How Big Data And Visualization Helped England Win The World Cup

In 2003 the England rugby team won the World Cup with Data


2003 was a good time to live in the UK, property prices were increasing, jobs were plentiful and most importantly the English rugby team had won the World Cup in Australia.

One of the keys to this was put down to the superior players that the England team had, from arguably the best fly half of all time, Jonny Wilkinson, through to their leader Martin Johnson who controlled the scrum and lead from the front. They had a team of the fittest, fastest and strongest players, but this alone was not the reason they won.

We heard from Sir Clive Woodward in November 2014 at the Sports Performance & Tech summit about how he ingrained a data culture within the team in order to improve player understanding of their performance data.

When Sir Clive started in the role, most of the team didn’t even know how to use a laptop, let alone relatively complex data analysis. This is simply because rugby had only become a professional sport in 1995, meaning that the data inherent in sports like tennis and football had not had as much of an impact in rugby.

To make sure that the team not only use the data, but understand it, Woodward would give the players a CD with their data and video on, which they would take two days to analyse. They would then present this analysis of their personal performance to him and set targets from it. In this way they needed to demonstrate to their manager that they were genuinely data driven and capable of making changes to the way they operate based on what the data demonstrates.

Through implementing this throughout every element of the team, it meant that everybody was on the same level and more complex concepts could then be introduced and improvements in the team could improve even further. Knowing what to look for in the data after the game and then being able to implement these next time they played was a key component to the overall success of the team.

Since then the use of analytics and data visualization in rugby has become the norm rather than the outlier, with the best teams across the world also possessing some of the best playing and analytical staff. The understanding of players also plays a vital role in making this work.

Given the different needs and skill sets required by players in different positions, the data collected needs to cast a wide net. For instance, a fullback will need to know entirely different information to a hooker. A winger will need totally different information from a second row. This means that coaches can only do so much and it takes analytical skills of the players themselves to decide what they should know and how to improve within their position.

The 2003 England Rugby team spearheaded this thanks in no small part to Sir Clive Woodward’s background. After starting his playing career he took a short hiatus to gain a Bachelor of Science degree in sports science followed by a Postgraduate Certificate in Education. This meant that rather than a pure rugby coaching background, he understood concepts and communication techniques to make the players understand what was needed.

This is something that coaches struggle with even today, but through clear methodology and concise use of data, the England team of 2003 became champions of the world.


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