Clever use of match data could be the catalyst for creating a new England
Analysing mountains of data on players is key if Jones wants to maximise the efficiency of his side
Eddie Jones used a good analogy this week when discussing how rugby union can make better use of the mountains of data available to teams and players.
He referred to Mako Vunipola’s ball-carrying, explaining that Vunipola might make 15 carries in a game, and each carry takes an average of three seconds. How do we then analyse what he is doing during the remaining 79 minutes and 15 seconds when he is working off the ball? How do we increase his efficiency? That is effectively what data is for, getting the best out of your current situation, working with your energy levels in the most efficient way.
What an increased analysis of data might lead you towards is a more zonal game. You can break the field up into channels, and tell players not to leave their channel. Will Greenwood was one of the best at this; I cannot really remember him going into the 15-metre channels, he simply patrolled the middle part of the field. To save your props’ energy, Mako might only play in the right 15-metre channel, with Kyle Sinckler only operating in the left one. They will clear out and carry in their respective channels, meaning they do not need to run across the field.
I have spent a lot of time over the years talking to Brian Ashton about playing the game with two scrum-halves, splitting the pitch left and right.
With the proper interpretations now at the ruck, quickening up the breakdown, the thing now slowing
Increased analysis might lead to a more zonal game. You can break the field up into channels
it down is the arrival of the scrum-half to each ruck and their ability to distribute the ball. If you have two nines covering half of the pitch each, they have less ground to make up and you can increase the pace. You would have to lose a winger to field two scrum-halves, and ideally one of them would be able to play wing. Maybe I might even come out of retirement.
The same could be said with the centres, do you copy what happens in rugby league with one playing on the left and one on the right? Could you also have two defensive lines that work in tandem?
The analysis of that data could be really useful in shaping how the game looks in five, 10, 20 years’ time. It may bring to the fore those ideas that have been around for a while and considered to be pipe dreams, if you can prove with numbers that those ideas work and can make the game more efficient.
While I am the biggest advocate for playing from the heart and enjoying the emotion of the sport, because that is what we all love, I have spent a huge amount of time analysing the game.
After my A-levels I pretty much watched four to five hours of rugby per day. I was not putting it into data and it was not the same as with modern technology, where you can type in “ruck” and every single ruck will pop up on your screen. I was rewinding the VHS bit by bit to study people’s footwork and the angles they were running at.
At BT Sport now, we receive tons of data from our specialist and he can give us anything we want – line-out success rates, gain-line metres – breaking it down into players and teams. The clubs get all of this data, but in my opinion, no one yet has become an expert in understanding the use of the data, or has remodelled their game to make maximum use of it.
Everybody knows the Moneyball story with the Oakland Athletics in baseball, but that was more about talent recognition rather than talent development, which is working out where to use your best players at the best times.
If Jones wants to make these changes and adapt the way we play, you have to do it with analysis. The problem with that is you initially do not have enough data or a big enough sample size to give you a definitive answer. You have to go a little bit on gut feeling to begin with, which is what Eddie tends to do, until you have 10, 20, 50 games where you can see the benefits of using a big winger such as Joe Cokanasiga as a No 8 in attacking scrums, for example.
Those ideas require a spark. Rugby has been uniform for years, and it is rife now to be broken up a little bit. Maybe better use of the data available will be the catalyst that leads to that happening.
Applied force: Data can help ensure that Mako Vunipola’s power is used to best effect