Scottish rugby meets Moneyball with analysis software

By Jamie LyallBBC Scotland
Mark Cairns and Billy Beane
Mark Cairns' (left) analysis software has been rolled out in Scottish rugby's top amateur leagues

The leafy surrounds of Currie Rugby Club in Edinburgh's southwest lie several galaxies from Major League Baseball and the multi-million dollar lexicon in which Billy Beane and Peter Brand, the protagonists of Moneyball, operated.

Beane, the jaded general manager, and Brand, the economics visionary, of course, dispensed with their wizened scouts in favour of mathematical rigour and formulae to propel their inconceivable metamorphosis of the Oakland Athletics from depleted ugly duckling to play-offs contender.

Currie's modest, corrugated iron grandstand, pitches bordered by the meandering Water of Leith and its little grey Tardis of a clubhouse are unlikely to feature in Hollywood lore.

But, as Scotland's excruciating Six Nations streak lengthens, the analytical pioneer Malleny Park harbours may prove increasingly sought-after.

His name is Mark Cairns, and while his role here is loosely specified as breakdown consultant, the overwhelming proportion of his time and faculties are consumed by Coach Logic, the analysis software company he co-founded four years ago.

Mark Cairns
Mark Cairns represented Scotland Club XV and Sevens

Simplifying analysis

Coach Logic was created by Cairns and partner Andy Muir as a foolproof conduit for players and coaches to navigate the blizzard of statistics with which they can be confronted - empowering those on the field with a simple tool to self-evaluate and improve.

Last year, the Scottish Rugby Union - led by chief analyst Rob Holdsworth - paid for licences for all clubs in the BT Premiership and National League One, its top two tiers of amateur rugby.

"We connected all the clubs together, they film games in broadcast quality and share match videos across the whole league(s)," he says.

Vern Cotter and Scotland
Coach Logic can help players improve as they target a pathway to professional rugby

"Then SRU analysts analyse and break down the games - for instance, a player can click on and see all of the line-outs. A coach can comment on those events, tell a player why they were good or bad, and have a discussion.

"There's an activity feed where there can be more discussion around the footage, there are resource rooms which can back up analysis.

"It's about sharing match footage and educating players as quickly as possible, so that they can come prepared for training."

'Made for me'

The software's appearance owes much to major social media and video streaming sites, and is now used in various capacities by West Ham United and international hockey sides.

In January, Cairns spent a week in Baltimore with the movers and shakers of American soccer, before meeting the International Hockey Federation in Lausanne.

Mark Cairns
Cairns grew frustrated by his missed tackles

He likes to joke that Coach Logic was "made for me", but there is more than a nugget of truth behind the laughter.

Not so very long ago, the 32-year-old was a frustrated Scotland Sevens international, desperate for a tool to better his game.

His coaches told him he was missing too many tackles. So like any dutiful workhorse of a flanker, he laid metronomic waste to the tackle bags. Hit after punishing hit.

Problem solved? Not so, for his tackle count was no better.

Crucially, Cairns came to realise, his wild lunges and flailing arms had not been "contextualised". That is to say, he didn't know why opponents were giving him the run-around. Only that it was happening too often.

"Spoon-feeding players analysis and statistics isn't going to make a long-term impact on their behaviours on the pitch," he says.

"Getting them directly involved in their analysis will make a big impact behaviourally.

Mark Cairns
Cairns stresses the importance of "contextualising" analysis for players

"Analysis has almost gone full-circle. It started off with a coach getting all the players' data, and presenting a data sheet or stats, and that was pretty much the end of it.

"They could use it as a selection tool; let a player down gently because they had evidence to back up why he wasn't picked.

"It wasn't used as a development tool, and I think the use of analysis is now adapting where players have to be directly involved in the process."

Manifold benefits

The benefits for the SRU are diverse: savvier players, smarter coaching, and real, tangible insight into the upper echelons of their amateur competition.

"The SRU get a really accurate understanding of the talent in those leagues," says Cairns.

"Instead of picking guys based on a great ball-carry now and then, they're picking guys that are contributing the most, understand the game best.

"They've got footage there to see, rather than a guy with a clipboard. They've got real evidence."

There is an onus on coaches to embrace these developments, to become less rigid and schoolmasterly in their methods.

Scotland's coaching team
Cairns urges the SRU to invest more resources in developing coaches

The software, asserts Cairns, fosters creativity and encourages more scrupulous preparation.

"As a coach, I know everyone can see what we've done the week before," he says. "I need to be flexible; I need to be innovative, I can't just do the same thing every week.

"The players get used to different game-plans, the gap to the professional game is narrowing, and the standard of coaching in the league is probably better than it's ever been.

"I think of the amount of players I've come into contact with just by being a good, competent coach.

"Focusing on developing coaching, the reach of those coaches becomes exponential, as does the impact on players.

"For me, every single resource the SRU have got should be on improving the standard of coaching - give them the authority and autonomy to improve the talent pool around them."

Stars of tomorrow

Academy players too, exposed and accustomed to self-analysis at an early stage - "like going to the gym" - can be monitored by their national coaches.

Andrew Davidson carries for Scotland U20
Scotland's academy cohort, including Andrew Davidson, can be monitored at their clubs by national coaches

"Analysis is definitely part of these kids' lives; it's not something they feel is a chore," Cairns says.

"They can pull out their own insights, learn in their own time, and not have to wait for a coach or analyst to show them footage.

"Our mission statement is 'develop smarter players'. Essentially, those are the guys that are going to win you games."

Cairns' tale may not be worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, but anyone capable of nudging Scotland towards a more prosperous Six Nations future surely merits at least an Oscars nomination.

Top Stories