Playing the numbers game

AMONG the many innovations Jack Gibson is credited with introducing to rugby league is the regular incorporation of statistical analysis into improving his teams.
Gibson, who is widely acknowledged as one of – if not the – greatest coaches in the history of the sport, is believed to be the first to use the then-nascent computer technology to track player performance, along with compiling and using individual player tackle counts.
Having spent time studying the methods of American football coaches Vince Lombardi and Dick Nolan, Gibson was all too aware of the benefits these approaches and what the use of video analysis could bring to what was then still a part-time sport.
Even before his death aged 79 in 2008, Gibson was hailed as an innovator and his five New South Wales Rugby League Premiership titles during spells in charge of Eastern Suburbs and Parramatta are testament to his work as a coach.
Unsurprisingly, Gibson’s methods have been adopted and adapted by those who have followed both in his homeland of Australia and further afield, especially as the game moved into the full-time era.
The use of game film and tracking player statistics are now part and parcel of nearly all sports in the 21st Century and rugby league is no exception.
However, the code has perhaps yet to embrace the analytics revolution which has taken root elsewhere on the back of the approaches pioneered in baseball over the last 25 years and immortalised in the book and film ‘Moneyball’.
Or at least if it has, no-one has spoken much about it or is keeping quiet so as not as to give their opponents any sort of competitive advantage.
The only notable example of advanced analytics being used in rugby league came four years ago when then-Manly Sea Eagles head coach Des Hasler utilised a statistic called Contributor Value Rating (CVR) to help his team go from eighth-place finishers the previous season to 2011 NRL Champions.
CVR was developed along with NRL Stats’ Andrew Moufarridge using the numbers Manly video analyst Will Badel had collected from watching and cataloguing every single Sea Eagles game from the past four seasons.
It allowed Hasler to see the areas his side were falling short in, as well as removing any reputation-based preconceptions about players to allow rational decisions to be made using numerical evidence.
However, little has been spoken of about it or any other developments on that front in rugby league since.
Of course, there are plenty of statistics available – the Super League website alone has all the top try scorers, tackle makers, goal kickers and metre makers for clubs and played going back to 2003.
The difficulty lies in trying to find which ones influence where games are won and lost, unlike baseball where the Oakland Athletics were able to exploit on-base percentage and slugging percentage being undervalued on the open market to pick up players others overlooked.
That is to do with the nature of games like baseball and cricket, which are team sports where individual contributions are easier to quantify and show what effect they have had on the outcome.
Rugby league is like any other team game which requires all of the players working together and makes it harder to objectively assess individual contributions to results, short of the stats which can be easily measured above, although CVR goes a long way to addressing that.
In truth though, it only scratches the surface and the question remains as to how much effort has been focused on this area by clubs and their analysts.
The fact five of the 12 Super League teams – Castleford Tigers, Catalans Dragons, Huddersfield Giants, St Helens and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats – do not list anyone on their staff who has a specific responsibility for performance analysis would suggest not much.
This is not to say the work is not being down at these or the other seven sides – or indeed at any other level – while they all have access to the various historic and current season statistics collected by data supplier OPTA.
And with those outside the so-called ‘big four’ having to face up to some harsh financial realities, the incentive is there for them to look for any way they might be able to gain an upper hand.
After all, it is adverse circumstances which led to Hasler looking for another way at Manly. It is also these which drove Gibson to find new and better ways, revolutionising coaching and the game in the process.

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