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Will Carling blog #6: The odds of placekicking

By 18th March 2020 No Comments

Will Carling continues his exclusive blog series for Broadcast Sport during a Six Nations tournament now abruptly halted by coronavirus. This week he looks at the insight provided by the new kick predictor on-screen graphics.

To say the Guinness Six Nations Championship has been a little unusual this year is an understatement. While the last few weeks have brought victory and glory, and defeat and regret in equal measure – not to mention some truly outstanding games of rugby – fans and teams alike have also had to contend with a powerful pair of windstorms and the extraordinary and unprecedented advent of the coronavirus, COVID-19. I don’t think anyone could have predicted what has happened!

The final round of the Championship was due to take place this weekend just gone, but unfortunately all three games were postponed due to ongoing concern around COVID-19. I have no doubt they would have been hugely exciting.

While I originally expected the Wales and Scotland game at the Principality stadium to be the standout fixture, I was most excited to see if England could pull off a great comeback and win the Championship in their match against Italy (provided Ireland could have done a job on France, of course!).

“Placekicking has been a huge factor in whether games have been won and lost.”

A game of two boots
Throughout the Championship, as ever, placekicking has been a huge factor in whether games have been won and lost. We saw the normally metronomic boot of Ireland captain Johnny Sexton lose its rhythm against England, when he shanked a couple of easy kicks and saw Ireland’s challenge fade away.

And somehow, during a stormy night in Paris, one of the coolest men in rugby right now, Romain Ntamack of France, and England’s leading star, Owen Farrell, made 100% of their kicks – four and three respectively. These pros make it look easy, but of course there are a number of factors that could impact on a player’s ability to send the ball squarely between the posts.

The truth is that placekicking may look easy, but I can assure you it isn’t. The eyes of a stadium – let alone those of everyone watching on TV – bear down on a placekicker as the atmosphere seizes up and the silence becomes deafening.

They run through their rituals – whether it’s the Biggar dance or the Farrell eye-tracing – to settle their nerves and shut out the world around them. Just them, the ball and the posts (and possibly some weather).

“This kind of insight is not just interesting, it’s essential.”

Kick predictor
One of the new Matchstats powered by AWS – the kick predictor – was used throughout the Championship to bring to life the probability of a kicker successfully slotting a penalty kick or conversion.

Advanced machine learning technology draws on real-time, in-game factors like the score and where the kick is being taken from, the period of the game in which the kick is being taken, if the kicking team is playing home or away, as well as historical factors like how successful the kicker has been from that position during the Championship and during the player’s entire career.

This stat provides much more insight than simply showing a general kick success rate. It helps fans to determine a player’s kicking ability, while factoring in the difficulty of the kick, as differences are small between players for the easiest kicks, but can be large for more difficult kicks (for example, from the touchlines).

“Understanding the probability of whether these kicks go over or not is a fascinating prospect.”

Understanding the probability of whether these kicks go over or not is a fascinating prospect. We can really get to grips with the risk versus reward for each kicking decision. We can see just how much better the very best kickers are too, as the likelihood of them making a kick is higher than the average.

For fans like my younger kids, who are data obsessed, this kind of insight is not just interesting, it’s essential. They want to know who the best player is, who ran the most yards, and that sort of thing. This is the kind of information that fans now want to know, and they want to talk about it with their mates. Data makes heroes these days, because it makes it clearer to fans who is playing really well.

“It’s funny to think that data and access to data was really limited back in my day.”

Who will win the 2020 Championship?
So far, the 2020 Guinness Six Nations Championship has delivered some real moments of quality rugby that will live long in the memory – and there’s still more to come!

For me, a few of the standout highlights so far include watching the mercurial Stuart Hogg deliver a moment of sheer brilliance to score a wonderful try against Italy, running half the length of the pitch and stepping away from defensive players with ease.

Then, Romain Ntamack almost single-handedly dismantling a powerful Welsh side with inventive kicking and icy cool decision-making. And England managing to finish (and win) their game against Wales with just 13 men on the pitch.

“Let’s hope the remaining matches deliver even more magic when they’re played later in the year!”

Let’s hope the remaining matches deliver even more magic when they’re played later in the year!

It’s funny to think that data and access to data was really limited back in my day. At that time, the only data you collected was the number of points, who was winning and who was losing. Things advanced a little and we got to see information like the number of tackles and metres made, and the weights of players. Now it’s so much more, and we are really only just scratching the surface of what is possible.

I am really excited to see how the Six Nations will continue to adopt technology to enhance the fan experience in rugby even further. By using cloud services like machine learning, artificial intelligence and advanced analytics, it really is possible to make rugby – and all sports – more accessible, understandable and engaging for us all. Fans just haven’t had this level of insight before and I think that’s rather wonderful.

For now, we’ll have to wait and see who the eventual winners are of the 2020 Championship. Which nation will be next to etch its name into sporting history by joining the Roll of Honour? With England and France tied at the top of the table with 13 points apiece, the title is very much still up for grabs.

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