Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Numbers tell the tale...

By Gordon Hanlon, DARC

Rugby is constantly evolving and teams are always looking for a way to improve. One of those ways has been with the advent of technology in modern rugby. We have seen an explosion in Statistics, Analytics and Performance Measurement at the domestic level. Teams are embracing the fact that Statistics can help them assess their own players, their team’s functionality and the opposition.

In 2010, the Bradford Bulls introduced something the Rugby world had never seen. It introduced individual player GPS. The GPS chips monitor the player’s performance and provides live feedback to the staff regarding distance covered, impacts and accelerations, for example. It allows the teams to be more prospective rather than retrospective. Will Douglas, Munster’s Sport Scientist has said that GPS helps them to manage load and output in training. They monitor the player’s thresholds to keep them fresh for games.

Adam Beard was the head of Strength & Conditioning with 2013 British & Irish Lions. His main focus was on “metres per minute” for each player. He has a desire to push players beyond the comfort zone and tracking the numbers carefully allows them to do so. Beard has said “The big thing about the GPS is that we don’t use it to hold guys back, we use it to increase performance”

That’s at the very highest level and it is extremely helpful. How can it be applied to the domestic game here and what are the pitfalls if not done correctly?

We are starting to see in-game analytics at the professional level and this has been the base for most amateur statistics. Things like number of carries, tackles made and rucks entered are generally the primary metrics seen. The teams involved have access to a much wider range of measurements, though. What we are seeing is the dumbed down version for a quick five second graphic during the broadcast.

Most teams are using this as a base to build their analytical model. They find it useful with player selections, identifying trends amongst the team, and they can start to develop a base line for each position in their system. Is this truly reflective of the game that is being played though?

If we take two players, both of whom attempted 10 tackles in a game. Player A made 9 and Player B made 7, missing three. If we are measuring tackles made then clearly the first one was more effective, but is that accurate? If we expand the model to say Player A made 9 tackles where he conceded the gainline and on average gave up 2 metres as he fell backwards every time resulting in zero turnovers. Player B made 7 positive tackles where he dominated the corridor of power and forced the attack backwards generating 3 turnovers off his 7 tackles. Now who is more effective?

Johnathan Atkeison is the Performance Analyst for the USA Womens Eagles. The Eagles are using Sportcode to track players in games and at practice. Player skill executions are graded in 11 categories: Pass, Catch, Strike run, Strike set up, Ruck entry, Ball in contact, Kick, Kick receipt, Tackle, Post-tackle and Counter ruck. The Skills and grading criteria identified and defined are in conjunction with the Women’s National Team coaching staff. One of the key things they focus on is physical output, not minutes on the field. A prop playing 60 minutes will have a vastly different output than a wing playing in a torrential downpour with gale-force winds. Generally the ball will not make it past the inside centre and there will be a lot of scrums so clearly their outputs will be vastly different.

These are all physical measurements. I believe there is not enough work done on the mental side of things. Decision-making is a huge part of rugby and educating our players should be the number one goal of all those involved in coaching. Statistics are great, but they must be used in the right manner.

When the Texas Rugby Union re-launched its representative competition with the three regions forming All-Star teams to compete in a competition in 2013, I was very privileged to be the Northern program’s performance analyst. I instituted statistical analysis which was greatly received and never done before in the area. It wasn’t just a basic tackles made and rucks entered though. There was an in depth study done on the defining roles and key aspects of a successful game. I took these results and constructed a complete statistical analysis review system. The Northern All Star team was undefeated in the competition and beat Belmont Shore at the Las Vegas Invitational.

We have carried this attention to detail over to Dallas Athletic Rugby Club and have improved on it with incredible results. Guys are being realistic about their performances now, wingers who would have said they had a great game previously because they rucked well, tackled strongly and created a turnover during the game are now seeing that they knocked the ball on 3 times when in a scoring opportunity, they consistently failed to beat their opposite number and chose the wrong option to pass to when scoring opportunities presented themselves.

As I said earlier, our analysis must include decision-making and the mental side of things not just the physical acts of Rugby. The more knowledgeable our players are, the easier it becomes to make the correct decision in the game. Here is an example of the criteria we assess in the passing tab of our review:
  • # of Possessions 
  • # of Passes 
  • Pass to Poss % 
  • # Passes Creating Space 
  • Pass % to Ideal option Versus Pass for sake of passing 
  • Bad Passes 
  • Worse Passes after receiving bad pass 
  • Forward Passes 
  • Interceptions 
You can see it is extremely in depth and not just simply the act of did you pass or not. We take great pride at DARC in being the most prepared team on the field each and every Saturday. The guys know their jobs, goals and targets which we need to hit in order to win that day.

Statistics can enhance the development of a team if used correctly. I have also found it has created competition between guys to see who has the most tackles, rucks, metres gained etc. People want to push themselves because they know everything they do is being recorded. This a simple thing which can help elevate a team from contenders to champions. Too often coaches lament the fact that they only have their guys twice a week for 2 hours or so. The development of your players is not solely dependent on those practice sessions. We must continue to strive for improvement outside of practice and providing in depth analysis for the players to look at themselves is one of the best ways to do that.


  1. "There's lies, damned lies, and statistics..."

    Your points are spot on; raw count metrics like # tackles, # rucks, etc. are vanity metrics and meaningless without context. Environmental variables and team dynamics interact with these vanity metrics and can heavily skew the story that needs to be told. The value comes in providing sufficient context, and creating relative performance indicators that are creative and geared towards the objective of the team (e.g., higher work rate = # meters/min).

    And I hope USA Rugby opens their eyes (and pockets) to analytics, in that respect. There are many eager analytics gurus waiting to jump out of tech into something closer to their passions, myself included.

    Useful post, thanks for sharing.

    1. USAR has their eyes opened to analytics and such are used, just not the way everyone thinks they should be, right?