England’s recent Test series victory over New Zealand was significant for more than just the result – it proved the pinnacle for a partnership between the Rugby Football League and visual analytics specialists QlickiT.
It also underlined the RFL’s unique position in UK sport in how it manages the game.
QlickiT’s solution, based on the QlikView system, was pivotal in England toppling the world’s No. 1 team, something quickly recognised by coach Steve McNamara. “It’s a tremendous system. It brings all the info on all the players together: stats, GPS data, anything I need on any player anywhere in the world,” he said. “It’s very good for us in keeping an eye on everyone involved – those playing either in our squad or against our squad.”
The same system has also allowed the RFL to gain greater insight into its database of all registered players in the country – amateur and professional, men and women – amounting to around 50,000 in all.
Derek Hufton of QlickIT, himself a former rugby league player, said: “We started working with the RFL four years ago. Working with Director of Performance and Coaching Jon Roberts, we built the system from scratch and it has developed significantly since then.
“It is used from grassroots and community up to international level, and contains analysis on all players in the game. That includes age group, clubs, leagues, fixtures, officials and appearances; right up to actual performance, wellness and GPS data analysis from the upper echelons of the game.
“In the end, it’s just data and our solution pulls it all together and consolidates it into one view, making it possible to cross-relate any piece of data to any individual or team in a highly visual, interactive manner.”
Hufton believes it delivers two crucial elements to any sporting governing body: “The system gives bodies a handle on the whole sport. That means if you have greater visibility and insight, you can manage the development of the sport better. And that underpins two key objectives for governing bodies – keeping the game healthy and securing funding. It gives you a real evidence base when approaching funding bodies like Sport England.
“The RFL is very advanced when compared to many other sporting bodies in this respect, but others are taking notice in the UK and Ireland.”
The RFL can also track players from amateur and academy level up to pro club and international. Hufton added: “It’s an integrated approach that makes it possible to plot player pathways and assess the productivity and effectiveness of the player development process. Greater visibility of the conveyor belt of player development and general levels of participation all contribute to a deeper understanding of the health of the game.”
England coach McNamara certainly saw the benefit following the 20-14 victory over the Kiwis in the decisive third Test at Wigan on November 14. McNamara made two big selection calls and both made a big impact on the game. He added: “We have an analyst working during the game, but we use Qlik more for pre and post-game. All of this data, it could be medical records…anything…date of birth, height, weight, number of penalties he gives away… it all goes into the Qlik system and give us a really well rounded picture of what that individual can do.”
QlickiT, which operates out of Rotherham in South Yorkshire, initially specialised in business analytics, helping companies use their data to improve performance. From that, QlickiT spotted the potential of taking a system used by some of the most prominent high-street names into sport.
Hufton’s colleague, Chris Butcher, responsible for developing many of the features in the system, said: “It is not surprising how well our QlikView-based solution has adapted from the business world to professional sport. We know it is an extremely flexible system, but the positive impact it has had with England Rugby League has convinced us of its huge potential in this area.”
With a number of professional sports teams now gaining an edge with the QlikView system, it is a quiet revolution. The system is used by Chelsea FC and impressed former boss Carlo Ancelotti so much that he took it with him to Paris Saint-Germain.
Hufton said: “Professional sporting clubs and national bodies are collecting huge amounts of data at an ever-increasing rate, and they need the tools to be able to make sense of it. That’s where we come in.
“We work with any and all data providers. It’s a blank canvas – it’s not prescriptive. The only limit is the coach’s or sports scientist’s imagination.”
James is a sports journalist and freelance digital sports consultant. He previously ran the official website of the Carling Cup and has worked with professional clubs in a number of sports.