an accurate assessment on forward passes, he said: “We do think it’s definitive.

“Forward pass is the easiest rule to say – it’s two words. But there’s so much emotion and it’s so loaded when you talk to people and understand the caveats to that – it can travel forward but only because of momentum. That’s what needs to be clarified, it’s the angle of the hands as the ball leaves … we believe we have a tool that does that.”

To track the flight of the ball, the Steeden is implanted with a microchip that features an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a magnetometer, a pressure sensor and a temperature sensor, many of the technologies found in a normal mobile phone. Then there’s also additional technology that tracks the ball like a radar. There’s also a second method the company uses to track ball flight that the company wants to keep confidential for now.

“We look at the ball data just before the pass and just after the pass has been made, when the ball is flying through the air,” Husemeyer explained. “By comparing those two sets of data, you can then back-calculate the players’ hand angle. You can see if the hands were flat, aimed forwards or backwards. When the person makes the pass, within 300 milliseconds we’ll know if it’s a forward pass.”

NRL head of football Graham Annesley was reluctant to comment until the trial data had been evaluated and he had a chance to pass on any recommendations to the ARL Commission.

“We’re in the process of trying to evaluate the results of the trial so that we can report to the Commission before we say anything else publicly,” Annesley said.

Husemeyer said Sportable technologies could be used in a number of other different ways to assist match officials, broadcasters and coaches. For instance, the microchip in the ball could determine whether the Steeden has been kicked through the posts or provide a definitive call on a 40-20.

“I don’t think there’s a single rugby player in the world who at some point hasn’t felt robbed by the touch judge,” Husemeyer quipped, adding that the “Holy Grail” was trying to develop a technology that conclusively determined if the ball was grounded for a try.

Asked if the technology works and can be implemented in a cost-effective way, he said: “One hundred per cent, absolutely. I don’t think there will be any economic issues, it’s about us figuring out how to make the sport better for everyone. We are a bunch of sports fanatics trying to make the games we love better. We don’t want fans or anyone else to think we’re trying to unnecessarily change the sports they love.

“We’re grateful for the opportunity we’ve been given by the NRL and we’ve loved every minute of the data-gathering process and working with the teams. We’re looking forward to seeing the next chapters in this exciting adventure we’re taking.”

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