Opta co-founder Rob Lowe on rugby league’s statistics revolution

Like many other coaching innovations, regular use of statistical analysis in rugby league can perhaps be traced back to Australian great Jack Gibson.

A student of the methods used by American Football coaches like Vince Lombardi and Dick Nolan, the former Eastern Suburbs and Parramatta head coach is credited as being the first to use computer technology to track player performance and take note of individual tackle counts.

Whereas those were regarded as revolutionary in the 1970s, a wide range of individual and team statistics are now utilised both in the late Gibson’s homeland and on these shores as NRL and Super League clubs seek any small way to gain an edge over their opponents.

In this country, wider collection of data for clubs took off in 1996 when Rob Lowe and colleagues from Leeds University founded Opta Sports and while not all clubs in the newly-formed Super League were immediately receptive, those that were quickly exploited the numbers.

“What we did find was for the teams who took it on, very quickly they found out weak players either in their own team or the opposition team as they would have information on everybody,” Lowe, now an independent sports information consultant, told Sky Sports’ Golden Point podcast.

“Quite quickly, weak defenders or players with very poor work-rates were replaced with players who perhaps weren’t quite as skilful with the ball, but prepared to work harder and defend more robustly.

“Interestingly, we got to a point after three or four years where we could connect the data up to videos so people could review the game and instantly jump into the places they wanted to see, pretty much all of the clubs took it on.

What we did find was for the teams who took it on, very quickly they found out weak players either in their own team or the opposition team as they would have information on everybody

Rob Lowe

“Then we found within about five years, rather than having at minimum a pen and pencil in the office, everybody was a laptop coach and that changed quite quickly.”

There has been little change in that since the early years of this Century, save for technological improvements, but several important statistical trends which correlate to team and player performance have emerged.

Tackle success rate – and particularly the number of missed tackles – is a useful guide to how a team is faring over the course of the season.

Looking at that, it is perhaps no surprise Hull Kingston Rovers spent much of 2019 fighting in a relegation battle and found themselves near the foot of the table again prior to the current season being suspended, having missed the most tackles in Super League in both years.

Most missed tackles in Super League 2020

“Over the years, the biggest correlation between performance of a team and statistics is missed tackles,” Lowe explained.

“Generally, at the end of the season, the teams who have missed the most tackles are at the bottom of the table and the teams at the top have missed the fewest. That obviously works in reverse for breaking tackles.

“Over a long period, that’s a pretty important indicator of success for a team. The other is the ability to make metres, so teams who are making the most metres at the play-the-ball are probably going to overwhelm the other team.”

The latter particularly applies to wingers, who will often have their hands on the ball early in a tackle count due to either catching the ball or taking possession after a catch has been made from a kick in play.

Top metre-makers in Super League 2020

Teams will often utilise their speedy wide men early in a set if they are playing out from inside their own 20-metre zone following a handover rather than simply getting the forwards to try to power their way through as well, and Lowe believes they often under-valued by clubs.

“I always thought, in a lot of cases, wingers are under-rated in their influence on the game because they get the ball at the start of a set of six quite often and if they can make five or 10 extra metres on that first play it makes a massive difference,” Lowe said.

“Whereas a lot of clubs, in terms of the salary cap, don’t spend that much money on wingers.

“Also, the percentage of tries scored by wingers now is massive, so a winger who might score three or four more tries than another because he’s better at finishing in the corner or something like that, that’s going to make a massive difference to you as well.”

That is borne out in the individual statistics from the first seven games of the 2020 season, with three of the top metre-makers being wingers and another, Josh Griffin, being one who is adept at playing either out wide or as a centre.

Two of those, Salford Red Devils’ Ken Sio and Wigan Warriors’ Liam Marshall, are among the top five try-scorers after seven rounds of matches as well, with fellow wingers Ben Crooks – aided by four tries in Hull KR’s season-opener – and Castleford Tigers’ Derrell Olpherts being up there as well.

On the other side, Lowe believes too much emphasis is based on completion rates and that teams who place a premium on a low number of errors are not necessarily focusing on the right area.

“Errors are important, but there is a context to them and it’s dependent on the match situation,” Lowe said. “It’s more when and where they happen rather than the total number.

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