Back in Black

New Zealand Rugby scores with winning data strategy

The New Zealand All Blacks have won back-to-back Rugby World Cup championships. Read how the winningest team in sports history uses data and analytics to stay one step ahead of the competition.

The fireworks of victory explode as confetti rains from the sky. The team captain hoists the trophy into the air as flashbulbs pop and millions of adoring fans in New Zealand join the All Blacks in celebrating their unprecented winning of back-to-back Rugby World Cup championships.

Behind the scenes, the analysts of New Zealand Rugby celebrate a victory of their own.

These days, every professional rugby team uses data, and NZ Rugby is no exception. Traditionally, NZ Rugby collected game data from a third party provider which it stored in bespoke systems and reported using off-the-shelf products such as Microsoft Excel. Facing lag times before gaining insight, and competitors armed with the same data, NZ Rugby recognised that a winning data strategy would require a different approach.

“The real advantage of data comes from finding unique uses of it to inform strategy,” says Jason Healy, NZ Rugby Performance Analysis Manager. Healy’s team analyses data for New Zealand’s provincial and national rugby teams, including the 2015 Rugby World Cup champions, the New Zealand All Blacks.


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Better insight keeps coaches on the ball

With SAS Visual Analytics, NZ Rugby has revolutionised the way it provides data to coaching staff and analysts. Data is now displayed on interactive dashboards which makes spotting trends easier. Coaches can quickly evaluate team and player performance and play patterns. Whereas previous reports were static, Visual Analytics allows end users to interact with reports, filtering and drilling-down, inevitably leading to new questions about the data.

“We’ve got coaching staff that are still warming to using technology,” says Healy. “But with Visual Analytics, they are now receptive to the data and asking more questions than ever before.”

As with any competitive organisation, speed to insight is also critical. Previously, game data was imported into basic software where graphs were created manually and shared with the coaching staff – a slow and arduous process. With SAS Visual Analytics and SAS Data Integration Studio, game data is readily available to those who need it quickly, a speed-to-insight that enables teams to benefit from data on the fly.

Visualising performance on the field

Because of its versatility, SAS Visual Analytics can improve operations in game and player performance, player selection, fan experience, business management, ticket pricing optimisation and injury prevention. With seemingly infinite possibilities, NZ Rugby turned to analytics consultants Clarity for help in narrowing their focus and creating sophisticated dashboards. Easy-to-digest performance metrics are now reported daily to coaching staff and managers who use the data to inform decisions on and off the field.

Coaching staff, for example, can view data on the opposition to prepare for matches. They can see who from the opposing team influenced the game, and where and when certain plays were ran – insight that can inform game strategy. “Visualising opposition data has been key for the All Blacks,” says Healy. “We were able to focus our training regimen after seeing data on how our opponents played.”

With more information at their fingertips, the NZ Rugby coaching staff are able to get more value from game data. As with any good report, it’s not what the dashboard says, it’s the additional questions that it prompts. Questions that NZ Rugby analysts can answer in future reports, which further improves game strategy.

“It’s scary how much we didn’t know about our data,” says Healy. “With Visual Analytics, the coaching team can get the
information they need to take their teams to the next level.”

Photo of Wayne Smith, Former All Blacks co-coach
We can’t tell you everything we’re doing … but we can say that we’re loving SAS Visual Analytics
Wayne Smith, Former All Blacks co-coach

A game fought in the margins

Rugby is a game of margins. Often, games at the highest level are decided by a few key decisions. Although coaching staff and players still rely heavily on their instincts and experience during the game, the difference between winning and losing often comes down to which team has the better informed strategy.

Wayne Smith is a former All Blacks co-coach who helped lead his teams to victory during the 2015 and 2011 Rugby World Cups. Smith praises the evolution of NZ Rugby’s data strategy, noting that data has earned its place in the locker room, and that every aspect of the game is now scrutinised to improve performance. “We can’t tell you everything we’re doing … but we can say that we’re loving SAS Visual Analytics,” said Smith. “This is world leading for rugby.”

NZ Rugby plans to expand its use of SAS Visual Analytics to other areas of the organisation.


Jason Jealy

Visualising opposition data has been key for the All Blacks. We were able to focus our training regimen after seeing data on how our opponents played.
Jason Healy - Performance Analytics Manager, New Zealand Rugby


The solutions behind the challenge

SAS Visual Analytics on multiple devices

Business users and coaching staff across New Zealand Rugby have instant access to information. They can:

  • Visually explore the freshest data, right down to the player and team
  • Get the picture instantly – no coding required.
  • Create meaningful visuals from any data source.

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SAS Data Management is at the heart of the data warehouse process and was used to pull data from every game. With SAS Data Management you can:

  • Extract, transform and load data from multiple sources with ease.
  • Push processing down to the database to minimise data movement and improve performance.
  • Apply data governance and data quality to improve analytical processes.

      More information

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      The results illustrated in this article are specific to the particular situations, business models, data input, and computing environments described herein. Each SAS customer’s experience is unique based on business and technical variables and all statements must be considered non-typical. Actual savings, results, and performance characteristics will vary depending on individual customer configurations and conditions. SAS does not guarantee or represent that every customer will achieve similar results. The only warranties for SAS products and services are those that are set forth in the express warranty statements in the written agreement for such products and services. Nothing herein should be construed as constituting an additional warranty. Customers have shared their successes with SAS as part of an agreed-upon contractual exchange or project success summarization following a successful implementation of SAS software. Brand and product names are trademarks of their respective companies.

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