Learning from the Recent Successes in English Rugby

 Executive Summary

  • An analytical mindset has been a key component in the successes of both Saracens under Mark McCall and England under Eddie Jones
  • The analytical mindset at Saracens grew out of Brendan Venter’s evidence-based, people-centred coaching philosophy influenced by his medical background
  • Analytics can never guarantee success but, if properly harnessed, the power of analytics is to improve decision making by replacing guesswork with hard evidence, and ensuring that systematic analysis takes precedence over selective anecdotes


Saturday 3rd October 2015 marked an incredible low for English rugby when a 33-13 defeat by Australia at Twickenham saw England crash out of the Rugby World Cup in the group stages of a tournament they were hosting and confidently expected to go all the way to the Final. Wind the clock forward just under nine months to Saturday 25th June 2016 when England completed a historic 3-0 series whitewash Down Under with a 44-40 defeat of Australia in Sydney. And that came on the back of England achieving the Grand Slam in winning the Six Nations in March. What a transformation in a relatively short space of time, and one that English football fans will want to see repeated sooner rather than later following England’s ignominious exit from Euro 2016 after a 2-1 defeat by Iceland just two days after the English rugby success in Sydney.


The turnaround in the fortunes of the England national rugby team has been masterminded by a new head coach, Eddie Jones. Beyond the observables – the changes in team and squad selections and coaching personnel, and match performances – along with the head coach’s media pronouncements, it is always difficult from the outside to know exactly how things have changed behind the scenes. But in the case of the regime change under Eddie Jones, it is clear that there are strong connections with the other major recent success in English rugby, the transformation of Saracens in just seven years from a team that had never won the Premiership to multiple Premiership titles and crowned Champions of Europe in May 2016. I was privileged to work with Saracens from March 2010 to May 2015 and saw first-hand how the club transformed its culture, its way of doing things. And one of the critical elements in that cultural change was the adoption of an evidence-based approach to coaching decisions. An analytical mindset is a common characteristic of both Saracens under Mark McCall and England under Eddie Jones. And of course two of Eddie’s assistant coaches at England, Paul Gustard and Steve Borthwick, were key people in the Saracens transformation.


The Saracens transformation dates back to 2009 and the appointment of the South African internationalist, Brendan Venter as Director of Rugby (in succession to Eddie Jones – it’s a small world). As well as a wealth of rugby experience in both South Africa and England, Brendan also brought a coaching philosophy strongly influenced by his medical background. As a medical practitioner, Brendan is committed to an evidence-based, people-centred approach. As he told me once, “I treat people not diseases, and I make my decisions using the best available evidence.” Brendan created a culture at Saracens that put an emphasis on really looking after the players as individuals, supporting and encouraging their personal development, and promoting a strong tribal bonding between players, coaches and support staff. An important appointment in this respect was the sports psychologist, David Priestley, who in a very quiet, unassuming and professional way did an incredible job in creating the people-centred Saracens way.


Brendan also instigated a more systematic approach to the analysis of games by the coaches. Supported by the performance analyst, Matt Wells, again another true professional massively respected within the club, the coaches recorded their observations for their own areas of responsibility from the game video to create expert data on player performance. It showed incredible commitment to painstakingly go through the game video to analyse every contribution of every Saracens player. Paul Gustard, the defence and lineout coach, would study every tackle and defensive play, and every lineout and then systematically record his observations. The other coaches – Alex Sanderson, Dan Vickers and Andy Farrell (and subsequently Kevin Sorrell and Joe Shaw) – did the same for their areas of responsibility. Gradually a mass of expert data was being built up and I was brought it to interrogate the data and analyse patterns across games. A reporting structure was created to feed into the coaches’ review of games. A central component of these reports was a set of team and player key performance indicators (KPIs) colour-coded using a traffic-lights system.


After Brendan returned to South Africa in January 2011, Mark McCall was promoted to Director of Rugby. Brendan had played with Mark at London Irish and brought him to Saracens. The transition was almost seamless particularly as Brendan retained a senior advisory role as Technical Director. Like Brendan, Mark embraces an evidence-based approach – he’s a law graduate. Under Mark the use of analytics greatly expanded into game preparation, particularly opposition analysis.


It said a lot about Saracens that they had the confidence to bring in an outsider, a university professor with no previous experience in professional rugby albeit I am a qualified football coach (UEFA B License) with many years of experience in applying analytics to sport. Brendan and Mark encouraged me to think out of the box and use analytics to challenge the coaches. Both of them were acutely aware of the problem of groupthink when a group of people work so closely together over an extended period of time and develop a collective view of the world. I remain in awe of just how hard the coaches at Saracens worked to get the best out of themselves in order to facilitate the players to get the best out of themselves. They embodied the notion of servant leadership, leading by serving the collective. And importantly they were open-minded, and like all great teachers (coaches after all are teachers), always looking to learn more so that they could become better coaches.


And it wasn’t just the coaches and the other support staff – sports scientists, medics, strength and conditioning, and psychologists – who embraced analytics and an evidence-based approach, the players did so too, no more so than the team captain, Steve Borthwick. Often known as the Professor of the Lineout, Steve was meticulous in his preparation for games. He worked closely with Paul Gustard in developing the lineout strategy for games. Steve also received all of my team and opposition reports, and regularly followed up with questions and comments. It is absolutely no surprise that Steve has formed such an effective coaching partnership with Eddie Jones, first at Japan and now at England. And it is no surprise either that Paul Gustard has also become an integral member of Eddie’s coaching staff. All three share an incredible commitment to excellence, capacity to work and care for detail. All three have an analytical mindset just like the coaching staff at Saracens. Analytics can never guarantee success but, if properly harnessed, the power of analytics is to improve decision making by replacing guesswork with hard evidence, and ensuring that systematic analysis takes precedence over selective anecdotes. Perhaps English football should heed these lessons.


14th July 2016

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