West Midlands local group meeting: Rugby vs statistics

This event, organised by the RSS West Midlands Local Group, took place at the University of Warwick on 16 October 2019, neatly scheduled between the group and knock-out stages of the rugby world cup. It was a panel event with three speakers: Stuart Farmer, rugby statistician at SFMS Ltd; Marc Turner, senior performance analyst at Harlequins RFC and Professor Phil Scarf of the University of Salford. The event was well attended, with a notably diverse audience, representing fifteen different affiliations, including local schools and rugby clubs.

Stuart Farmer led the event talking about his experiences of the development of the use of data within rugby union. He explained how over time he built up a database of results information, originally consisting of just the most basic information, match dates and scores, but eventually extending to full match details, as well as biographical information on former players. He contrasted this to the vast amount of data now available in professional rugby, for example, on in-game events (tackles, breaks, passes etc), and highlighted some of the users of these data: governing bodies, media, insurers, performance analysts, and gamblers. He finished with some interesting world cup statistics.

Next, Marc Turner spoke on his work as a performance analyst at a professional rugby club. He began by describing the sources and nature of the data. He explained the high levels of detail that are available and how they are used to influence decisions, for example analysing an opposition and the influence on strategy and team selection. Opposition analysis was broken down into a consideration of Who (did) What, Where (on the pitch), When (during the match), and Why. He also presented some headline findings from a principal component analysis on the factors most influential to match outcomes. Lastly, he spoke about match day, and the high pressure environment and quick turnarounds involved.

Finally, Phil Scarf spoke about his work on the “Uncertainty of Outcome Hypothesis”. He explained that in general there are more upsets in soccer than in rugby due to the lower frequency of scoring in soccer. He explained how he modelled various sports using Poisson matches, and used this to calculate a measure of the separation of team abilities. He discussed how competitive balance may be encouraged extrinsically with measures such as salary caps and drafts, but concluded that it was desirable to promote competitive balance intrinsically in rugby union by reverting to a system where points were awarded only for kicks, and tries became an opportunity for a kick (in line with the original meaning of the term ‘try’).

A number of questions were asked. In response to one, Marc explained that one big constraint on analysis in rugby union was the availability of spatio-temporal data. In soccer, in top leagues and internationals, the position of all players at all times is recorded by cameras, and the data for all players are available to analysts at all clubs. The expense and technology requirement of this means it is not yet available in rugby union.

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