Six Nations Rugby: Whoever Wins In Technology Tends To Win

Duncan MacRae is former editor and now a contributor to TechWeekEurope. He previously edited Computer Business Review's print/digital magazines and CBR Online, as well as Arabian Computer News in the UAE.

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Former England rugby coach, Clive Woodward, explains how technology and data analytics led England to a Six Nations grand slam and World Cup victory in 2003

Sir Clive Woodward, England rugby union coach from 1997 to 2004, is a keen advocate of IT and data analytics. And he has every right to be. They helped him to famously lead his country to World Cup glory in 2003, along with a string of Six Nations championships. TechWeekEurope recently caught up with him to find out just how it happened…

Clive WoodwardAs a trainer and manager, what role did technology play during your time leading the England rugby team?

You have to understand that the game of rugby was moving from amateur to professional and I was lucky enough to be selected as England’s first ever professional rugby coach. That was back in 1997 and I came in with a blank sheet of paper. But what I’ve always thought is that whoever wins in IT tends to win. I came from a business background. I worked for Xerox for nine years, including five in Australia where I was sales director. When I came back to the UK I set up a small leasing finance company, so I had 18 years of business background before becoming a professional coach.

When I took over the England team, literally only 10 percent of the players had any IT skills at all, just the basic ability to use a computer. It was okay for the coach to be good at IT and understand all the great software you could use but it was key to me that the players had those skills as well, so they could become involved in all the programs we were going to put in place.

So we created this big IT program and at the time I was absolutely ridiculed, because we had about 70 players and we gave them all laptops and we had a big training course.  And suddenly all these big heroes, like Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio, were walking into the team’s hotel carrying their laptops. The press had a field day. Some of the press were saying “what is he doing? What on Earth does a laptop computer have to do with playing rugby? Why’s he not giving the players more raw meat?” It was complete ridicule.

But the players kind of got it. I did a big selling job on them because I wanted them to become engaged in it and I was very clear – you couldn’t stay in the team unless you were really going to engage in using the software. I felt we were going to develop software programs that were going to allow them to become better players.

We started from zero so everything we did was a positive. But the key was getting the players involved in the process, which they really did. It didn’t matter where we went in the world, we brought the best trainers in the world in to keep their IT skills going up and up.

Some of the software we brought in, such as Prozone, were groundbreaking programs. When I first saw these, I saw them mainly in football and I brought them to rugby. When I showed it to the players and they had the IT skills to really start to use this themselves the team kind of took off and it went from there. And I do believe whoever wins in IT tends to win. I don’t think sport is any different.

And were the big guys like Jason Leanord able to turn the little laptop computers on?

These guys fingers are seriously big so to see them use the laptops at the time was interesting, but they kind of got what we were trying to do. Looking back, it wasn’t all straight forward, though. There were some casualties but I made it clear unless you were going to get involved in this you weren’t going to make the team. It didn’t matter how talented they were. I really needed them to get engaged in this process of evaluating the game and their performances.

Arsene WengerThe Prozone software we used was fantastic. When the guy from Prozone got hold of me he said they‘d just installed it at Arsenal Football Club and that Arsene Wenger wanted to show it to me. Despite the fact I’m a Chelsea fan I was prepared to go and meet Arsene, so I went down to see him and I remember seeing this Prozone system in 1997/98 and I just thought ‘wow’. We couldn’t wait to get hold of it. We took it back and showed it to the players who had the same reaction as us because it makes you see the game in a completely different way. That’s when the players began to think that there is more to the game than just running around, smashing tackle bags and hitting people. There’s an intellectual, learning side to it.

It was the players you would least expect who got involved the most. Jason Leonard was awesome, as was Martin Johnson – big tough players. Once they saw the software they got into it and we were getting a lot of great information and ideas from them because they were using it, as well as the coaching team. Fundamentally, that was our secret to becoming a successful team.

The England team developed an app that wrapped around your philosophy of training. Can you tell us about that?

You win rugby matches and football matches because you have great players and great coaches but it’s then what you put on top of that. You can have all the software in the world but it won’t count for anything without the great players. I used to say to the players, though,  “we’ve got a talented team but we won’t win just because we have a good team because the South Africa team has got talent, The New Zealand team has got talent, and the Australians. All your major competitors have got talent. To win you have to leverage that talent.” We really started to look at this ability to study what we do and we became very good at capturing knowledge. Back in 1997 we split the game into seven areas, very simple areas such as defence, attack, kicking game and pressure. We became very good as a coaching team and players at studying what we actually did. And we really did study.

We used a lot of data, a lot of video analysis, and we studied it to try to understand why we were successful in some areas and why we were unsuccessful in others. We created what I call a whole series of winning moves. So we figured out the things we had to get right. Then we looked at how we could do those things better. How do you practice them? How do you train for them individually? Quite simply, we replicated that system into a software program.

Think of it like writing a book about what you do. The seven areas are the seven chapters of my book. So I’d encourage any coach, people of any sport, to effectively write a book about what they do. If you’re going to write a book about your sport or your job, what would your chapters be? How would you break down what you do?

Once I broke it down I had defence, for example. You take defence then you have sub-chapters like kick-chase or line defence. Then you start to capture knowledge. So instead of having seven big boxes with stuff it can all go on your iPhone or iPad. Now you can have YouTube, other videos, data, and we had data analytics systems from software firm SAP, captured and stored on our phones so it was easy to study.

So we could all find out about the winning moves and how to practice them, and we could share information with each other. Anybody at any time could study this and share it with team mates and the coaching team. They could add comments and help each other through the process. You’re sharing and collaborating. You’re writing your own book and you might want to just keep that entirely to yourself and never want to share. But if you did want to share it you could, and you could share thoughts and opinions, totally interact with each other. And I can priomie you this all came from me coaching England.

I used to invite friends of mine, rugby fans, in to watch what we did. We would invite them to spend a couple of days with the England rugby team, watching how we trained. The deal was that I asked them to think of a couple of things we could do better. Some of our best ideas came from fans. It was amazing where ideas came from. So going from doing things sort of longhand or hands on, we then had a software platform we could use to collaborate with all kinds of other people, even people working in other sports.

British gymnasticsDuring the Olympics, looking across all 26 sports, the crossover I saw is amazing. You think ‘if that sport was doing that it would be huge. Why don’t you speak to him or her about what you do?’ Take balance, for example. You need to have great balance in most sports. Why not have the top gymnastics coaches teach you practices and drills on how to do that. The SAP program we used, Captcha, is all about this. Capturing knowledge, but sharing it as well.

You have to keep learning. The moment you think you’ve cracked it, you stop learning, stop capturing the knowledge, there’ll be someone else somewhere in the world who hasn’t stopped and you’d get the boot.

Do you think there’s a risk that technology could take the emotion out of sport?

I think you can definitely drown players in technology so you have to be very careful. The way I see it in terms of teaching people about technology and data, it’s no different from teaching maths, English or history at school. If you suddenly dump all this stuff on someone who’s not ready for it they’ll just drown. You drip feed information in and get people on a learning curve. If you don’t drip feed it in you can definitely take away emotion from a player.

I’m working with a couple of golfers now who’ve gone from nowhere to potentially being the best players in the world. If we drowned them in data and knowledge you can see why they would just fail. The secret is to drip feed it in but also allow them to learn at their own pace, capture knowledge and take it onboard in a way that works for them. Some people learn quicker than others. You need to put the syllabus in place but modern learning is about putting students in charge of their own learning, taking responsibility for themselves. It’s their performance and their careers. And I actually think that when you capture data and knowledge and players begin to understand the game more they will become more creative and play with more flair.

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