England’s poor showing on home soil at the 2015 RWC didn’t bode well for this year’s Six Nations, but the signs so far are that the team is heading in the right direction under new manager, Eddie Jones. For fans of every country though, their experience is likely to be significantly enhanced thanks to a drive to provide them with better data.
Data analytics is playing an increasingly important role in the coaching of all sports, most famously baseball, but soccer, rugby, and cricket are also looking at every stat possible to enhance performance. The applications in rugby are many, and everything is measured, from how long the fly half holds onto a ball before releasing, to how quickly players get to the breakdown.
Saracens technical analyst Bill Gerrard explains that he needs to ‘detect the strengths and weaknesses in my weekly opposition analysis that Saracens’ coaches can use in their game plan. They will look at my report, pick up on things, and then study match footage in detail - and from that analysis they will feed tactical insights to the players in the run up to a game.’ He has used analytics to draw insights that suggest teams that emphasize a kicking game will be more successful than those who keep hold of the ball, noting that ‘the more you play in your own half, the more likely you are to be turned over. And the more you are turned over nearer your try line, the more you are likely to concede.’
Analytics is not only helping to benefit coaches though. This year, the RBS 6 Nations is working alongside its technology partner Accenture to improve fans’ experiences as well. Every game will see roughly 2 million rows of data collected and processed in real time to drive visualizations. Microsoft SQL Server works as the main database for storing the match data, while Alteryx helps to shape the data for visualizations, with Flik assisting with data visualization tools on the front end, all of which is powered by Amazon Web Services and goes on to web, iOS and Android apps.
Thanks to this, fans can get information on every aspect of play in real time, the distance of kicks and the success rate of similar attempts. They are also furnished with stats on rucks, turnovers, handling errors and a number of other areas, which helps them to feel part of the action.
While this is a valuable way of immersing fans in the action, it is really through AI that analytics will come into its own for driving engagement. Retail versions of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets are due this year, and Accenture is already demonstrating how the Oculus Rift DK 2 VR headset can do things like create a virtual stadium and locker room that fans can explore and interact with. Fans can also watch clips from previous matches while standing in the virtual stadium, and statistics and match information can be compared based on data crunched in Accenture’s data visualization system.
Rugby, while a highly popular sport across the globe, is yet to reach anywhere near the heights of soccer. If they are going to increase their reach, it is vital that analytics be used in every way, not just for performance, but to improve fan engagement. The Six Nations, as one of the most watched tournaments, has a massive role to play in helping this drive. Even the romantics who think data analytics has no place in the actual playing of the game have to admit that it can hugely boost the profile of both the tournament and the sport.