Matthew Theunissen

Matthew Theunissen is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

'Robo Dan' tests former All Black's mettle

Andrew Mehrtens 
Photo / Getty Images
Andrew Mehrtens Photo / Getty Images

The good thing about robots is they can't get groin injuries or go on benders on the town, but they still can't beat an All Black.

Former first five-eight Andrew Mehrtens took on three specially designed pneumatically-powered aluminium legs in a kicking challenge in Auckland today.

The competition ended in a draw, with an aptly named droid called "Robo Dan''.

Mehrtens, who until recently held the title of all-time leading points scorer for the All Blacks, converted 11 out of 12 of his attempts on goal, tying with the Massey University Albany campus robot.

One of Robo Dan's creators, Johan Potgieter, said getting the droid's timing right was the key to its success.

"We realised very early that it's not about how much power you put behind a rugby ball it's all about timing, so we spent a lot of time with slow camera capture footage, frame-by-frame analysis of kicking positions and how you strike a ball and I think that was the secret on the day.''

It also helped that Robo Dan's groin couldn't get injured like its namesake, Dan Carter.

"That's the good thing about a robot - they don't misbehave, they don't go drinking when they shouldn't and they don't get injuries. And when there is an injury you can usually fix it in a couple of minutes.''

Potgieter said the widely criticised Gilbert Rugby World Cup balls were not a factor for Robo Dan.

"We didn't swap our balls like the English did and we were quite happy with the way they kicked. There was quite a strong breeze, but we can compensate - robots are very rigid and we know that they'll hit the sweet spot every time.

"And who knows, companies like Gilbert might ask us to use our robot to test their rugby balls because players like Johnny Wilkinson are bad-mouthing them.''

Mehrtens said before he took the field that he wasn't overly confident about facing the well-oiled machines.

"Clearly the robots are in a lot better shape than I am and they've had the benefit of being out here longer this morning testing the wind and conditions... I'm trying to think of other excuses I can use but, no, I'm not too hopeful, but it's a bit of fun.''

Mehrtens said such advances in technology had the potential to help the game of rugby.

"And clearly we're one of the world leaders in terms of technology here in New Zealand and it's something we're very proud of.''

The other two robots, Canterbury University's creation "Robo Deans'' and Massey University Albany's impressive computer-controlled droid converted around 50 per cent of their attempts on goal.

The competition is a prelude to the inaugural Schools Robotics World Cup in the Cloud from October 11 - 13.

- APNZ

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