‘How do you know if he’s any good?’: How data, concussion rule changes will reshape recruitment


Constructing a roster is one of the hardest jobs in rugby league – and it’s about to get a lot harder, according to one of the pioneers of data in the sport.

Rob Lowe, founder of rugby league’s first data and statistics company in the UK and co-founder of Oval Insights, a leading stats provider across league and rugby union, told The Roar‘s rugby league podcast of the impending earthquake that is set to hit once rule changes related to concussion are brought in.

The English Super League has already announced that tackle heights will be lowered to beneath the armpit in 2025, a rule that already exists in junior level footy in Australia and may well be adopted as concerns about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) caused by head knocks only grow.

In practice, it means that clubs recruiting now – either from the Super League to the NRL or the other way around – now must factor in diverging rulebooks.

“We’ve got a very interesting case study about to happen here in the UK,” Lowe told The Roar League Podcast.

“From next year, the tackles need to be lower, so nobody really knows which players are going to be good or bad when the tackle height has to be lower.

“Both on the defensive side – which players are going to not give penalties away and still be good tackles – and on the attacking side. What does it mean? Will some players become more effective because they have to be tackled lower?

“There’ll be disruption to the game from that and, I think if teams are smart enough, they can use the data to get ahead of it a little bit.

“There’s (been) some quite fundamental changes over the year in rugby league that have happened relatively regularly: four point tries, ten metre offsides, set restarts, ball steals, all these kind of things that have changed the way the game plays.

“Even now, we’ve got small tweaks and we’re going to get a big tweak with tackle heights – but in the UK and not in Australia. So if you’re an English club recruiting an Australian player and the rules are quite different, how do you know if he’s going to be any good?”

Lowe, who has worked with top level clubs on both sides of the globe as well as across league and union, added that regardless of recruitment, it was the ability to fill out a roster with homegrown youth that was key to developing a successful club, as seen by the likes of Penrith in the NRL as well as Wigan and St Helens in the UK.

“My belief over a long period of time in rugby league is that the same teams always win because, in their roster, their players 18-25 (on the list), their homegrown juniors, are better than the other team’s 18-25 and cheaper,” said Lowe.

“Wigan and St Helens historically have had the best young players and those young players, when a first choice player gets injured, they can step in and be nearly as good on half the salary.

“Consequently, any players they can get through free agency or their own homegrown where they have to put onto senior contracts, they can pay them more because they’re not paying the players outside the best 17 that much money.

“The depth of the players in the team in the squad is important. When a player can’t play for whatever reason, the replacement is almost as good as he is. That makes a difference.

“In a lot of other teams, the drop off is bigger. As soon as you get three or four first choice players injured, they’re done for.”

WIGAN, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 24: Jake Wardle of Wigan Warriors goes down before going over to score his team’s third try during the Betfred World Club Challenge match between Wigan Warriors and Penrith Panthers at DW Stadium on February 24, 2024 in Wigan, England. (Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images)

Lowe developed some of the key statistics that are now second nature to rugby league fans worldwide, but stated that, across his 30 years at the forefront of data in sport, the single biggest determining factor was not tactics or statistics, but roster building and the ability to get that talent onto the park consistently.

“What we have found is that the biggest influence is the players that are on the pitch,” he said.

“The absolute quality of the players on the pitch is the biggest factor.

“If you’ve got your best three players out injured, it doesn’t really matter what (your) tactics (are) or what you’ve done in the last few games. It really revolves mostly around who you can select.

“It’s not necessarily a big thing in rugby league because most teams can select the best team every week, but for example in rugby union in the UK, a lot of the time players don’t play because they’re being rested for international games or the club just decide to change the team for a weekend because they’ve got a more important game the week after.

“There’s a lot of volatility in selection and that has a massive effect on the probability of the outcome.”

If that seems obvious, there’s a good reason for it. Stats, said Lowe, usually confirm what the received wisdom already was – though the trick to getting ahead was the ability to find the outliers and then put them into practice.

“On balance, it reinforces people’s initial views,” he said of data in rugby league.

“It’s probably less often that you get a Eureka moment or something that’s completely the opposite to what people think.

“It’s like Formula 1: if a car designer comes up with a brilliant new concept, suddenly that car wins every race until all the others have caught on to it.

“You can get that competitive advantage by the one in ten things that you discover that are not what the world already believes.”

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