A day in the life….

I recently got asked ‘what do you actually do other than watch rugby?’ Unfortunately, this was by my wife.

The life of a performance analyst differs drastically from team to team and club to club. You will find ‘performance analysts’ that just film games. For me, thats a cameraman. You will find ‘performance analysts’ that just code and you will find ‘performance analysts’ that have a deep input into how teams play and train. I prefer to be the latter but I do find that the more you ask to be involved with, the more involved you will get.

I’m currently working with Toronto Wolfpack Rugby League Club, the first Trans-Atlantic Professional Rugby League Team and it’s a dream position! Having just returned to the UK after playing our first three home games in Toronto at ‘The Den’ (Lamport Stadium), we then played South Wales Ironmen in Merthyr Tydfil and Workington. I’ll try and document a normal match day to allay the perception that all I do is watch rugby…

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Lamport Stadium (a.k.a The Den)

I’m lucky at the moment, in that it’s the off-season for Rugby Union. I perform ‘remote’ analysis services for a few different Union teams – Huddersfield RUFC (unbeaten in the league this year), Chester Academy (National champions), Yorkshire and North Age-Grades. This means that Saturday nights / Sundays and Mondays are often manic for me. As it’s the off-season, I only have Toronto to work on! Woo-hoo….

Workington is at least a 5 hour bus trip from our meeting point in Brighouse, near Halifax. So I set off at 1pm for the travel up and we get to the hotel just outside Workington at around 7pm. Prior to today, all the team details, the squad of 19 players, the staff and who will be physio and doctor have been confirmed and sent to the RFL. These need to be sent 48 hours prior to the game. Thankfully there are no amendments or injuries to the 19 man squad as this creates a whole load more work. Forms to complete, doctors signatures to acquire, people to inform, reasons of injury to assess, and red tape on red tape.

We arrive early evening  and the night consists of a meal and the coaching staff going through video with individual players. Tonight is a little different to most. As the players drift off to their rooms, the Workington directors arrive to welcome us to the North West. We spend a few hours chatting about rugby, the area and both clubs and it really is nice to visit a club that treats it’s opposition so well!

 

It’s game day – Sunday – and after getting breakfast, it’s off to the ground with the kit man, Simon at 11am. We get there early due to the amount of gear we have to set up for the game! Simon prepares the changing room whilst I go off to survey the ground and find a suitable spot for the coaching team to sit in the stands.

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The minimalist changing rooms at Workington

With super-league grounds, it’s pretty much all set up for you and it’s easy to get a video feed to use for your analysis software and replays. At a ground like Workington, it’s a new challenge every game! We’re fortunate that we have Premier Sports showing our games, so we are able to obtain a video feed from them. If we didn’t have them, we’d have to film our own games and take a feed from our one camera angle to use for all our analysis. Whilst taking Premier’s feed seems ideal, it does have it’s set backs in that we often want to look at things when they are showing replays of action. It’s a trade off that we’re willing to accept at this point in time!

Normally, we would sit on the TV gantry scaffold erected by Premier, however, they have used Workington’s very small gantry today and there’s no room for us. This means that we have to set up in the terracing of the stand and so we tape off a suitable area under the TV gantry.

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It’s not ideal as it’s in the middle of a very vociferous crowd but they gave us a steward to keep us safe!

He didn’t.

So pre-game, all the equipment is set up – video feeds connected to laptops via converters, software adjusted to accept the video. Monitoring screens set up for the replays and player details entered into our monitoring software. It’s not a complicated set up but it takes time to get going. Once everything is complete, I’ll go over and help Simon, the kit man, with anything else that may need to be done prior to the team arriving.

 

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The team arrive at Workington

Today is a little different. As the team arrives, we are told that there has been a crash on the M6 – the main motorway to Workington. The road is closed and the ref and 2 workington players stuck in the traffic. The game is delayed – firstly from 3pm to 3.30pm and then as it unfolds we realise that this may take some time. Kick off is put back to 4.30, then 4.55 and eventually we kick off at 5.15pm – 2 hours and 15 minutes late! As we knew it was going to be some time, our players got back on the coach and returned the 10 minutes to the hotel as we could not sit in the stiflingly small changing rooms for that long! I remained at the ground to look after the equipment and changing rooms and got quite a bit of verbal abuse from the home supporters blaming Toronto for the late kick off even though we were definitely all there, ready for kick off at 3!!

The game goes smoothly and as we rack up the points, I have all the information to hand that is needed by the coaching staff. At any time I’m able to let them know what is going within the game from stats point of view! At half time, these are all relayed to the players and we continue through the 2nd half. We end up on the right side of a 58-12 win, keeping our perfect league record which now stands at 11 and 0. Whilst everyone else ventures off to the changing room to celebrate, I start the transcoding and breakdown of equipment. 30 to 40 minutes later we’re back on the bus and I distribute the game to the coaches and start the conversion of the game video to allow coding in the analysis software and reviewing of the game which will start on the 5 hour journey back home!

As I hit bed at 12.30am Monday morning, I’m already thinking about the stats sheets I need to put together for the following day. Mondays are always a busy day in the life of an analyst….and no, I don’t just watch rugby.

The science behind the sport

I find that there are generally two types of coach in the ‘science’ camp. Those that run with it and those that don’t. It is a wide generalisation, and not one that I really wanted to use but it usually seems to be the old school coaches that think it’s not worth its salt. I didn’t want to use the generalisation because there are so many ‘old school’ coaches that have embraced the science and use it massively to their advantage, so it’s unfair to tar a whole group with the same brush.

It would seem that newer coaches that are coming through are used to having science used in their sport and thus, have less problems using and accepting it. Let’s be honest, you cant watch any sport now without having the stats rammed down your optic nerves at every opportunity.

Now, are those unconvinced coaches right to refute the scientific community? Ask any one of them and they will tell you that ‘they already know what science tells them’. Yes, I know we had more possession. Yes, I know that player X made a number of missed tackles and yes, I have watched numerous games of our opposition and know how they play. These coaches are not interested in being proved right by Science. But are we right just because we use scientific methods? I find that it can substantiate a lot of what you think is right and gives you the confidence in your theories. I also think it can throw in a few peculiarities that keeps you on your toes!

But exactly what is the ‘science’? Is it the stats collected in student sweatshops during live games?(*1) Is it the data collated from GPS units? Is it the information collected from the outrageously expensive software which needs to be coded for hours on end?(*2) There are so many aspects that it is difficult to define ‘science’ in sport. From nutrition to pre-hab, recovery and the statistical game in numbers. It’s the biomechanical, physiological and psychological breakdown of every action within a game, so no wonder it’s such a massive area.

I think the real value of science in sport is using it for an advantage rather than using it for the sake of using it. If an advantage is gained because of it, brilliant, use it. If the data collected just goes into a spreadsheet that doesn’t get looked at, then is there any real use in collecting that data? Sometimes, yes! I always find it quite satisfying when someone asks a question and you have the answer backed up in a quiet corner of a spreadsheet somewhere. In general though, I definitely think its horses for courses. Work out what ‘science’ will help you and then refine the process to suit you. Even if that ‘science’ is just a pen and some paper.

I think that because there are so many different ways to use sport science, it’s difficult to present ‘the perfect way’. Every team is slightly different to the next, every player is slightly different from the previous. From a personal point of view, I find that the easiest way to implement a system is to work from the result backwards. Decide what you want to find out or measure and then set up a system that gives you that result.

What I would say is never be afraid to question a system that you work with. Teams change, players change and rules change! Games develop and if you are still using a system you used 5 years ago, it might be time to give it a spring clean…

*1 – Just a joke! I know they are well looked after in their individual rows of cubicles!

*2 – Just a joke! I know it is reasonably priced for the great job it does!

The joining of the codes…

I’ve never got the union / league argument. I’ve never understood how someone that is involved in rugby as either a player, supporter, official, coach, whatever, can say that they don’t appreciate any part of either code. Yes, I understand that some people find that kicking for position in Union is ‘boring’. Yes, I understand that some people think League is just a game of ‘British Bulldogs’. I suspect that some may not appreciate the tactical reasons of kicking in Union and why field position means so much and I suspect that some don’t understand why ‘spotting’ an opposition player and putting a set on him in League can make or break him during that match.

They are two very different, but at the same time, very similar versions of the same game and there are intriguing aspects in both. Surely you have to applaud the same skills shown in both codes? You can’t wince at a massive hit in League and not do the same when it happens in Union? And you can’t cheer at an offload and break in Union and not do the same in League? Maybe it’s naive of me to think that people should be open-minded enough to value the skills in both, but I can admire a long pot in snooker without wanting to play it or calling the sport ‘boring’…

Maybe it’s because I played both codes, although I ended up playing senior rugby in Union. But, whatever it was, I think there are more similarities between the codes now than there ever has been and throw in the upsurge of 7’s and I think there’s a middle ground for both sets of players to play.

Here in Halifax we have a population of around 90 000. And we have 6 amateur Rugby Union clubs. Sheffield has a population of around 800 000 and has 4. Now throw in that Halifax has 9 amateur Rugby League clubs – yes, 9. Sheffield has 2. We have so many players divided between clubs and codes in Halifax that some excellent players get missed or underdeveloped or they move out of the area to clubs higher in the leagues simply because the spread of players amongst teams in Halifax is too thin.

What I find is that with the onset of summer rugby kids now play union in the winter and then play league in the summer. This has translated into senior players starting to do the same and, hopefully, some barriers may be getting broken down and the age-old League/Union argument may start to become a myth. Although I have no doubt there will always be the purists that will never succumb to the lure of the dark side (I’ll leave you to decide which code that is…)

So this leaves me thinking – is there room for a combination of the two? Could we develop a code where Scrums can be fed but line-outs are kept? What about sets of 6 tackles but where you can steal the ball in the tackle? And would a dead ball be played from the 22m or the 20m???

I’d welcome your thoughts on the matter!