With France hosting the Rugby World Cup in September, two experts - Karim Ghezal (Assistant Coach of the French XV) and Julien Piscione (Head of Sports Science within the French Rugby Federation) – explain what technological innovation brings to the sport. They go head-to-head in this joint interview.
An innovative spirit has always been part of rugby’s DNA.
Julien Piscione, you have been leading sports science within the French Rugby Federation for a decade, helping the various French teams (women’s, men’s, 15s, 7s, etc.) optimize their performance, in particular using new tech.
Can you explain why rugby is a pioneering sport in this field?
Julien Piscione: “An innovative spirit has always been part of rugby’s DNA. Since the early days of the game, the rules have continued to evolve. From generation to generation, people reflect on these changes. Compared to other team sports, clubs and staff have welcomed the latest tech, whether video, GPS, data analysis, or other innovation.”
you have to find the right balance between technological innovation and team spirit and mindset.
Karim Ghezal, since 2019, you have been training the French XV rugby team in specific skills such as winning the ball in the air with your special focus on the line-out.
What do you see technology bringing to the field?
Karim Ghezal: “It’s true that rugby is a fast-evolving sport. In ten years, the gameplay has changed radically. Players and their coaches must adapt, and technology offers good tools to facilitate analysis and improve performance. However, it will never replace what’s happening on the field, so you have to find the right balance between technological innovation and team spirit and mindset.”
How do you manage to find the right balance during the French XV ‘s match preparation?
K.G.: “We use these various tools with one objective: to better understand what is happening on the pitch. For example, thanks to the players’ GPS sensors, we analyze their speed of movement or intensity of their tackles... When we prepare for a match, we also use other data to allow us to anticipate the number of line-outs, scrums, and other sequences according to where they are on the pitch. It allows us to create training schedules that are adapted to the upcoming match, and this optimizes player performance.”
J.P.: “Technology also helps us monitor individuals, for example via sensors that measure blood sugar, so we can adapt to each player’s energy. The latest innovations allow us to take better care of our players according to their specific position in the team, throughout the season.”
In your opinion, what have been the most impactful innovations on the game and player preparation?
J.P.: “GPS tracking was a real revolution. Using a simple mini device, we can measure each player’s performance including speed, acceleration, and pace. Video analysis has also had a huge impact, with sophisticated cameras able to automatically analyze game phases. Connected balls have been used during the Six Nations tournament, and French coaches can use them to work on various kicking and passing techniques.”
K.G.: “Another revolution is how coaches adopt various technologies to prepare their players. If I’m running a 3,000-meter training session incorporating acceleration and sprints, I can use live analysis to see if I'm on target or if I need to add 10 minutes to the session. Then there is the ability to share match and training analyses. Each player is presented with a report of simple stats covering their gameplay compared to their goal. The players are asking for it.”
How do you manage data collection and analysis for the French XV?
J.P.: “Within rugby coaching, new professions have developed around technology. Data scientists collect, analyze, and make data useful. New coaching techniques use innovation to increase efficiency. But if it was only about the numbers, performance would be completely predictable. Sport is interesting for the very fact there are unpredictable elements!”
K.G.: “Our goal is not just to accumulate data. We have three video analysts, a data scientist, and a sports scientist (for GPS data) managing performance stats for the French XV. Of course, all the coaches are connected, and data analysis is available for analysis an hour after each training session.”
In partnership with Orange and its partners, the French XV is developing a virtual reality rugby line-out simulator called “Rugby training in VR”.
How was this innovation created and what is it for?
K.G.: “The project started in 2016, when I was at LOU Rugby in Lyon, and it developed further in 2019 when I arrived within the French team. I wanted to improve line-out techniques without increasing the collective training time. This is where virtual reality came into play. In 2022, we developed a Proof of Concept with our partner Orange, who spotted AR-51, an Israeli service provider who specialize in motion video capture without using sensors. French XV players use the VR app to simulate gameplay according to several factors such as the stadium noise, weather, yellow cards, fatigue, stress... so they can work on decision-making as much as they need to.”
What are the challenges and limitations that encourage the use of VR?
J.P.: “Virtual reality offers a lot of potential, but it isn’t widely used within high-level sports. This simulator gives us a technological advantage over other national teams. And rugby could be a precursor for other sports.”
How do you imagine the French XV’s training will evolve in the next 10 years? Ever more connected?
J.P.: “In the future, we still need the keys to image capture. In the next ten years, pitch-side cameras could use images to simulate various movements in real time, with detailed AI-enabled analysis of various strategies.”
K.G.: “The French XV works in a unique environment, with training periods limited to 15 days before competitions. Virtual reality will help us optimize players’ time; just as other innovations will help us prepare them better. We want to stay one step ahead of these future developments, while preserving rugby’s strong human side and team spirit.”