Nick Mallett looks at how statistics help coaches make the right decisions
Nick Mallett, former Springbok and Italy Head Coach
When I was head coach of South Africa in the 1990s we barely had any data or statistics to work with.
It was only when I moved to Stade Francais in 2002 that it came into the game more and more, and by the time I took over as Italy head coach it had become entirely commonplace.
That trend has only continued and over the past four or five years, coaches have become far more reliant on data. This development can only be a good thing.
Such detailed information at a coach’s fingertips is a massive help in making improvements, both on an individual player-by-player basis, but also in terms of overall team structure.
If we take the individual analysis first and foremost, the rise of data makes it so much easier to bring about an improvement in a player’s performance.
When I was Italy head coach I would catalogue the attributes and statistics of the top player in the world in every position and then compare them with a player in my own team to see how they matched up.
When you have something tangible, it can be a huge help to show a player how to perform better. You can go through the specific demands and skills that each position requires and pinpoint where they are lacking and where they are impressing.
This applies even more so when a player is not selected; you can show them exactly what they need to do to get back into the team.
After a game, coaches can sit down with a player, normally along with an attack or defence coach, and talk through an individual performance.
They might look at some key areas – did this player win any counter-rucks? How many tackles did he miss? How many carries did he make compared with metres made?
Just a quarter of an hour spent with each player can make the world of difference, congratulating a player on areas he did well in but also highlighting errors and areas to work on.
Players know there is no hiding place in this statistical age so there is no room for complacency. This bleeds directly into training during the week and as result the match on the weekend.
A coach will also review matches with the team as a whole and pull out key stats from opposition performances to work out which areas of the game they need to work on.
Lineouts are a great example of how data has helped coaches improve. We are now able to analyse oppositions’ tendencies. How they set their line, when they form a full lineout, when they use a catch-and-drive. With all this data to hand, coaches and players can be better prepared than ever before.
Of course with all these things, the data alone is not enough. But when married with an understanding of the intricacies of the modern game it becomes invaluable.
To give an example, when analysing a team’s overall performance top line stats such as “tackles made” are useful but can also be misleading.
Look at Italy’s performance against Ireland in the opening round of this year’s RBS Six Nations; the Azzurri made 205 tackles and only missed 17 for a success rate of over 91%.
Francesco Minto individually accounted for 25 of those tackles, but as a coach you have to be able to look deeper and see beyond the raw numbers.
If Italy are making that many tackles then they clearly have not had possession for large parts of the game, hinting at an issue with their game plan and their use of possession.
Substitutions are another example. Coaches use stats to inform when and how they make their replacements during a game.
Scrum-half and hooker are two positions that require a lot of running, so as a game unfolds they often start to tire and their performance levels drop as a result.
This might be after an hour, it might be as soon as the second half begins but, working with your fitness & conditioning team, the stats help a coach tailor his changes accordingly.
But there is still a place for the head coach to use his gut feeling and leave a player on as in tight games it is sometimes best to make minimal changes.
There is never-ending information that you can get from data and it is not readily available to coaches and analysts. If you want to keep up with your rivals then you have to make use of it.
The key is to apply this new information correctly and it will help your team improve and, ultimately, win.
Throughout the RBS 6 Nations, the Accenture analysis team, which includes Nick Mallett, will be providing fans with insight and analysis to #seebeyond standard match data. Follow @AccentureRugby and download the Official RBS 6 Nations App