The English Rugby Football League is using data analytics software from Qlik to improve performance and secure better player safety.
Richard Hunwicks, head of human performance at the RFL, says the sport is among the leaders in sports analytics. “People still don’t appreciate that the amount of data collected [in Rugby League] is huge, with regard to individual players, the teams, the national side – every little detail,” he adds.
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While Rugby Union might be compared to chess, League is like draughts – League player Jon Wilkin says as much in a BBC Radio 5 Live clip – and is suited to the application of data analytics.
Hunwicks says: “Rugby League is on a par with, if not better than, other sports. It is not a huge sport in worldwide terms, but it is still a big sport. We are doing things that are cutting edge, and we hope to make people more aware of what we are doing.”
Rugby League – historically a northern English, working-class sport in comparison with Union – sees the ball in play more because there is less contesting of possession. The code has two fewer players per team than Union (13 compared with 15), so tends to be (even) more physical.
“There is a platform of coaches [in League] who are open-minded, practical and scientific,” says Hunwicks. And while data analytics is not the “be all and end all”, he says it does have an important place.
The use of data analytics does not merely involve analysing a player’s capacity to perform a set series of moves – tackle, get up, retreat, tackle, get up, retreat, and so on – which are intensely physically demanding, but also covers their blood pathologies and other physiological phenomena.
Hunwicks says the RFL is getting a “data display and analysis platform” from Qlik, “which gives us a scoring system for all individuals and teams”.
In 2015, the England national team’s small data science unit built an app that could analyse data to inform player selection for different games. It looked at all the players’ latest match and training metrics – from how far they travelled on the pitch to the number of tries scored or assisted, through to their average speed.
These statistics were then matched up against available data on the opposing team’s skillsets and recent performances. It was then visualised in QlikView and presented back to England team coach Steve McNamara so he could make more informed decisions about which players to pick.
His team defeated the world’s top-ranked side, New Zealand, 20-14 last November.
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The RFL is also the governing body for the clubs, and QlikView is used to analyse data on young players coming through England’s development system. According to Qlik, its software is used to look at young players’ performance data to see how they could fit into the international team.
Hunwicks confirms that the data is centralised and made accessible to the RFL clubs’ coaches.
It is also being made available to academics in the sports analytics field at the universities of Chester, Liverpool John Moores and Bolton, with a view to the RFL benefiting, says Hunwicks.
Jonathan Roberts, director of performance and coaching at the RFL, says: “Ultimately, we wanted to find a way to make better sense of all the match data and statistics we already had within the league, so we could see what was truly happening with regard to the England team’s performance.
“We wanted to either be able to challenge misconceptions or use data-based evidence to prove to ourselves that certain team line-ups, training initiatives or tactics simply weren’t working.
“With QlikView, we can pull all of our data together and the insights are there for us to use for future team development and make tactical changes to improve the way we are playing.”