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Big Data in Rugby

The use of data analytics in sports is not a new phenomenon, the Wisden Cricketers Almanac which was first published in 1864 is a great example of that. Formula 1 teams for a number of years have turned to high speed analytics of big data to try to achieve a competitive edge. Even the British Olympic Cycling team use data to analyse each turn of the pedal. The change from amateur sport to professionalism, driven by better funding and commercialism, has increased the demand on atheletes and coaches alike. In recent years, data and analytics has stepped into sport to try and provide teams with a competitive edge and none more so than in Rugby.

The growth in Rugby as a participation sport over recent years has been phenomenal; it certainly appears the fastest growing sport in America. In 2015 the Rugby World Cup generated over £250 million in revenue, with 2.47 million tickets sold to 480,000 fans. Only the 2014 FIFA World Cup had more attendance. The introduction of rugby 7’s at the Rio Olympic Games has only bolstered the profile of Rugby as a global sport.

Look at any international rugby match and the manager and senior coaching staff will be sitting high in the stand behind a bank of laptops monitoring the match.

The ever increasing size, strength and speed of the players has been slowly increasing since the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987. The graph below highlights the rise.

   Source: BBC

With this increase in the players’ physicality comes side-effects.  The number of cases of players suffering from concussion has been steadily rising. A case in point was the concussion suffered by Liam Williams in the World Cup which saw the player being stretchered from the field. There has been progress in the sport including the introduction of the Headcase program which introduces a concussion protocol which teams, coaches and players must follow after a head injury. In the 2014/15 Aviva Championship a number of Saracens players wore monitors behind the ear to measure the force of hits sustained to the head.

In 2011 the University of Chester collected 304 sets of data from 54 premiership matches. The study looked at the performance of specific roles within the game. Data was also collected from accelerometers to assess the impact of a tackle on players. Role forward to 2016 and Viper Rugby from StatSports are used by elite teams to monitor collision loads on players as well as the stresses placed on players during a scrum.  This analysis can be used to tailor the training of individual players as well as to provide useful in-game analysis.

Accenture has teamed up with RBS to provide an analytical package for the 2017 Six Nations tournament. The solution will create about 6 million lines of data per game which will need to be analysed. IBM has partnered with the RFU to provide a similar solution. Both solutions are anticipated to provide detailed player statistics and insights which can be accessed by both the team management and fans. The insights should provide details of changes in strategy on the performance of both teams and players.

The increase in physicality and the demand on players to be almost indestructible, plus the growth of money in rugby, will only increase the need for managers to use big data and analytics to get the kind of edge which could mean the difference between winning and losing.

Blog post by Richard Skeggs (Business Data Manager for the Business and Local Government Data Research Centre), please contact Richard if you’d like to discuss any of the content of this post.

Published 17 October 2016