Smart Scrums: Helping Rugby Get Digital

4 minutes

29th of November, 2023

At first glance, rugby may seem to have little connection with the high-tech digital world of data and software. But a partnership with Akkodis is helping French rugby club Stade Toulousain improve a key part of its game: the scrum.

The Spotlight on French Rugby's Digital Transformation

Rugby union in general, and French rugby in particular, is in the spotlight as the 2023 men’s Rugby World Cup took place in stadiums across France in September and October. Thousands of fans congregated from all around the globe to cheer on their teams, joining the many, many supporters of Les Bleus who were hoping for a World Cup victory on their home turf. It was a special moment for French fans and Stade Toulousain, home club to many of the national team’s star players.

As rugby spectators the world over cheered the tries and winced at the collisions, the World Cup was also a chance for teams to show off the results of data analysis methods that are helping them boost their game.

Revolutionizing the Scrum with High-Tech Training

Akkodis has been using its expertise to help improve the Toulouse-based club’s scrum performance, by upgrading its high-tech, connected scrum training machine.

For the uninitiated, the scrum is a pivotal part of the rugby game. Players crouch down in interlocking rows to square up to the opposing team before the ball is thrown in underneath and the two sides compete for possession.

Stade Toulousain is one of only two rugby teams in France equipped with a connected scrum machine, and it’s a valuable tool for improving performance.

“The goal is to improve the starting position and the bind of the scrum (when the players link up) to make the movement more consistent,” says Joris Durand,

head of the embedded software department at Akkodis. “Exerting the right pressure helps to destabilize the opposing team.”

Enhancing Scrum Stability Through Precise Analysis

It’s important that the scrum doesn’t collapse, and that’s where the scrum machine comes in. Players practice pushing against hydraulic-operated dummies that represent the opposing team and can exert pushing pressure back, simulating the forces involved in a real scrum. Exerting the right pressure, in the right direction, gets the right results. So, coaches need to be able to analyze precisely what’s going on as the players inch their way forward across the field or in this case, the training room.

The Stade Toulousain scrum machine was already equipped with sensors and cameras, but Akkodis has been working with the club for several months to update and improve the technology. “The machine analyzes the pressure exerted by each player and pushes back to simulate the opposing players,” explains Durand.

Fusing Video Analysis with Facial Recognition for Tailored Training

The system is linked to cameras that film the players as they train, connecting the images with the data recorded by the machine’s sensors and using a facial recognition algorithm to match players to their statistics.

Authorized coaches and staff receive notifications to view training data and images via a web application immediately after sessions. The data is archived, enabling progress tracking over time. This analysis not only enhances players' movements and coordination but also informs broader tactical strategies against opposing teams.

Data-Driven Strategies on and off the Field

“All matches are filmed so the coaches and trainers can identify weaknesses in the opposing team. There are strategies to put in place and the machine allows the team to visualize where to push,” Durand says. He sees the scrum machine and its data analysis as just a small part of a broader trend toward greater use of data to improve sporting performance which goes far beyond the rugby pitch.

“Toulouse also has a great football team, which also uses video analysis. Lots of sports clubs analyze video to improve their performance, spot weaknesses, and set out plans to improve and evolve,” Durand says. “It’s really about capitalizing on the data that has been recorded to propose new strategies.”  

Durand plays rugby himself and notes that while the developers “don’t need to speak rugby, it certainly helps to come up with the right solution when you know the sport.” The possibilities demonstrated by the scrum machine go even further than the sporting world – how Akkodis technology can help optimize the performance of players on the rugby field highlights the potential for data to contribute to advances in other sectors, too. “Many of our industry clients need to be able to capture data and make better use of it,” Durand says.

Pressure Sensors and the Future of Scrum Training

The Stade Toulousain players themselves see the instant digital feedback as a performance accelerator. “They can visualize and evaluate their own performance straightaway and start improving from the next exercise, they don’t have to wait for the next training session,” Durand says. He sees room for further technological developments that could give even more useful feedback on the players’ scrum training.

“We are working on three-axis pressure sensors. Currently the sensors measure horizontal pressure but, in a scrum, you need to be strategic and work to improve the stability of the scrum, reduce pressure from the top, and avoid team collapse. Three-axis sensors will allow us to analyze vertical, lateral, and horizontal pressure.”

Further ahead, Akkodis is even looking into sensor-equipped rugby shirts that could measure the position of a player’s shoulders as they slam into their opponent in the scrum. “That would give a much more detailed and precise analysis of pressure on the opponent,” Durand says.

As the world’s top teams recover after battling it out for the coveted Webb Ellis trophy this year, coaches and players alike will be banking on digital insights to boost their training and lead them to victory in the 2027 Rugby World Cup.