Moneyball, Rugby, the Geech and Me

Sir Ian Robert McGeechan OBE (pictured above) is a Scottish former rugby union player and coach. His nickname is "Geech". On this side of the pond, he is a virtual unknown because of the dominance of American football, but in the United Kingdom, he is known as the Lion King because of his association and success with the British and Irish Lions. He was knighted for his services to rugby in 2010.

The news came over the net last night, that the Geech was going to be fired from his position as Director of Rugby at the Bath Rugby Club. Bath Rugby is a venerable old club that was founded in 1865, and until 2010 was owned by the greeting card king of England, Andrew Brownsword. Bath Rugby was bought by an ultra-rich ex-Rugby player Bruce Craig who made his millions in pharmaceutical logistics. When Craig, took over the club, it was a moribund money-loser and hadn't seen championship silverware in ages.

The club was revamped with the huge bolus of injected cash, a new clubhouse that is a virtual castle, and new everything. Among the changes was a knight of realm that was going to lead the charge to rugby glory.

It didn't work out that way. There were no immediate good results. Currently the club is in 8th place in the Aviva Premiership and regularly suffers humiliating defeats. To top it all off, the team has suffered from injuries to stars like Ollie Barkley and has lost other players who have returned to their home clubs.

What's my connection to the club? None really -- except for a crazy little story that I have to tell. It takes place in 2010 in the Bahamas. I am alpha geek, an unprepossessing figure in a Speedo bathing suit with a mesh bag in my hand with mask, snorkel and fins and holding a fishing spear. To relieve the tension of geekish IT pursuits, I walk along Cabbage Beach on Paradise Island to Snorkeler's Reef, just off the One & Only Ocean Club. I shoot fish for dinner, and collect golf balls off the testosterone-driven risk/reward 17th oceanfront hole on the golf course.

Cabbage Beach is a wonderful beach, and at the end of it, there sat a huge house. A good-looking uber-rich bloke would often be at the beach tossing a rugby ball with his two sons. After a year of saying hello, we got into a conversation, and the owner of the house was Bruce Craig.

He had mentioned that he had just bought the Bath Rugby club. Over a beer (and later dinner at the Seafire Steakhouse at Atlantis), I outlined the moneyball proposition and how data mining can identify star players, and prove that conventional wisdom about the game is neither conventional nor wisdom. Did I mention that I was alpha geek and that data-mining and software analysis was my forte?

I prepared several documents for Bruce, and along the course of the summer, Bruce quit the Bahamas for good. In April of last year, I offered to do some free analysis for the Bath Rugby Club after a dismal start to the season. Four videos arrived, and I built a video software tool to analyse the games and put them in a database for data-mining. I called the tool Rugbymetrics after the sabermetrics data analysis sweeping the baseball world in North America. This was long before the Moneyball movie starring Brad Pitt came out outlining how a winning team could be assembled by computer geeks.

Obviously my report was underwhelming to the club, Bruce, the Geech, and the CEO Nick Blofeld. That's probably my fault. I concentrated on delivering an abbreviated report on the specific game metrics, and that probably was the wrong thing to deliver. Bruce invited me to the UK to observe what they had. I had other commitments and asked Bruce to hire me. That's where it was left last April.

It was the first time, that I actually had sent an email to a knight of the realm in my email to the club and the Geech -- Sir Ian. I really am sad to see that he couldn't accomplish what was set out to do, but I do have opinions as to why the good stuff never happened during his tenure. Here are a few of my observations:

  • Psychologists have often observed that successful people rarely can hit upon the right reason as to why they are successful. And success in one time and place doesn't always transplant well for a variety of reasons. The Geech couldn't replicate his success with the Lions because it was a different time and place.
  • The players at Bath Rugby were assembled under the ownership of Brownsword whom I am sure was glad to get rid of the financial drain of the club. The team bled red ink for ages and had no real marquee players, partly because of the salary constraints and the monetary losses that the club suffered. The team consisted largely of journeymen players who were getting a little long in the tooth and a little complacent. The Geech never had the chance to wipe the slate clean and start with a new roster -- largely because I surmise that Craig wanted results fast (all opinions are my own).
  • Re-building a club from a journeyman club to a club of stars requires a team of skilled individuals, a highly motivated team including coaches, and correct management to build the right core of players.
  • It was my contention that Rugbymetrics could help in this, by giving objective, evidence-based data to build the team. That evidence would come from a very intensive exercise in datamining. I failed to communicate this to the team.
  • For example, with datamining, one would find that a consistently winning team requires to gain X meters per player per carry. One would find that a winning team requires to hold the opposition to Y meters per carry per player. One would find a players percentage of contributions to the win, and if it was below a certain metric, in spite of athletic prowess, if a player didn't meet the mark, he wasn't going to earn a spot on the team. These weren't the only metrics. Only by extensive data-mining, would one determine what exactly was the empirical evidence of a winning team and a winning player. I wanted a chance to do that analysis and contribute to the art of the sport.
  • There is much money involved in rugby and owners with deep pockets like Craig are pushing for a lifting of the salary cap. Surely with so much money involved, one would expect to get as much decision-support as possible based on empirical facts. The time for "quants" has arrived in the sport of rugby.
  • The concept of moneyball has been proven in baseball. It is time for the rugby world to follow suit. I believe that Rugby is a much more entertaining game than American football, and much like soccer is starting to take North America by storm (especially with the arrival of Beckham), rugby would have a similar rise. However if it continues to be "wet rag" rugby as the fourth estate is now calling the Bath performances, it will never ignite.
So I feel sorry for the Geech. I am deeply disappointed at my own failure to make a case for rugbymetrics to Bath Rugby. However, the day is coming when it will be ubiquitous, and the early adopters will benefit the most. Hail to the Lion King. Long live the King.

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