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Former England and Lions great Jeremy Guscott is now a rugby union pundit for the BBC and a consultant in the field of data and telematics. Ahead of next month’s RBS Six Nations tournament, we sat down with the man Sir Clive Woodward once described as “the Prince of Centres” to discuss the critical role data now plays in the modern game and what the sport and business worlds can learn from one another when it comes to adopting data-led technology.

How much was data and technology a part of rugby union during your playing career? Did you get a sense of a transition while you were playing?

The concept of data has been around for a long time in rugby union. Over the years the data available has become more abundant, specific and refined. There’s been a gradual move towards greater detail and more ability to capture, report and feedback.

Back in 1989 when I made my debut for England, the fitness team consisted of one person and analysis was fairly basic. We were tested on speed, speed endurance, power and strength. Team and individual player analysis was prepared, again by just one person, and came in the form of a single video tape which would be paused and played to highlight key points.

Typically in today’s team management set up at an elite club you will have an entire department dedicated to sports science and performance and to both team and individual analysis.

How much did the game going professional impact on the adoption of data-led analysis?

Rugby has always been big on fitness, but the impact of professionalism in this area was dramatic because it meant you could train full time. When the game went professional, you began to see a big physical difference emerge in the body shapes of professional rugby players compared with those of the amateurs.
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Professionalism typically means more money, which in turn means more resource to measure and prepare both rugby teams and individual players. All sports are engaged in a search for those marginal gains that will improve a player’s and the team’s performance. This search is now led by data.

How important do you feel data and technology is to the modern game?

Technology and data are a massive part of rugby union today. So much so that it’s now literally in the fabric of the sport, with GPS devices sewn into a small pouch between the shoulder blades of players’ shirts at the elite level. These devices measure in minute detail the distances and speeds players are covering during training and playing.

In real-time, they can reveal what a player’s average speed is, when a player’s intensity starts to drop and in some cases even measure their heart rate, all of which enable the coaching staff to monitor who is performing above or below their usual level. These insights are particularly useful in training when a player comes back from injury. Based on the data you can customise specific training for any player because you have their full fitness diagnostics to compare with.

I believe data and technology go stride for stride together. The better the technology, generally, the better the data, and the better the data, the better the chances of maintaining and improving performance.

Where do you sit in terms of the balance between numbers and nous in sport?

When I first started out playing as a senior I wasn’t too interested in statistics. I just wanted to play and I relied heavily on my instincts. I didn’t want to know too much about what the opposition did or didn’t do. For me I had a player to beat or a player to tackle. In my mind there was no tech or data required to achieve that goal.

I remember when Clive Woodward first took over as England head coach he put up some charts and showed us how much fitter New Zealand were than us. The point he was making was ‘how did we expect to beat the best team in the world if we weren’t as fit as them?’. From the very first day with Woodward our fitness conditioning changed

Are there parallels to be drawn in terms of the business world?

There are obvious parallels to be drawn between adopting a data-led approach in sport and taking a similar approach in business. In my day job as a consultant in fleet risk management we utilise telemetry technology (the remote capture and analysis of data) to improve driver behaviour and dynamic routing and scheduling optimisation.

In very basic terms the metrics collected through telemetry are fed back to drivers, helping to improve driving behaviour which in turn enables businesses to make savings in fuel and vehicle maintenance costs because the vehicle is being driven safely and more efficiently. Because driving is improved there will be fewer on the road incidents, resulting in lower insurance claims costs which again save money.

The software used in routing and scheduling makes sure drivers are taking the best routes, therefore optimising their time on the roads. It also provides the ability to set a maximum number of jobs per schedule and a maximum shift length.

Is there a risk, both in business and in sport, of becoming too reliant on data and technology at the expense of human instinct and emotion?

In my role as a BBC rugby pundit I find the statistics we have at our fingertips provide us with incredibly useful insights that quite often defy apparent logic. When critiquing a player or a team it’s particularly powerful because we have facts that enable us be accurate and persuasive in our analysis.

On the other hand, some analytics are not yet as sophisticated or reliable as we would like. For example, one stat I look at is ‘defenders beaten’. It tells me a number, but it doesn’t tell me if it was a side-step or off which foot the tackle was missed. I have to combine that data with watching to get the full picture. It’s the same with a tackle stat. It’s just a number, so it can’t tell me how important the tackle was. I have to look at a re-run of the match to see how important the tackle was.

For me, the best analytics help back up my instinct that I have about a player having watched them live. Statistics can often surprise you, sometimes mislead you but always provide a richer understanding of the game.

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