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Statistical Data Analysis

England rugby league coaches query data for World Cup glory

Overshadowed in the media sometimes by rugby union, rugby league is arguably the superior game, combining elite athleticism and pace with extraordinary strength, bravery and skill. In England, where the game originated, league went immediately professional when it split off from union in 1895 and today it is played in Australia, New Zealand, France, Pacific Island nations and other countries around the world. Similar in many ways to union, a much later convert to professionalism, league remains distinct in terms of its rules and culture.

Richard Hunwicks is head of human performance at rugby league’s governing body the RFL, and a former strength and conditioning coach at Leeds Rhinos and Salford City Reds. It’s his job to help players get the most out of players’ talents and like many modern sporting coaches he leans on technology to get an edge over rivals.

“A lot of people underestimate the amount of time effort that goes in,” Hunwicks tells me when we speak by phone. “I’m always the first to praise rugby league professionals for the way in which they conduct themselves and prepare to play. We’re lucky in that we get to select from a really talented pool and it’s my job to make them as good as they can be. We’re here to facilitate the athletes and help them get the most of themselves and the game they possibly can.”

Working with England head coach Steve McNamara, Hunwicks takes every bit and byte he can from modern sports science, combing through match, training sessions, GPS and physiological data and stats, using QlikView business data analysis software to create a unique dashboard view of key indicators.

Hunwicks and McNamara can see players’ latest match and training metrics from average speed to pitch coverage and of course tries scored or assisted. This data feeds into training plans and, ultimately, team selection. 

Sport, despite all the new tools, will never be just a numbers game though. Hunwicks places a huge value on data but is aware that human factors and interpersonal relationships play a role too.

“The numbers might say one thing but the athletes might say another,” he says. “We rely on the data to inform day-to-day practice and also look at subjective factors - we pool all that. Generally you want to be picking from the best athletes but [data] doesn’t always teach you the best sorts of players [to select and build a team from]. You do get anomalies within the system. I can think of one or two players who report very extreme levels of data that would sit outside the norms but their feedback is the opposite.”

Hunwicks came to a game in the throes of change and says league has been affected “massively” by the digitisation of information.

“I’ve been lucky to have got involved in the game for over 10 years and the profile has changed,” he says. “We look at lean muscle tissues speed, strength….”

Match tactics can be more sophisticated, thanks to technology. England’s coaches can get information on whether players tend to have trigger movement to their left or right when they run with the ball, for example, and adapt game plans or training around their findings.

Technology also plays a key role in understanding the causes of injuries and how to treat them. The England team can benefit from that data and mix it with player remarks and learn from what happens when the collision is at the upper- or lower-body or if the player is wrestled to the ground after that contact. By using the growing mountain of data coaches can create better, safer training schedules on a player-by-player bases.

“Collisions are very like being in a series of small car crashes,” Hunwicks says. “It’s a battle for 80 minutes and it’s very, very hard. These are warriors.”

Hunwicks says he is always looking for new sources of information. Modern players often are tracked by GPS and have their heart rates monitored. Data is shared with coaches from other sports such as Manchester United in football (the soccer version) or the Buffalo Bills in American football. Some information will be transferable between sports and Hunwicks cites the example of tech-savvy World Cup-winning England rugby union coach Sir Clive Woodward who had success in athletics too with the Great Britain Olympics team and was briefly involved in soccer.

Hunwicks is preaching to a receptive audience and says players that don’t get the importance of sports science today are “few and far between”.

“Adrian Morley had a fantastic career and so did Jamie Peacock. These fantastic professionals embraced all of the best practices we talked about.”

He is also very open to the idea of sharing data to make the game more readily understandable and interesting to spectators and viewers.

“We’re very keen to show the world rugby league isn’t limited to smaller audiences,” he says. “We need to showcase what we’re doing and make it available to a worldwide audience.”

The England squad and coaching team has two big targets in mind: the 2017 World Cup to be held in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea and the 2021 World Cup.

So the big question: are we, England, going to win?

“Absolutely,” he says… and this time without any pause to run the numbers.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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