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From dummy variables to dummy passes

Updated: Apr 5

By Marno du Plessis

Operations Research (OR) can be applied across a diverse set of fields and on the evening of 24 February 2022 we learnt just how OR can be applied off the field to improve performance on the field. Dr. Mark Einhorn, lead data scientist at UK-based Prospect Sporting Insights presented a captivating webinar on their use of data science to provide actionable insights to professional sports teams.

Dr Mark Einhorn presents his online seminar on his analytics to improve on-field performance and player recruitment in professional rugby.

Mark began by presenting the match statistics of two recent international rugby matches, but crucially left out the match outcomes, and asked the audience to attempt inferring the winning team in each case. It was an intriguing exercise: Which factors are most prominent in influencing the outcome of a rugby match? Could it, amongst others, be the number of tackles made in defense, or perhaps the number penalties converted? The latter sure is a crucial statistic, but two converted penalties (six points) can easily be offset by a try (seven points if the ensuing kick is converted) scored on the counterattack. Although members of the audience were quite successful with their interpretation of the statistics presented, it was clear to see how one can quickly drown in a spiral of nuance and complexity analysing match data.

In hindsight it seems obvious, but personally I was struck by how the sports sector is almost identical to the corporate world in respect of the need to employ advanced analytics to support decision-making and gain competitive advantage. Prospect Sporting Insights suggest as much on their website when they state their aim is to ‘make sport as intelligent as other industries.’

I was also enthralled to learn that Prospect Sporting Insights offered their services to England’s national rugby team (who reached the World Cup final in 2019), as well as to Leicester Tigers who are currently the leading rugby club in England’s premiership division. In a glowing endorsement quoted on PSI’s LinkedIn page, Eddie Jones (England head coach) reveals that, thanks to PSI, he now has the evidence to support which statistics matter the most in rugby and that the use of PSI’s data “has been worth every penny.”

The avid rugby fan will also see PSI’s reach in the ongoing United Rugby Championship tournament where their data, such as win predictions and kick success predictions, are made available to the viewer on screen. Notably, PSI’s approach does not have a sole focus on the quantitative element, but also incorporates the qualitative insights from sports players and coaches. The webinar concluded with Mark giving a high-level overview of the Kedro framework that they use to engineer modular and maintainable data pipelines.

Although PSI’s analytical capabilities are now well established in the world of rugby, be sure to keep an eye out for their growing involvement in other sports. I suppose it is no coincidence then that the letters ‘OR’ is found in the word ‘sport.’

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