The Rugby World Cup is in full steam and for weeks now, rugby fanatics have had their weekends filled with heart-stopping viewing, sharp intakes of breath, heads in hands and the occasional air punch.
Each match is, of course, followed – and preceded and interrupted by – an analysis by experts of the game at hand, what is going right and wrong and speculation on what is to come. For this, our pundits are relying heavily on the plethora of data that is captured during every second of every game, as well as data on past performances, previous meetings of the teams on the pitch, player fitness, past World Cup statistics, the list goes on.
And this is just the broadcasters. The coaching teams are constantly collating and analysing data on which to base their training, game plans and tournament strategies.
Data analysis is sharpening every major sport in an evolving number of ways. Sport is big business, and, like any business, those at the helm rely on data to make sound, evidence-based decisions. Rugby is no exception.
Who are the analysts?
Since becoming a professional sport in 1995, rugby has evolved into the highly competitive, popular and lucrative sport that it is today. With this monetising of the game naturally comes the drive for a competitive edge for clubs to win those tournaments and sponsorship deals, and this is where data comes in.
All national teams playing at the 2023 Rugby World Cup will have their own data and analytics experts working round the clock to underpin their campaign. Any time the camera pans up to a coach during a match, they will always be flanked by multiple experts on laptops carrying out live match analysis to inform key decisions during play. And that is just on match day in host nation France. Thereafter, data will be shared with wider analytics experts, including ‘back home’, to continue analysing team and individual player performances to help coaching teams assess and plan ongoing training and how to best prepare for forthcoming matches.
Examples of the kind of data being captured will include speed of ball, how far ball carriers are gaining past the line and various other metrics that help to demonstrate how effective a team’s attacking or defensive game is.
As well as gathering data via inhouse analytics teams, third party specialist rugby data and analytics providers capture a staggering level of performance data. This can be used to train Machine Learning (ML) models to identify patterns and generate predictive insights of players’ performance and even expected scores. As well as supporting coaches, this helps broadcasters tell the story of the game for match day coverage and build up, and betting firms to set their odds.
With this technology revolution in rugby, the importance – and value – of data professionals is steadily increasing. Naturally, these individuals are likely to have an interest in the sport, however the emphasis here is on professionals with strong data and analytics skills who can translate what they find into useful information for coaching teams to use in their decisions. And they certainly have the ear of coaches. Their value is not just during team training and match day analysis and post-analysis, but also in assessing opposition team tactics and performance. Analysts can identify patterns in their upcoming opponents to better prepare for their strengths and capitalise on their weakness.
Naturally, a sizeable portion of a rugby team’s budget goes on the players, so choosing the players that will give them the best return on their investment is key. At a league level, the hope is always to snaffle that little known player who is on the cusp of greatness. During an international tournament, the head coach needs to know that the players in the squad have the right mix of skills that can be adapted and switched around to respond to evolving World Cup challenges, such as injuries or red cards and the conveyor belt of opposition teams that they may come up against.
Data and analytics play an integral role to player recruitment, because coaching teams cannot attend every league game to draw their own conclusions about players, or make important decisions based on sight alone. Data gathered about player performance on the pitch is crucial to making recruitment decisions.
Rugby club coaching teams have embraced new technologies to improve their training programmes, including extensive use of sophisticated video analysis software, as well as GPS tracking devices, through which coaching teams can monitor the physical demands on a player during training to avoid injury or overexertion and ensure players are match-ready.
Phone apps are being used to track player wellbeing by recording, for example, their post-match recovery and other details such as mood and sleeping patterns. This allows coaches to gather important information to monitor the wellbeing of their players in a way that they would not have time to do on a one-to-one basis with a whole squad.
There have also been great advancements in player safety through technology. One example is impact sensors being built into players’ gum shields to help medics assess the likelihood of concussion following an impact to the head.
The influx of wearable tech and hoards of data to analyse of course has its downsides. With such advancements, players can feel under constant pressure to achieve their personal performance indicators which are relentlessly tracked and shared, with an echo of Big Brother. These vast quantities of data on players’ personal performance also bring with them data security concerns and questions over ownership.
There are also arguments to suggest that an over-dependence on data removes the human element, leaving little room for the passion and intuitive magic of rugby legends of the past. But, as in all things, finding moderation and balance is the key and there is no doubt that technology and the use of data and analytics has pushed the game to a new level of competitiveness, as well as safety, something which is extremely important in contact sport at this level. Progress will not move backwards.
Each club and national team have their own relationship with data and how they use the myriad of different data sources. Continuously reviewing and defining this relationship will be key to managing the role and impact of data on players, clubs and future Rugby World Cup tournaments.
If you are interested in finding out more about what data analytics has to offer your organisation or would like to put your data analysis skills to work on the rugby pitch – get in touch with one of our consultants today.