Winning Tactics beyond The Rugby Field

Ernst & Young LLP (EY) partner Stuart Lang, a former international rugby player, discusses the role of data in the contemporary game and the similarities between high-level performance in business and sport.

In an age where big data and analytics are prevalent in top-level sport, Ernst & Young LLPY Partner and former Scotland professional rugby player Stuart Lang recalls his experiences with a smile. "The limit of data analysis when I played was a notebook in which you kept a record of what weights you were lifting during gym sessions."

At the start of his career, there had been little or no use of technology in the sport. Over the next few years, some basic video analysis was introduced, but it was still a far cry from today’s utilization of big data to enhance performance at elite levels. By contrast a professional in today's game may be fitted with Global Positioning System (GPS) trackers and biometrics to analysze performance and recovery and to plot training schedules and programs.

Growing up along the Scottish borders, Lang learned the game in Kelso, renowned for its strong rugby tradition, then moved to Heriot's Rugby Club while at university. In 1996, Lang had just finished his degree and toured New Zealand with the full Scotland squad and was contemplating which career path to follow. Around the same time, the game of rugby went professional overnight and Lang became one of the first group of players to be offered a professional contract by the Scottish Rugby Union.

He played for Scotland, Scotland A, Scotland 7's and Edinburgh, in what was the first incarnation of the Celtic League, and also played in the European Cup — competing against the top clubs from across England, France, Wales and Ireland. In 1999, the fullback was set to be part of the Scottish squad for the Rugby World Cup, but a freak training-ground injury ruled him out of the tournament. "In my absence, a young guy called Chris Paterson came in, and I could see he would be first-choice number 15 for years to come."

Lang's thoughts turned to a career after rugby. "I completed a master’s degree in software engineering while playing," he says. "Some of my teammates became very good on their PlayStations and got themselves a nice handicap on the golf course, but I always had one eye on the future."

By 2001, Lang had achieved everything he wanted to in rugby and began to focus on a career in banking. He joined a large bank with strong rugby connections and worked in the field of business intelligence and data analysis.

He then moved to Capgemini consultancy, founded by Serge Kampf, also owner of the Grenoble and Biarritz rugby clubs. "I got in touch once I joined and he remembered me playing well against both of his sides in the past," says Lang, pointing out the importance of networking when developing a career in business, whatever your background.

After a spell with Deloitte, he joined Ernst & Young LLPY as a partner in its Advisory business in the financial services sector in December 2014, seasoned in technology and data analysis, and now shares his views on how these areas have become more important in rugby and other sports. "They are such key tools to assess performance at the top-level," Lang says. "Data provides empirical evidence to prove trends and outcomes, whereas previously we relied on gut-feel and visual interpretation. Coaches and players can both use data to help improve the performance of the team and individuals," he adds.

Artificial intelligence is the next big thing in analytics technology, identifying trends as well as recommending decisions which should be made as a result. Lang believes this will find its way through to high-level sport too.

"Sport will follow the trends, and we’ll see the development of algorithms to identify what each individual player needs to do to improve their performance, skill levels and fitness," he predicts.

There are many well documented examples of successful sports leaders who then went on to be leaders in business, and Lang uses his experiences from his rugby career in his role at EY, particularly when it comes to teaming.

"You need an awareness that you can be the best player in the team but you will still require the help of your teammates. Without them, there is a limit to what even the most talented individual can achieve," he says. "It’s also important to remember that to be successful as a team, you don’t always have to like your teammates or colleagues but you have to respect what they do and the contribution they make to the team."

And why do former athletes so often make good business leaders? Lang’s explanation is clear. "A great work ethic is a given when it comes to successful sportsmen and women, so they will always have that drive and determination," he says. The strength of teaming is one of EY’s key business philosophies, and Lang cites an example of collaboration from the past 12 months. "We were bidding to win a big piece of work from a major bank, and they came back to us to request significant changes to the pitch with a deadline of just 24 hours.

"The team was struggling to work out how we should accomplish this, but a partner who wasn’t involved in the project and just happened to be walking by helped out until 4:00 a.m. the following morning, which assisted us in winning the work."

That kind of teamwork will be a prerequisite for the British & Irish Lions in New Zealand this June, and Lang is looking forward to the three test series in the country he knows well, having toured there with Scotland back in 1991. "It will be a very tough tour with difficult build-up matches against strong divisional opposition. However, I can see the Lions winning the series 2-1 and Stuart Hogg, the Scotland full-back, scoring the winning try."

As a principal partner to the British & Irish Lions Tour, EY is bringing its experience in digital and analytics to work with The British & Irish Lions tour to help support sports fans and commercial partners to further engage with the 2017 tour to New Zealand.

This publication contains information in summary form and is therefore intended for general guidance only. It is not intended to be a substitute for detailed research or the exercise of professional judgment. Member firms of the global EY organization cannot accept responsibility for loss to any person relying on this article.