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Japan rugby team using drones, data analysis in drive for top 8 World Cup spot

Japan national rugby team players are seen practicing getting up off the ground while a drone watches their movements from behind, during training in Machida, Tokyo, in February 2019. (Mainichi/Takumi Taniguchi)

TOKYO -- To fulfill its goal of making it to the quarterfinals of the 2019 Japan Rugby World Cup, the host's national team has improved its use of data analysis to sharpen its competitive edge.

The Japan national rugby team's analysts have used images taken by a drone to gain a better grasp of tactical formations for attack and defense. The information is also being used to increase players' accuracy across the game, and help them pose a threat to some of the physically stronger foreign teams at the top of the sport.

At practice sessions, a drone flies above to analyze the play leading up to a scrum and other set pieces. It also closely scrutinizes the movement and positions of players around it who aren't carrying the ball and doesn't miss irregularities such as small breaks in formation or slightly delayed movements.

Since May 2018, the team has used a large monitor mounted onto a golf cart during practices. It enables players to quickly see where their game is slipping, and also helps them confirm what they need to do to fix problems.

Scrums, one of the central points of contention in any game of rugby, are also captured by multiple cameras, which are used to check whether the eight players making one are able to come together to build the formation effectively, as well as other points.

Before a test match on Sept. 6 against powerhouse South Africa at Kumagaya Rugby Stadium in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo, detailed analysis was done on the Japanese forwards' techniques, including their positioning during scrums, to help them compete equally against one of the strongest forward sides in the world.

Additionally, data on players' running speeds and distances covered are measured automatically using high accuracy GPS. As the Japanese team's forwards are less physically imposing than some of their counterparts, attention is paid even to the speed used in the first few steps after picking themselves up from a tackle to engage in the next play. The team says it helps in improving the defense provided by their fleet-footedness, seen as one of the team's strengths.

Keita Inagaki, 29, a prop who is also leader of the forwards, commented on the system's use in understanding their current condition and establishing goals, saying, "It's a good tool for getting us to think about what we can do to improve our stats."

Shumpei Hamano, 25, the man in charge of amassing and distributing all of this data on the rate of effective and connecting tackles, play accuracy and other details, said, "Using the data, we can objectively evaluate individual play styles."

Scrutinizing the techniques and tactics of opposing teams is also of huge importance. Prior to the test match Japan played against France two years ago, analysis had revealed that the French team struggled in protracted defensive games. Japan accordingly reduced the number of kicks it took, and opted for a strategy of holding onto the ball, leading to a draw against their more powerful rivals.

Detailed research is also continuing into Japan's opponents in the group stages of the upcoming tournament, with a particular focus on possible opportunities for tries and options in each area of play.

(Japanese original by Takumi Taniguchi, Sports News Department)

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