Rugby Australia is moving to bring a “data-informed culture” to all levels of the game, from grassroots to the elite level, and to improve its engagement with fans.
In this week’s iTnews podcast, head of analytics Cathal Garvey discusses opportunities for the growth of rugby in Australia and the data infrastructure and analytics effort to inform those future directions.
Garvey joined the peak body for rugby in Australia back in 2012 and has overseen the evolution of analytics in the sport since, including its recent expansion to all levels of the game.
“When I started, there were a lot of great systems and great people involved, but Rugby Australia was working in quite a siloed manner; not a lot of collaboration between departments or consistency in technology used across our different entities,” Garvey said.
“Over time, we've tried to break down those silos and get to a place where we've got an aligned strategy around the technology we use across Australia, whether it's in the community rugby game, our Super Rugby franchises, or all our high performance teams.”
Consistency is an overriding theme in the organisation’s analytics journey.
The organisation has set up its data infrastructure to ingest and manage data in a way that will “last the test of time”.
“Part of that was building a technology stack that ensured our infrastructure was designed for longevity, so that it outlived the requirements of one coach or administrator and is built to support all that inherit it,” Garvey said.
Substantial effort has gone into correlating the language and outputs of the various elements of sports science so that a single, consistent view of the data is available.
Garvey recalls a time in 2016 when every discipline produced a different set of reporting for the national rugby union team, the Wallabies.
“We started to ask ourselves questions of why the head coach was getting delivered different reports from the sport scientists, from the strength and conditioning coach, from the physio, from the game analysts, from the contracting manager - all with different terminologies, different languages, making it very difficult for them to find the signal from the noise,” Garvey said.
“For us in the analytics team, messaging [and] the communication of any interesting insight we find is crucial to have an influence.
“With stakeholders, decision-makers and coaches coming from a range of backgrounds, we need to adapt the messaging to fit their vernacular, be it a CEO, a physio, a coach or a player.
“At the end of the day, if the information is not being acted upon, if communications aren't being more individualised, we're not providing much real value.”
Rugby Australia’s strategic plan has four main pillars: to build sustainable elite success, make rugby a game for all, ignite Australia's passion for the game, and create excellence in how the game is run.
“Our analytics function is based on providing a service to those four main pillars, being our elite teams, our community, our fans, and our administration,” Garvey said.
“As head of analytics, I'm responsible for our data strategy and analytics roadmap and for the management of data across the board in rugby.
“Our ultimate goal is to drive a data-informed culture across rugby and to ensure we're getting value out of our investment in technology across analytics and performance analysis.”
The organisation established a central analytics unit in 2019; Garvey now has a team of five data analysts, scientists and performance analysts.
“We’re providing a central service to all involved [in rugby],” he said.
“We want to democratise access to actionable insights so that our users reduce time on screen looking for answers and increase time actioning these insights with our athletes, teams and partners.”
Since 2019, that has meant opening its data infrastructure and analytics capabilities “to the community rugby areas, our membership and ticketing departments, and our administration as a whole.”
“We don't - and nor will we - have a massive data science team inside of Rugby Australia, but what we do have is lots of people that are really engaged with the game, who know the environment and know the people they are dealing with,” Garvey said.
“We want to bring data science to those people that are the ultimate decision makers in the game.”
Consistency of data collection and analytics at all levels of the game also makes national oversight easier, ultimately aiding in the ongoing development of a future generation of Wallabies and Olympians.
“We're balancing short term requirements to drive our code forward, but also ensuring that any question down the track when we want to start joining the dots between the community game and where our Wallabies are coming from, or where is best to host a test match based on various contributors, is in a structure that's ready to go and easily queryable,” Garvey said.
Rugby Australia is now undertaking a trial of Tableau and DataRobot technologies that will help the organisation shift from “descriptive to predictive analytics”.
“We're trialing a proof of concept with DataRobot at the moment, moreso in the membership and ticketing space to understand how we can minimise member churn and keep people engaged, or how we can convert a ticket buyer that might have really enjoyed their experience to come back as a season member,” Garvey said.
“There's some great use cases there and we're very excited to really drive forward in this space.”
Garvey said the DataRobot model is being trained on a range of data, from “purchases, attendance, demographics, and location from the stadium.”
“We've got a number of factors that are going into those models,” he said.
“Admittedly, it's quite difficult at the moment going through 2020 and 2021, where you can't really use these last two years of Covid to predict very much in this space.
“But we're building out these capabilities so that we're engaging our membership managers around the country.
“A lot of this is based around being curious and starting to ask better questions around the data and getting people more engaged and being a data-informed culture.”
Rugby Australia is also developing a self-service data analytics platform based on Tableau technology to help administrators, match officials, coaches and volunteers of Rugby Australia’s eight Member Unions and Affiliated Unions.
Around 100 users across the member organisations will have access to resources via the Tableau online platform “to combine rugby data and visual analytics to build interactive visualisations and dashboards that unlock a host of operational and playing insights.”
“Those people are able to connect with their data, understand how that's trending and how they can improve their game locally,” Garvey said.
“Whether it's the local junior comp down the road, or at the national level, you're looking at the same dashboard.”
A local rugby club, for example, can use the dashboard “to look at who's registering for the game, how many teams they're running, how many coaches do they have that are registered and volunteers, and how many of those coaches and match officials are accredited in our system so that we're ensuring the game is safe for all to play,” Garvey said.
Some of that data can then be rolled up to a national level to guage the health of the code at all levels.
“There's various metrics we look at to ensure that a club is in a healthy environment and set up for success,” Garvey said.
“We want those to be ubiquitous across the game.”
Despite the challenges of the past couple of years, Garvey said there is plenty to look forward to.
“It's an unbelievable time to be involved in the game, to be honest,” he said.
“Next year we've got an inbound England series in July against the Wallabies; our Wallaroos are going to a World Cup; we've got the Commonwealth Games; a year later, we've got the Rugby World Cup in 2023 in France; followed by an Olympics; the British and Irish Lions in 2025 so that's once every 12 years; we've also got a Rugby World Cup bid team that's really hard at work to put forward their bid for the 2027 World Cup; and obviously, just last week, the Olympics was announced for Brisbane in 2032.
“So there's no shortage of opportunities ahead to not only perform at the highest level and win some trophies but also utilise that to ride the wave of further engagement to ensure we're capitalising on that and getting more people playing our beautiful game.”