Sir Clive Woodward: ‘Whoever wins in IT, tends to win and I don’t think sport is different’

Sir Clive Woodward, the former rugby coach who brought England to victory in 2003 talks about the role of technology in rugby and other international sports.

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Before taking up his pivotal role in professional rugby, Sir Clive Woodward was a former international rugby player himself, but not before an 18-year career in business, including a stint at printing brand Xerox.

When he took up his role as England’s rugby coach in 1997, he brought the IT knowledge he had picked up along the way with him.

“I do believe whoever wins in IT tends to win, and I don’t think sport is any different” he says.

While Woodward had sound knowledge of IT, he knew how important it was for his team, and his players, to catch up with latest technology and software advances to boost their chances of winning matches.

“The key was the players having those skills as well. We put on a big IT programme.

“At the time I was absolutely ridiculed”, he adds.

“I gave 70 players laptops and training courses. Suddenly you would have all these big heroes, like Johnson or Dellaglio coming down from training with laptop computers. The press had a field day. I can see the press, ‘what on earth is he doing giving players laptops, why isn’t ge giving them raw meat?”

Joking aside, Woodward says that his players were told they wouldn’t get far if they didn’t adopt the IT-first way of thinking. The coach was planning software programmes for training analysis and team participation was crucial.

“You couldn’t stay in the team if you didn’t engage and develop your ability to use the software”, he says.

Woodward first learnt of sports analytics software Prozone through Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger in 1997. Woodward insists that winning matches comes down to great talent, but, “then it is what you put on top of that - you are not going to win just because you have a talented team.”

The team began using Prozone, data analysis and video analysis so they could study what players were doing.

Woodward was able to split the game into 7 areas, or chapters, including defence, attack, kicking game and pressure. By understanding what players’ winning moves were, Woodward was able to direct the team to replicate them.

“If you capture all this knowledge, you can study it and find out why you are or aren’t winning.”

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Future

Like all industries, sport must not become dependant on data analysis, Woodward warns.

“I just hope the day doesn’t come that you rely entirely on data, but that it is reinforcing what you are thinking. If you think a player is tired and the data backs that up that is great.”

However, Woodward adds, if the data is saying to take a player off due to facial recognition technology that suggests he is tired, but he is playing well according to the human eye, you should stick to your instincts.

“It is exciting, but as a coach you have just got to keep everything in balance.”

Next section: Phil Neville: ‘Data is making football more interesting’

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