While soccer’s version of the World Cup has been around since 1930, Rugby Union’s most prestigious competition is only in its eight edition.
No one country has dominated the competition, with the seven previous titles being shared between Australia, New Zealand, South Africa - who all have two titles each - and England, whose single title came in 2003.
New Zealand start the tournament as favourites, but the competition will play host to a number of strong sides, heightening the importance of gaining any edge which could push home an advantage. As with a number of sports, data is increasingly playing a crucial role in doing this, and at this year’s Rugby World Cup it’s primed to take center stage.
Before we discuss data’s impact on the field, it’s important to highlight its other uses. Like with many Grand Slam tennis tournaments, a number of companies will be clamouring to partner with the competition so that they can make use of the event’s social media data. This will allow partners to track people’s interactions with the tournament, giving them the opportunity to target tailored products at them.
On the field, data has arguably revolutionised how coaches go about their work. Going into the World Cup, data analysis will help coaches create game plans to cater towards specific teams. In an article in the Guardian, Bill Gerrard discussed how a kicking game - despite the opinions of rugby purists - was the most effective way to win matches. There’s a real tendency for coaches to opt for an in-the-hand game, but kicking works, and there’s now data to back that up. New Zealand, for example, are famous for keeping their score ticking over with effective set-piece kicking and kicking for territory.
As with soccer, people are concerned that analytics could harm intuition within sport. But Sir Clive Woodward - who led England to glory in 2003 - firmly believes that whoever wins the data battle tends to win the competition. When he first showed his players Prozone, they were baffled, but as soon as they learnt how to use the system alone it ‘took off and went from there’ according to the former England coach. When players understand data analysis they can make their own evaluations as to their performance.
Another example of technology in rugby was seen at the Six Nations. You may have noticed England’s players wearing shirts with small square boxes attached to their jerseys, these boxes are a form of wearable tech, allowing coaches to see when their player’s are becoming fatigued. Whether this will be used at the World Cup remains to be seen, but it again highlights the growing importance of tech.
The Rugby World Cup is one of the sporting calendar’s highlights and technology can only increase the quality of the competing teams and the event as a whole.