by Rugby4Cast / 30th July 2020


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Beat the Algorithm

Think you know better? Can you outsmart the Algorithm over the course of a season?

Podcaster /Journalist

Are you a podcaster or a journalist? Would you like more information on tournaments week by week to fill your column and show?

Remind me, where did this all start?

Well I’m glad you should ask. The website Rugby4Cast started formally in late 2017, for the Autumn Internationals that year, but had existed in some form or another for at least a few years before that.

The Beginnings, and Algorithm 0.0

Graeme – our Glorious Visionary and Founder, the First Sports4Caster – had started tracking International rugby results as early as 2014 to see how the rankings fluctuated over time and built a spreadsheet into which he could enter future imaginary results and see how the rankings would look should they come to pass. As a Scot, he particularly enjoyed entering imaginary Scottish Grand Slams and seeing the corresponding rise through the rankings. And every year he was always bitterly disappointed when, 3 minutes into the first match of the Six Nations, it became immediately clear that this year was not their year. Perhaps next year then …

However, from this data was collected and before long some basic stats about histories and form could be generated. It was a short step from these to generate some rudimentary predictions, and Algorithm 0.0 was born. Crude, inaccurate and with a curious tendency for predicting Scottish wins, it nevertheless served its purpose and lit the fire and desire for improvement.

Website and Algorithm 1.0

Over the course of the next few years, the predictions process was refined. Essentially it looked at a blended measure of average scoring patterns for the both sides; home, away and in head to head matches and then adjusted for differences in official World Rankings. This was all still completed within Excel. This worked relatively well, and predictions were circulated locally amongst friends and family just for fun.

Then came the big breakthrough. After a night in the pub in 2017 discussing the upcoming Autumn Internationals it was suggested that this should be turned into a website, and the results and predictions circulated from there rather than via hundreds of WhatsApp and email messages. In the spirit of taking things too far, the website was launched the very next morning.

In those days, the website was just a blog, into which pieces were written and basic .jpg pictures of the predictions were uploaded each week. This was enjoyable, but fairly time consuming as the majority of the data and website updates had to be completed manually. As such, content was limited just to Tier 1 Internationals. But all that was to change …

Python and Algorithm 2.0

In Spring 2018 Graeme discovered Python. To be perfectly honest, he claims he can’t remember how or why he came to it, but for some reason he downloaded it in around May 2018. He said:

To be perfectly honest I’m not sure how or why I’ve done this, but for some reason I’ve downloaded Python.

Graeme – around May 2018

It was a swift love affair. Data was uploaded and rudimentary predictions were produced shortly thereafter. All sorts of other possibilities opened up. Webscraping became possible, and results were scraped from the web to build the first Rugby4Cast database, including club matches as well as internationals.

By sheer good fortune Graeme’s first son arrived around the same time and he had planned, from June 2018 to take 4 or so months paternity leave. This time was put to good use and over the course of those months Algorithm 2.0 was built – the first fully functioning program that scraped results, updated the databases, calculated all the associated metrics and variables that formed the basis of the machine learning features, and then produced predictions. This went live in around August 2018.

[N.B Graeme would like to clarify that his son was also well cared for throughout this period, and was still alive and well at the launch of Algorithm 2.0.]

Alex – Professional Lunatic – and Website 2.0

Alex joined the team around the same time in summer 2018. Graeme had been grooming him for several months and finally managed to convert just before the Rugby Championship 2018. Alex joined as the ‘website guy’ and with the initial task of converting the back-end of the website into a proper database that could be updated straight from output from the new Algorithm 2.0. Alex took to the task with gusto, and before long Algorithm 2.0 and Website 2.0 were chatting happily together, with the former updating the latter with new predictions and results each week.

I was never a huge rugby fan, I much prefer tennis, and to be honest with you I still think my gut feel beats this “Algorithm” business, even with my limited knowledge.

It’s also worth mentioning I wasn’t even first choice for the web role, but the first choice went AWOL for about 6 months and Graeme reluctantly had to ask me instead. However, he convinced me to get involved over a kick-off meeting where we had a lovely pizza and beer at Pizzeria Mama Mia in Oxford – I had the Mama Mia special, which comes with a fried egg in the middle – and so here I am 2 years later.

Alex – reflecting fondly on his time at Rugby4Cast

Algorithm 3.0

In October 2018 the European Club leagues began, and due to the streamlined process perfected with Algorithm 2.0 of scraping results and producing predictions, these were accommodated without fuss.

This is actually a complete lie. 5 days before the start of the Top 14 it became clear that all predictions for French matches were missing. It turned out the source had this year just decided not to cover the Top 14. In a blind panic, and with the energy that usually comes from such hysteria, overnight Graeme rewrote the Algorithm to scrape results from 2 other sources to ensure the databases were as complete as possible.

Then, and only then, the additional European leagues were accommodated without fuss.

Over the course of the next few months Algorithm 3.0 was written. This didn’t make large scale changes to the predictions, but rather upgraded the process of running, storing and producing predictions and results. The whole process was much more robust and didn’t involve Graeme and Alex pulling their hair out at 3AM on a Thursday night trying to get the predictions updated for the weekend. Well, not as often as they have been previously anyway.

Sam – Professional Data Scientist – and Algorithm 4.0

Subject: Getting Involved…

Message Body:

Will keep this potentially very long and boring email where I brown nose you lot a fair bit to a short one…..I’m a big rugby fan and also I’m a big data fan (sounds like I cool down servers …) and was wondering if you were either actively working on the models and I could get involved or if there was anything else I could partake in as  like I say very up my street! I’m a data scientist by trade, currently working at a company called … in London where we crowdsource data from about … and produce user experience metrics (and a few others) about quality of … across the globe.

Looking forward to hearing back,


A re-enactment of Alex and Graeme reaction to Sam’s email, and Sam’s subsequent joining of the team can be seen below.

And thus Sam joined the team.

I’m very excited by the prospect of Sam joining the team as he is actually a data scientist ‘by profession’, rather than ‘by night’, as Graeme is.

Given Graeme has little to no idea how to program – rather he just seems to have stumbled his way to something that works – personally I am delighted that someone is joining the team who might have an inkling just what the hell they are doing.

Alex – late 2019

I am terrified that I may have to show my code to him. I’ve forgotten how it all works.

Graeme – late 2019

Sam took one look at the code Graeme had written for Algorithm 3.0, politely kept his thoughts on it to himself, and decided he would just have to redo the whole damn thing himself. And thus, the prospect of Algorithm 4.0 was born.

Algorithm 4.0 and Website 3.0

Essentially, at this stage they were in too deep to do anything else. It was decided to design the website properly, and rebuild it from the ground up at the same time as developing Algorithm 4.0. Why the hell not? It is new, sleek, shiny, does all sorts of things Graeme doesn’t understand and most importantly; runs, optimises and produces predictions automatically. These are then taken by the brand spanking new Website and showcased in all their glory.

In theory, Graeme, Alex and Sam don’t have to do anything … although this is yet to be properly tested. Somehow they are skeptical.

We are very skeptical that this will run as expected.

Graeme, Alex and Sam – Summer 2020

Present Day

And there you have it. That pretty much takes us to the present day. Plans are afoot for more, and we’ll be informing you of those soon … stay tuned.

Addendum from Alex: Just to clarify that Graeme did just set this up with a view to predicting Scotland wins for every match. In case you’re wondering.

Alex – just now