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What can rugby teach us about the power of data?

John Lee
John Lee
Business Development Director for the Refinitiv Business Accelerator

A decade ago, it would be rare to find the words ‘rugby’ and ‘data’ together in the same sentence. And a decade before that, ‘data’ was rarely associated with sports in general. So, what’s changed? Refinitiv explores the power of data.

  1. Refinitiv’s partnership with Harlequins highlights the insights into the journey of data and its evolution.
  2. ‘Communication’ is instrumental to using the power of data effectively and to informing the decision-making process.
  3. Businesses should be powered by both man and machine.

In July this year, we turned to experts in the field to understand the impact data has had on rugby and explored how data is being used across industries.

Our partnership with Harlequins inspired an event which highlighted insights into the journey of data and its evolution.

The power of data

The first thing which struck me was that data is becoming even more prevalent – in rugby, sports and every aspect of business. Tom Batchelor, Head of Sport Science at Harlequins, talked about how data is becoming increasingly important for decision-making on the field. It was fascinating to hear about individual player data being used to assess players physical state, but also the player’s mental wellness, performance and risks. Tom stated that data has become so embedded into the sport that “you can’t really have a conversation without it” and that it is essential for the data experts to pick out the ‘right stuff’ to share with the players on the pitch. ‘Communication’ is instrumental to using the power of data effectively and to informing the decision-making process.

It was interesting to hear from James Horwill, former Wallabies and Harlequins captain, as a recipient and user of data. James discussed the uniqueness of individual players and how that makes it difficult to implement a ‘one-size-fits-all’ decision criteria to using data. For example, if you look at a prop’s running distance, there are stark differences to a half-back. James also alluded to the importance of simple, historical data which drove decision-making on the pitch. I was blown away (that even today), James could still remember the exact success rates of kickers from different areas on the pitch. But, James also warned caution based on his experiences: there is a lot of excitement around having more accurate data, but that excitement can sometimes lead to over-focus on the power of data, at the expense of subjective analysis.

So, data is evolving: the landscape and relationship with human engagement has become so complex. How do we pick out what’s useful and what’s noise? 

I really appreciated Sally Epstein, Head of Strategic Technology at Cambridge Consultants, who shared her expertise on data. Sally explained that in order to use the data, “you need to trust it and know where it’s coming from”. In order to pitch data-based models to a business, you need to explain them and avoid the perception of ‘black box thinking’. Then to the complexity of data; Sally posed questions that many data scientists will be asking today: “How do you trust the data?” “Are you getting the full picture with the data you’re receiving?” “Has anything been missed?” Understanding and combining multiple data sets to clarify the wider picture is critical and underlines the need to carefully curate the data.

Our very own Geoff Horrell, Head of London Refinitiv Labs, furthered the concept of understanding the providence of the data as being essential. If you’re going to trust the data, and use it to make decisions, then you need to know where it comes from. Ultimately, I understood that there is a need to make sure you’re avoiding any bias being built into your data. Geoff explained that data-driven decisions are moving from the back-office to the front-office and that there is a growing presence of data scientists who can bridge data and the rest of the world, which is becoming a “common sense, business requirement”.

Having worked with data for over a decade, I feel both privileged and humbled to be in an era where we are seeing such tremendous advancements with the relationship between organisations and data. I’d like to conclude this blog with two key messages that resonated with me when considering data within business. Firstly, Tom stressed that his organisation is a “data-driven people business”, underlining the prevalence of data, and that businesses should be powered by both man and machine. Secondly, Sally pointed out that data-based models are not permanent nor are they a “silver bullet”. Data experts need to understand the limitations and capabilities of what the data can provide and be open to adapting models to both internal and external factors. Today, the importance of data is prominent and widespread. As a global community we must find the right tools and ways to understand data both objectively and subjectively. Data is truly just the beginning and we are learning to understand the context behind it and how to use it most effectively.

What can data leaders and specialists in finance learn from a top English rugby team? The answer? A LOT.

Access our special Refinitiv and Harlequins webinar on-demand – Of tries and trades: sporting lessons in data-driven performance

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