Understanding the Rugby Analysts

Date published: January 22 2017

Watch any televised game of rugby now and you will undoubtedly see a row of people sat behind club branded laptops.

Most rugby aficionados will know that these are the team analysts but their knowledge of the role is likely to end there. This article should help shed some light on what their role consists of and the people who go into this profession.

Analysts were once the preserve of elite level rugby but as money filters down into the lower reaches of the game the number of clubs employing their services have increased.

My own rugby background includes a stint as an analyst for a National One side in England, third division for those unfamiliar with the English leagues. At that level the majority of sides don’t have analysts, although they will have coaches doing a similar thing, but it’s not exactly unheard of, after all, all matches have to be filmed and placed online for all teams to access.

This is primarily for the purpose of assessing refereeing but it also allows teams to scout opponents ahead of the game. My role consisted of providing statistical information back to the coaching teams; tackles, missed tackles, runs etc and identifying consistent weaknesses in the opposition’s defense, set piece and attack.

As the level of rugby increases, and with it the amount of money that can be thrown at an analyst team, the type and amount of stats that can be gathered improves. Teams that play in the top leagues across the World will often have many analysts on the payroll.

Some will be more junior analysts, responsible for splitting up the games and training sessions into specific segments, known as coding. This might be something like clipping the video to show just lineouts, from time the ball is thrown in to the time the referee calls the lineout over.

It could also be something broader such as every time the opposition got into their team’s 22. This job is made easier by high tech, and often very expensive, coding software that allows the task to be done in real time as the game is played.

There will also be more experienced analysts who are responsible for digesting the statistics, finding patterns that can be exploited, and passing this information on to the coaching staff and players. Often, coaches and players don’t have a statistical background and so these many thousands of data points will need to be condensed down into a few lines of actionable information.

To find out more about the role of analyst at the highest level, I spoke to analysts from across the UK and further afield. The analysts who kindly agreed to help are: George Murray (Munster), Nathan Swarbrick (Doncaster Knights), Elliot Corcoran (Pau), Niall Malone (Ulster), and Cathal Garvey (Australia). I first asked them how they ended up in their current job:

GM: I was lucky enough to be involved in rugby at the birth of professionalism in the game, being an active player and holding a part-time position in the development office of Leinster in 2000. I took a keen interest in the coaching and educational side of the game and cutting up VHS tapes of age-grade games and providing feedback to players and selectors led me down the path of becoming a Performance Analyst and eventually led into a full time role with Munster in 2002.

NS: I had previously worked with Warrington Wolves (rugby league), where the current director of rugby at Doncaster knows Emma Edwards (head of analysis there). When it was mentioned that Doncaster were in need of a new analyst, Emma referred myself to them and called me saying I should get in touch.

EC: In college I studied Sports and Exercise Sciences and one of my modules was “Sports Analysis” which really interested me.  While in college I started working with my local rugby team Cork Constitution. After two years working there Munster was hiring a full-time assistant analyst, which I applied for and was successful. I was an assistant with Munster for five years and in my last two years I worked very closely with Simon Mannix. He was then hired as Director of Rugby in Pau and offered me the head position here.

NM: When I retired from Professional rugby in 2002 at the age of 32, I was keen to pursue a career in coaching rugby. My first appointment was as a player coach at a junior rugby club in Bangor. In 2006 I got a job with the Ulster rugby Academy as a backs specialist. During my time with the Ulster Academy, Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Stuart Olding and Iain Henderson graduated from school to the Senior Ireland squad. In 2012 a job opportunity arose with the Senior Ulster team as a Performance Analyst.

CG: I was lucky enough to get the opportunity in 2014 from the then-head coach, Ewen McKenzie after over two years working for the ARU as a technical business analyst. My background is not typical but I saw it as a perfect fit given my technology experience and rugby background.

With a limited amount of time between games, analysts are constantly under pressure to flag up issues from the previous game and also to look ahead at their upcoming opponents. But with these contrasting efforts, how do analysts plan their week?

NM: I would divide my analysis working week into thirds; one third of my time spent analysing the previous game, one third preparing for the next game and one third spent working for the game in two weeks time.

EC: It varies a bit from week to week but I would say about 25-30 percent on reviewing the previous game and the remainder preparing for next week’s opposition. Our systems in attack and defence stay pretty much the same each week so when we review the previous game we are then also working towards the next game.

GM: The initial 24 to 48 hours after a game would be spent largely on statistically analysing our performance and providing a detailed report on the previous game. A large part of the Performance Analyst’s preparation work is done approximately a week to 10 days in advance of our next opposition.

We will work this far ahead in order to have all our observations and coding work ready for coaches and players to begin digesting immediately after the impending game. This allows coaches to have their prep work on the next opposition immediately ready to roll out straight after the current game regardless of the result.

CG: Taking a usual Saturday-to-Saturday cycle, we try to get our review done by Monday morning and present it to the players then. By the afternoon we are already looking ahead to Saturday and our strategy against our next opponents.

NS: 30 percent is looking at our previous game from the weekend. With 70 percent on opposition I would probably say. The coaches lead a lot of their own analysis on opposition as they have a greater understanding in to the tactics etc, with myself being used as a hub of information to get them certain stats and footage together.

Reviewing the opposition’s previous games is a huge part of an analyst’s role but with teams able to change their style of play on a weekly basis and with injuries causing weekly lineup changes, they can’t just rely on what happened a week ago.

COVENTRY, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 11: Pat Lam, Head Coach of Connacht watches from the stands during the European Rugby Champions Cup match between Wasps and Connacht Rugby at the Ricoh Arena on December 11, 2016 in Coventry, United Kingdom. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

When analysts try and predict the future by looking at the opposition’s previous performances, how far do they need to look back to make sure they get an accurate impression of the capabilities of their opponent?

CG: We generally concentrate on the last five or so games, but take the whole international season into account. Regarding kind of things we are looking for, we analyse attacking and defensive structures, key threats and any opportunities to exploit. The set-piece and kicking game is also scrutinised to ensure we are armed with the correct information going into our week.

NS: On average we’d look back at about five games. But this varies depending on whether there are cup games, results, their form, who is likely to start for them, etc.

GM: We wouldn’t have a specific number but would ensure we can assess how or if a team might change up their style of play and strategy. We will look at games when we last played that particular opposition to identify specific trends and depending on international player availability etc at certain times of the year we may have to dig a little deeper to get a better feel of a team operating at its optimum. Key opportunities in attack and trends in the opposition style of play are the priority focus for most analysts.

EC: I usually look back at five-six games of the opposition. With their defence I am looking for what the opposition are doing defensively from lineouts with different numbers and scrums and in each zone of the pitch. I’m looking for where the space is within their defensive system and which of our attack methods will be best used against that defence.

We will have the players not involved run the attack and defence like the next week’s opposition during training so when it comes to the game most of it is familiar and we can make good decisions on both sides of the ball. Clarity is a big thing for us; if we know everything about our own attack and defence systems then we can bring huge intensity in everything we do.

NM: I don’t tend to look at complete matches from kick off to final whistle. My software allows me to combine as many opposition games as I want into one file. I then work through the opposition play in sections of the pitch. For example I will watch all their scrums in the attacking “22” or all of their lineouts in their defensive “22” etc.

When reviewing the previous week’s game, it is important to have a good idea of what can be changed during training that week. After all, if your fly half can’t distribute that well, he’s unlikely to make improvements in a week that haven’t been made in the previous 20 odd years.

GM: This is generally a feel thing, statistics will highlight a certain amount of area’s that are going well or might need addressing but observing what’s important for the team and what will have the greatest impact at a given time is vital as you can’t cover everything.

Individual performance measures will give us an indication on what areas the player needs to improve on and tracking these over time can help us continually evaluate our players and consistently try to improve them.

NM: Individual and team performances can change dramatically from one week to the next so there are opportunities to make massive changes in performance in a very short period of time. I would hope that we don’t intentionally ignore anything.

EC: We will never ignore anything and always work on weaknesses from the previous week but as I mentioned our attack and defence structures pretty much stay the same, so when we work on aspects that didn’t go as well as we would have liked we are also working on and improving those same aspects that need to be accurate for the next week.

NS: Usually we put aside uncharacteristic events and monitor if they turn to common events. At professional level obviously players already have their core skills on point majority of the time. If it’s a specific skill then it will take time for the player to go away and perfect it.

In the week, it’s usually tactical tweaks. Players have 1-2-1 meetings with coaches first session back after games. This is where they can critique everything they have done. When I code the individual players, I also look to clip up anything they might have done off the ball, whether it’s a dummy line or a defensive structural error.

CG: Any breakdowns in game knowledge will certainly be addressed, but when it comes to individual skill execution in a given scenario, it won’t be dwelled upon but will feed into the player’s work-ons during training.

Despite so much pre-match effort, a lot of the value of an analyst comes when making in-game decisions to reflect unexpected trends that have arisen during the game.

GM: It’s important to cover both our own performance and the opposition’s, the fundamental goal of our analysis team is to “influence our team’s potential to win”, understanding ourselves and our opponents equally will aid us in giving accurate information to the coaching staff to hopefully have a positive effect on the outcome.

NS: The majority of feedback will be on ourselves and whether we are doing what we set out to do. This is something that the players can control. But if there is a weakness in the opposition, we identify it easier with analysis tools and get the messages on to the field quicker.

CG: As analysts we concentrate on certain areas which we have identified as being crucial to our game strategy, and give feedback to coaches on what we are seeing.

NM: Before a game we will have an expectation of what we think will happen. If I see something that either confirms or contradicts what we had expected then I would highlight this to the coaches.

For example if we had anticipated that a team would kick a lot from their own half but they appear to be counter attacking we could send messages to our wingers to chase with more intent in order to strengthen our “front line” defensive chase, instead of staying in the backfield to wait for a kick return. There is probably less discussion in the coaches’ box than people think.

EC: We have access to three or four different video angles during a game, which can make our live analysis quite detailed. My assistant, Paddy Sullivan is “coding” a game looking at multiple facets of the game and all that information is populated on to a live stats screen. We will always keep an eye on those stats and see if there is anything that might jump out at us as something we can fix there and then.

My live in-game analysis is like my pre-match work, I will look at and identify trends from the opposition. As I said most teams have the same structures in attack and defence but they might vary from week to week so it is up to me, and the coaches, to realise the differences in the opposition from what we prepared for, and get this information to the players. I am in direct contact with Director of Rugby Simon Mannix, who is on the sideline, feeding him important tactical information.

When nobody else is using performance analytics the advantage for the one team, which are doing it, is huge. However, now that all pro teams and many semi-pro teams are using the same tools, how great is the benefit?

CG: At Test level, the teams are going to be very strong, by being able to pick the best players in a country who are then coached by extremely talented coaches. So it’s certainly not easy to identify clear weaknesses. But you might find the odd scenario where they are vulnerable if you watch enough and identify a trend. Ultimately it comes back to backing your own team’s ability to play your game and read the picture in front of them come game-day.

NS: I think coaches are so on top of things now that they can pick out weaknesses from anywhere. It’s just executing them, and making sure we have our own plans in place and stick to them. But can also adapt when opposition or the officials do something we haven’t specifically planned for.

EC: It has become difficult, especially from an attack perspective. Teams are very well organised defensively so it is getting very difficult to identify weaknesses in their defensive setups.

Something we work on is patience in our attack because there will be space somewhere if we keep the ball for multiple phases and it is then all about identifying that space and making good decisions to attack that space.

NM: I don’t think it is difficult to identify weaknesses from opposition in their previous games at all. The problem is that it is difficult to accurately predict what will happen in the future. My job is to attempt to predict the future, and sometimes it works well but often an opposition team will completely change some of their strategy and then the players on the pitch have to react.

GM: Of course it’s always getting harder to analyse teams due to both the quality of player and the quality of coaching at the top level but the beauty of the game is that space can always be created because no two teams are the same, so the skill is to identify how best your team and its strategies can be best utilised to create space and opportunity.

Finally, with a life spent being paid to watch rugby, surely the dream for most people reading this, what do professional analysts look for when watching the game during their time off and what can we learn from this?

CG: Outside of my job, I watch the game to enjoy as it is my passion! For me, I think understanding not just what teams are doing but why teams are running certain plays/patterns, why they are kicking in a certain area of the field, why they have certain numbers in a lineout leads to understanding the game in more depth.

GM: An analyst is probably not the best person to watch a neutral game of rugby with, we tend to have a critical yet informed eye on the teams and players we are watching and can probably come across as annoying, trying to predict an event or deconstructing a moment in the game can frustrate your company at times.

In terms of what we watch outside of the job and what areas of the game other people can identify to gain greater understanding, I think identifying the physical, territorial and differing styles of play of two teams can really allow the viewer to see how their strategies are utilised to create scoring opportunities, force mistakes on the opposition or how the star players on each team use their skill sets to influence their team.

NM: I think some people watch rugby “through a telescope” and don’t see anything other than the ball. When I watch matches I’m interested in what is happening all over the pitch. I like to spot opportunities and try to predict what will happen next. I love to see good decision-making. I like to see a full-back who organises his wingers to cover the opposition kick options or a fly-half who sees an opportunity to sweep down a blindside that is poorly defended etc etc.

NS: I love other sports, I’m a big Liverpool FC fan, but will also follow the rugby obviously. I’ve always been into watching player movement off the ball. If I watch a game with mates or in he pub, I’ll be very quiet and just watch. Rather than shout at the TV screen.

I would say if you play rugby and want to learn how to get better, player movements off the ball is a big thing. Watch somebody in your position, as well as the player either side of them. What do they do to create the space.

In terms of understanding the game, territory is a big thing, as well as execution within certain areas. So grasping the kicking tactics. I would urge those people who groan when a player kicks rather the runs, to think “why?”  There is a reason why the players are playing kick tennis. It’s because they’ve analysed opposition weaknesses in broken field, and they’re waiting for that opportunity to attack.

EC: When watching games outside of my job I just find myself looking for quality pieces of play in both attack and defence from a team perspective that we could bring into our structures and of course I would always look at individuals from a recruitment perspective as well.

There are so many aspects of rugby that you could look at in more depth to try and understand what an analyst does from day to day but I think the best thing is to try and identify the space in the defensive systems of teams because for me that’s what rugby is about nowadays, it is all about seeing the space and attacking it, there has to be space somewhere, find it!!

Hopefully, after reading this you will have a greater understanding of the job that those guys, sat behind their laptops, do.

Plus, if you weren’t aware of the intelligence battle that is being fought at the top of the game, this might be an eye-opener about where the game is and where it is heading in the next few years.

by Sam Larner