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Six Nations rugby tournament tackles big data and virtual reality


Tackles, tries, rucks, conversions and kicks; rugby is more associated with big hits than big data analytics and virtual reality (VR).

But IT consultancy firm Accenture is trying to change this by working with the RBS 6 Nations rugby tournament to provide an extra layer of insightful statistical information to the media, coaches and fans.

Accenture has been a technology partner of the RBS 6 Nations for the past four years, and has access to match data ripe for analysis.

But access to data is one thing, making it useable and easy to understand for anyone outside the data science world is a more complex task.

Nick Millman, managing director of Accenture’s big data and analytics division, explained in a briefing attended by V3 that the company needed to create a platform that could translate the data into easy to understand visual information.

“For each game we are taking approximately 20 million rows of data and processing it in real time and using it to drive a number of different algorithms and visualisations to increase the engagement of rugby fans [and coaches],” he said.

Accenture pulled together a range of data platforms and technologies to create a big data platform stack for the tournament.

Microsoft’s SQL Server acts as the main database to store and manage all the 6 Nations match data. A data management service provided by Alteryx sits on top of this to help shape the data for visualisations.

The system uses data visualisation tools on the front end provided by Qlik View and Qlik Sense, along with D3.js, which provides an open source JavaScript library to create interactive data visualisations in web browsers.

The system is cloud-powered via the Amazon Web Services platform which delivers the data visualisations to the 6 Nations web, iOS and Android apps. It also provides some visualisations to the media to help them offer more insightful pre- and post-match analysis.

Each team in the tournament will have access to the data to help them analyse how they played in previous matches and see the impact of different formations and strategies on individual and team performance.

Millman explained that the system shows how data analytics can be used in real time and applied to different sectors, even in areas not normally associated with big data.

He also highlighted how the system demonstrates that large amounts of data can be put to use in a tangible way, rather than simply being collected and processed.

“It is just like in the business world where it’s great having predictive models about customer churn or what drives profits and product sets. But you need to understand how the business executives are going to consume that,” he said.

Tackling big data

Accenture enlisted the help of former Italy and South Africa head coach Nick Mallett, who is part of the Accenture analysis team, along with other rugby experts, to make sure that the data visualisations serve the right type of information.

This allowed Accenture to provide insightful visual data that can be easily understood by coaches and fans alike.

This includes data on how much individual players have contributed to a match, the number of ball turnovers, rucks won, kicking distances and manoeuvers, and a whole lot more. Data can be compared against previous games or even tournaments dating back as far as 2000.

Mallett explained that the data is useful for coaches assessing team performance and optimising it when facing different opponents.

“You get a really good feel of the way the coach is coaching his team. As a coach you become less subjective,” he said.

The data also provides a way to analyse the performance of individual players based on facts rather than observations. This improves the communication of tactics between players and coaches and holds both accountable for the performance.

Clear metrics on a player's performance measured against his opposite number can allow objective, fact-based decisions without risking a coach being accused of bias or favouritism.

Meanwhile, coaches changing match strategies beyond the capabilities of a team, or failing to be innovative with tactics, can be held accountable by data showing clear correlations between match performance and player positioning and selection.

However, Mallett warned that coaches should use data as a tool to aid, not dictate, decisions, as having a player who is a good leader but not statistically strong may be just as important to the team as a player with impressive statistics.

“It makes a hell of a lot of difference if you have facts at your fingertips that can assess you at making that person better,” he said.

“[But] if you’re just a stats driven coach and select [players] only through stats, and don’t touch the heart of the player you’re coaching, you’re never going to get good results. You’ve got to have a combination of both.”

Parallels can be drawn with big data use in the enterprise world where analytics can transform a flagging company into an efficient and streamlined business. But, again, some decisions need to be entrusted to experience and gut feeling, such as firing a strong salesperson who alienates colleagues.

Immersing fans in data

Offering all this data to fans and coaches is one thing, but Accenture is keen to explore how cutting-edge technology can be used to package such information in a more dynamic and interactive way.

Millman showed the system working with the Oculus Rift DK 2 VR headset to create a virtual stadium and locker room that can be explored and interacted with while listening to facts and statistics from a virtual version of Rugby World Cup winner Ben Kay.

Clips from previous rugby matches can be watched while standing in the virtual stadium, and statistics and match information can be compared based on data crunched in Accenture’s data visualisation system.

“What we’re trying to do with our VR concept is show how you can bring a more immersive environment to understand what’s going on in the rugby matches themselves,” Millman explained to V3.

Accenture will not launch the VR software to the rugby world, but Millman said that it is being used to show clients how VR can be deployed by businesses to help customers engage more with products.

The automotive industry is driving this idea by using VR headsets to give potential customers a digital tour of a showroom. Volvo is one such company making use of VR and several other major trends in the technology industry.

Retail versions of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets are due this year, and it is likely that VR will find its way into more sectors and stoke increasing interest in a technology that was once mothballed.

Innovative and intelligent use of big data is also set to become more prevalent in sport. Infosys, for example, is working with the tennis world to provide big data analytics to players and fans.

At the same time, data analysis is already well established in the world of motorsport. Formula One makes extensive use of analytics systems backed up by big data systems to fine tune the performance of cars.

All of which serves as a useful study for companies looking to dip their toes in the big data lake in a bid to stay head of the competition.