Growing rugby through technology and innovation


As a spectator, it is easy to forget just how far rugby has come from its humble beginnings. Whether we like it or not, the game has been influenced by innovations on and off the pitch and undergone transformations that has enabled it to become one of the most exciting and followed sports on the planet.

Japan has a reputation to the world as a high-tech nation so it’s only natural that they would want to showcase this as they host their first Rugby World CupTM (RWC). In this article, we celebrate the major developments of the game and look at some of the new initiatives in place that haven’t been seen before. From the latest high-performance kits and ball technology to the industry-leading broadcast capabilities and social media campaigns changing way fans engage with the action - these are the innovations that are driving the game forward. 

Making Rugby World Cup Accessible to All

Rugby is an inclusive sport that brings people together at every level. For RWC2019, World Rugby committed that more people than ever before will be able to watch the 48 match tournament from wherever they are in the world. Through TV and online broadcasting, 217 territories (up from 198 in 2015) are able to watch the tournament as it happens. A partnership with Google provides on demand highlights on YouTube while podcasts provide round-the-clock social coverage. In markets where rugby is not televised, fans are able to watch for free online as part of World Rugby’s commitment to expanding the sport’s reach and engaging the next generation of fans across the globe. Meanwhile domestically in Japan, this is the first time 8K coverage will be available via NHK.

For the majority of fans a trip to Japan to watch their team play may not be possible but the next best thing is a premium broadcast experience to ensure they feel part of the journey.  World Rugby, in collaboration with the team at the Japan Rugby Union, have invested heavily in technology that provides a premium digital viewing experience regardless of location.  For example, between 23 and 28 different cameras are located in strategic positions around the grounds to ensure every tackle, scrum and try is captured and broadcasted around the world almost instantly. Together with a broadcast plan offering unrivalled access and content outside of the match coverage fans feel closer than ever to the action.

Let’s get Social

Never before has social media been more important to sport. Fans themselves become media channels that can spread the news of the tournament quicker than any newspaper can. To capitalise on this, organisers and sponsors are leveraging an expanding suite of social media platforms to deliver Rugby World Cup 2019 to a new Gen Z audience. Organisers are providing 360 degree coverage of the biggest and best moments of Asia’s first ever Rugby World Cup, spearheaded by two new Rugby World Cup 2019 Tik Tok channels. The channels, which are available in both English and Japanese, include behind the scenes moments, infographics, fan-generated content and tournament updates to keep fans engaged in between games. The global hashtag challenge, "#RugbyFever", which encourages fans across the globe to show just how excited they are for Rugby World Cup 2019, has already had over 25 million uses in the first seven days. The platforms produce daily content throughout the tournament alongside the ever popular hashtag challenge. 

Augmented Reality (AR) (digital elements that can be added to a live feed via a person’s smartphone), is increasingly being leveraged as a way of making the fan experience more interactive and compelling. We’ve seen this being used in the US with the MLB and the NFL but this is the first Rugby World Cup that AR has been incorporated into the coverage. It includes graphics deployed for elements such as team line-ups, player comparisons, statistics and pool tables. Hawk-Eye Smart Replay technology will also be part of this year’s tournament, not just to help the referees determine very close calls but also to bring fans closer to the special nuances of the game and make them part of the decisions that can be the difference between a team winning and losing.

Kit and Wearables 

It’s not just the fan experience that’s changing rapidly, the kit and equipment used in rugby has changed beyond recognition from the days of over oversized long-sleeved cotton jerseys. Today shirts are figure hugging combinations of lycra and polyester to reduce the drag and weight on players as they run and stop defenders from being able to grab on to material during tackles. Shirts today are designed to be durable without restricting movement and they must be fast-drying given the often wet and muddy conditions that rugby is played in. Furthermore, the England shirt for example, has a grip print on the front of the shirt to assist players in catching the ball, again particularly useful in wet conditions. 

Then there is the ball itself. Like the kits, the oval-shaped ball continues to evolve for a variety of reasons ranging from player performance to better data analytics as well as player welfare to spectator experience.  This year’s World Cup ball is called the Sirius, named after the seventh closest star to Earth. It is almost exactly the same as the ball for the 2015 World Cup, except that Gilbert, the manufacturer, has “been able to get much more definition on the pimple” (the rougher, gripper bits around the ball). This makes it less slippery without making it less aerodynamic. 

Japan’s Stadia 

Off the field, innovation continues to affect all areas of event organisation, such as facial recognition technology being trialled at Tokyo and Yokohama stadiums for media accreditation, a system expected to be rolled out for the 2020 Olympics. The 12 match venues have been either upgraded from their original formats or purpose built for the event and feature the latest technology without compromising on tradition or individuality. The Sapporo Dome was designed to host baseball matches in a diamond format but it’s been transformed and features a natural grass pitch that’s grown outdoors and then transported inside for games. The Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium, the original home of successful Union team, Nippon Steel Kamaishi, was purpose-built in honour of the people of the two who lost their lives when the city was devastated by Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

From player welfare to fan experience, technology continues to change rugby and we are seeing this in abundance at this year’s Rugby World Cup. We think these improvements are a valuable component to growing the game and the connection between the communities; as long as the ethos of rugby - that raw physicality and mutual respect for everyone else on the pitch - remains firmly intact.