Is Rugby League really in freefall?

I was half way through writing my next post, a post on facilities v success i.e. do 1st class facilities facilitate 1st class performance and yet another hammer drops within Rugby League. Salford have a fan-based squad-builder fundraiser set up to help buy players. I’m not knocking the actual act and it’s honourable of the fans to try and help. I just can’t recall ever seeing this happen within other professional sports’ clubs. A quick search provided zero results other than Portsmouth fans crowdfunding £270 000 to buy their Academy training ground to make sure that it would remain theirs rather than continue renting.

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Then Leigh. Pay Super League contracts to Championship players without having the money to do so. And when they don’t get the predicted finish and related prize money? “We can’t afford to pay you, we’ll allow you to go to other clubs…..”. And this goes on, year after year. It’s what Robbie Hunter-Paul called rolling the dice. And that’s exactly what it is, hoping for a 6 and rolling a 1.

Would any other business ever even contemplate the act, let alone act on it.

“Mr CEO, we have a chance to go from being a medium sized enterprise to an international sized enterprise in a single year – it would mean our turnover would rise from £200 000 a year to £1.2 Million” “Brilliant, how do we do it?” “We’re going to put all our money into Gold and hope the the price of Gold rises” “But what if the price of Gold goes down?” “It won’t. But IF it did, well, we’d have to sack all our employees and we’ll pretty much have to close the business” “Could we not just work hard on our infrastructure and help our employees develop, grow our customer base and get to that point over, say, 5 years?” “Yes, but where would the fun in that be?” “Mr General Manager, Please leave my office and remove your belongings from your desk…”

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

And that’s what happening!

I’m not comparing Super League to the Premiership, I’m comparing it more to League 2. Northampton, Bury, Port Vale? All sustainable clubs. Exeter, Crewe, Yeovil Town? All had their up’s and down’s but haven’t nearly gone to the wall. So is this just something Rugby League has to accept or should the RFL do something about it.

That’s point 1.

Point 2 is should this be the RFL’s number 1 priority? Because as it stands, the game is being pushed and pulled from all directions. I know my voice carries no weight, but I like to think that I’m pretty down to Earth and have some common sense (many would disagree with that, however). And so here is my thoughts on how Rugby League could take big steps forward and I think it may resonate with quite a few people who I have talked with about the situation. By the way, I am very open to different views and any reasoned arguments as to why these views may not work are very much welcomed – so this is very much a starting point for discussion rather than a point by point resolution!

So we start as a 12 year old playing rugby for the local club with his mates, who turn out week after week and love just playing. These boys play together for years and are best of mates and at 14 and 15 start to get noticed as good players. 4 or 5 of the team have developed into very good / potentially great players and get noticed by a few professional clubs as being as such. At 15, these 4 or 5 of the players from this team get offered to join academies  and are, of course, over-joyed at this. They go off and start their journeys in the professional game. The 12 or 13 lads who didn’t get picked up, that were part of a winning team last year, have just had their best 5 players taken away and all of a sudden start to lose. And they weren’t good enough for academies. So what’s the point. “There are other things starting to interest me, so I’m not doing this anymore”. (Note 1: There is a big drop in playing numbers at age 16. Under 16 teams fold, the leagues get smaller, the same teams play the other same teams and it gets boring).

Let’s turn to the lads who joined the academies. They get some fantastic coaching, they have some education, they train in a professional environment. They play other academies and they move up the academy ladder. They may get to play some representative games. Then at 19, they don’t get given a professional contract – that’s not to say they aren’t good enough, but they just won’t be getting a professional contract post academy. A few may move to lower division clubs. Most have the option of returning to their amateur club after 4 years of being at a professional club or giving up because they didn’t make it. Those that do swallow their pride and return to their amateur club (many won’t do that) suddenly get to play big, aggressive, fully matured men. (Note 2: They have only ever played other 18 or 19 year olds. They have never played Mad Mike McNoTeeth from West Oldham Bulldogs who’s sole job is to make players think twice about carrying it off their own line. This is a culture shock, and guess what, this 19 year old thinks Rugby League isn’t as fun anymore). And numbers at this age drop again.

From here, we move up to the professional clubs, League 1, Championship and Super League. Squads in League 1 and Championship rarely number more than 30 and if you are contracted, you cannot play amateur rugby. Therefore say 6 have injuries, you’re stuck with 6 or 7 players not being selected week in, week out. These players say that they want to play and their only option is to therefore get put out on loan or Dual reg to other clubs who then have players not playing. Who then get disillusioned, and who end up not playing.

And the playing squads get smaller, so clubs bring in quota spot players. And the quota spots take the place of current players, who then go out on loan, who then replace lower league players, who then don’t play…..bada bing bada boom Yada yada yada.

It’s not hard to see how consecutive RFL decisions, all made with good intentions, have formed pretty much a perfect storm of downward spiral.

“So how can we stop this?” The crowds yell. Well, in my eyes, it’s pretty easy. But it would take a brave and strong ruling body to take bold action. I understand the research and the rationale behind the ‘Embed the Pathway’, sorry, ‘England Talent Pathway’, cough, £100k to change a name, cough, I have sat in the development days and meetings many times. But I don’t think the junior academies work for Rugby League. Definitely keep the senior academies and link them with a reserves team. YES, we’re all saying it!! RESERVES. Because here is the ‘Easy Teen Pathway’: (Note 3 – Please don’t spend any amount of money changing a name to this….)

We start as a 12 year old playing with his mates. At 14 and 15 the team have 4 or 5 good players, and they can play with other good or potentially very good players in a ‘area development’ team, perhaps called a ‘service area team’. These teams can take the best players and let them play against other areas best players and still play for their amateur club with their mates. At 17 – 19, Professional teams could invite players that they see with talent or potential to play in their Academies. Should they not be getting game time, they could be released back to their amateur clubs but still remain or train or be involved in the academy. A certain amount of communication would be required between amateur and professional club here, mind, perhaps this would be what could be termed ‘a relationship’ between amateur and professional clubs. Perhaps even develop this into ‘a link’. Mad, I know, but he who dares to dream.

As their time comes to an end, or when the coaching team sees fit, the Senior Academy lads progress to a Reserve team, where they get to play a better standard of player and develop their strength of both body and mind. Keeping the ‘relationship’ going with the local amateur teams, the Reserve team could provide opportunities for local amateur players to play, however, this would require the RFL to allow ‘trialists’ to play in the reserves teams. This could cause massive problems, as it is clear to all involved in Rugby League that UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should an amateur player be allowed to play at a professional club and that a meaningless £25 a month contract should be in place for professional club reserve players to prevent that player playing amateur club rugby, as this could help him develop as a player. Oh, hang on. No, that sounds ridiculous. But that is what is happening at some clubs who are trying to develop reserve team players. Due to the ‘voluntary’ nature of current reserve team games, some contracted players could be playing as little as 6 games a season, and are not allowed back to their amateur clubs even if they haven’t played a game in a month. It would mean that players have to be managed to make sure they don’t play too many games, but this could help develop the pro / amateur club ‘Relationship’ even further.

And then, guess what? a few players shine in the Reserves and get 1st team game time. And everyone thinks ‘wow, these home grown lads are good’ and we can now give them a proper contract and we might be able to use the quota spots more effectively and the game as a whole may benefit.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think it’s that difficult, it just needs a strong leadership and a buy in from other parties, such as BARLA, for the good of the whole game, rather than a vanity project with self-promotion as the main motivation…..Over to you, RFL.

A New Dawn….

Okay, this is more of an apology to myself. When I started my blog, I desperately wanted not to be one of those bloggers whose posts tail off and die. There is always time to write a couple of paragraphs, always time to note down a couple of thoughts. But life got the better of me and I tailed off just as things got interesting…

In October 2017, I joined Toronto Wolfpack as their Performance Analyst on a full time contract. As part of the contract, I was also to coach Manchester Metropolitan University’s Rugby League team. Toronto and Manchester Metropolitan had just announced an amazing partnership that would see Toronto be based and train at the Universities world-class facility at Platt Lane and the University’s Rugby League team also trained and played there.

Everything went brilliantly, Toronto were playing well, the University team were playing well. It was all going according to plan. Toronto were top of the league and the University team got into the promotion playoffs. Then the bombshell dropped….

My wife and I had talked about me travelling with the team when we went to play our home games in Toronto. Due to our ground having renovations, we were to be in Toronto for 8 or 9 weeks. A long time without your family. We considered them coming over for a while but school holidays and Claire’s work just didn’t add up.

My wife runs her own business, babyballet. It has expanded from the UK to Australia and New Zealand. She had also had enquiries from some dance teachers in other countries and Claire explained that she would love to go and visit these counties with a view to further expansion. One of these countries was Canada and soon enough the idea had formed about us taking the kids out of school and going on a ‘world’ tour. The more we talked, the more excited we got and said ‘why not?’

And that was the bombshell. I now had to make a decision about going on a world tour and showing my children sites they would only ever get to see in textbooks or staying in, what I believe, is one of the best analysis jobs in sport! I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I have to choose between 2 amazing choices, work or family. I suppose deep down I always knew that family would come first…

I discussed the ‘predicament’ with the management at Toronto and they were really supportive. It was an opportunity that I can’t turn down but one thing that I had always maintained was that it wasn’t going to happen until the season had ended.

And so there we have it. We’ve been back in Toronto for two weeks now and tomorrow, Family O’Connor arrive after renting our home and selling everything that we can’t bring with us to begin the first leg of our journey – 2 months in Canada.

Fitness v Skill

You’re coming up to pre-season. You start to think about the squad you’ve assembled or inherited. Your mind wanders off into visions of the final game and holding up the League trophy and then a night of, no, wait,  a whole weekend of celebrations….*

And then you’re back on the ground with a bump. Are they as good as you imagine? Could they really be as good as you imagine? Do they need just that little bit of bit of luck to bring the dream to reality? Do they actually need a lot of luck to bring the dream to reality? Should we go for the fittest team in the league?

And that’s the moment right there – where your league leaders dreams are shattered. As soon as you think about the being the fittest team in the league, it means that you fear that their skill wont get them through…

But can the fittest team also be the most skillful? Do they need to be? Can a more skillful team beat a fitter team? Should you, as a coach, ensure a reasonable approach to both?

I’m asking more questions than I’m getting answers to here. It’s played out on a weekly basis where the favourite team in a game of rugby are held out for the first 20 to 30 minutes by determination and effort but as the lesser side start to tire, the favourites over-run them and the free-flowing scoring starts. Cup matches, where one team is a few leagues below the other, often plays out the same scenario. The lower league team surprises the so called ‘better’ team with it’s tenacity and grit but in the end the higher team just over-power them. Is this better skill or better fitness and can either provide a winning margin over the other.

I’m asking because there are coaches out there currently in their ‘pre-season’ phase and I’ve already witnessed some of the bodies left prone on the ground after climbing ‘Scammy Steps’ and hitting the Shibden Park sledging hill. Those who know, know…….

Scammonden Dam Steps and Shibden Park hills

Does this all-out, lung-busting, throw-up on the floor routine actually make sense? Or should you try to adopt a more game-centric approach where exercise bursts are generally 30 seconds to a minute long and where the entire time playing the game is around 22 minutes per half in Rugby League and even less in Union. Do you train your body to hit it hard for a minute and a half and then recover thereby training your body to get used to the frequent bursts or do you just go all out to try and make your whole body fitter? Personally, I think there is room for both – ‘a little of a lot goes a long way’ as my old headteacher used to say.

Do you put this fitness acclimation above skill training? Surely, if you’ve had 6 to 7 weeks off, the old handling and kicking is going to be a little rusty, is it not? Again, I think a little bit of both goes a long way. I’m currently of the belief that it works well if you can train your skills whilst under pressure and tired. After all, this is what happens in a game. It’s all well and good that a player can hit a 30 metre miss pass on the captains run but what about in the last 10 minutes of a game when he’s got a 17 stone back rower about to hit him and the score is 10-10. The same with tackling skills. Yes, brilliant to get a tackle bag out for the under 9’s to practice their technique on but at senior level I don’t ever remember seeing tackle bags dotted around a pitch during a game. Tackle a human. They’re much harder to hit. And they move when you’re trying to tackle them! “But what if we get injured?”, Learn to tackle properly and you shouldn’t.

Anyway, I digress. Fitness v Skill. There is a lot of room for both, and indeed, I believe a winning team should be competent in both. Now, if I just had time to squeeze it into 2 training sessions a week…

* Please see attached form for relevant clearance

night out

A day in the life II

Following on from A Day in the Life… I was talking to someone about my commute to my latest game for Toronto Wolfpack. This one involved a 6858 mile round trip from Halifax to Toronto! I was flying out for our home game against York City Knights and I joined them on their flight both to, and home from, Toronto. It was a good way to find out exactly how the flight affected visiting teams and what the time difference did to my body clock.

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3429 miles From Halifax to the Allan A. Lamport Stadium a.k.a. The Den

I was to join York on their flight to Toronto on Friday morning, probably the quickest turnaround of any team so far this season (with teams normally flying out on Thursday). So, as I left home at 5.45am to catch a train from Huddersfield to Manchester Airport, I skipped down the driveway to my waiting taxi.

 

It always puzzles me when people that say that they couldn’t be bothered flying somewhere long haul because it’s “too long” or that “it’s too far to go for a weekend”. I love travelling. Well, I should probably re-phrase that. I do like travelling, but I like the fact I get some time to myself for a few hours! Anyone who says that it’s too far to travel doesn’t have 4 kids, a house, 2 jobs and a wife to keep happy. Those 12 hours travelling were bliss…

I’d seen some of the York lads, their coaching staff and match officials on the way through to the flight and I’d had a chat with some of them on the plane. We arrived at mid-day Canadian time and it was in the mid 20’s and bright sunshiiiiiiine. On landing, I found out that due to hosting participants for an international boating event, the team had recently had to move to different accommodation which was 40 minutes North of Toronto – a massive problem for me – but not for super Freddie. Federico is our co-ordinator over in Toronto and does a superb job of arranging loads for both us and the opposition. He was there to meet York Knights and the match officials and I told him I have no idea where we were staying. 10 Minutes later, he’s got me in a taxi and sorted it out. Hero.

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If you think the M62 is busy, don’t get on Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway

It was a quick turnaround on arrival – the medical team were just leaving to go to training and to provide treatment to the players, so after dropping my bags I jumped in with them to make the 40 minute journey back to where I’d just come from. There aren’t really any amenities where we were at the new residences so after treatment we had to grab something to eat and went back to the apartments.

So this was the first night where the time had jumped back 5 hours. Effectively, when I went to bed at 10pm, it should have been 3am. I did have a tired spell at about 6pm (11pm UK time) but it wasn’t massive. The next morning I woke up at 7am fully refreshed after 9 hours sleep and felt that good that I went for a run! We returned to the original apartments, which are closer to the ground so the players can get their pre-match treatment and I set off to the ground for the usual pre-match set up. So far, no body clock malfunctions.

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Pre-match treatment for the players

Today was a bit special. It’s ‘Canada Day’ and the country is celebrating 150 years of Canadian Confederation. The Wolfpack are wearing a specially produced red, white and black kit and it’s looking like a hit with the fans – most of the merchandise sold out in under an hour!

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We had an injury in training pre-game and had to make a squad amendment. Normally a run of the mill exercise with paperwork to complete. However, when I had our Director of Rugby, Brian Noble, sign the paperwork little did I know that a piece of history was also being made. Brian recently received an MBE for his services to sport. A fantastic reward for his 40+ years of dedication. But on signing the documentation, he told me that this was the first time he had signed anything as an MBE – so we captured the moment for him to cherish forever…

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The game goes according to plan and we won 64 – 22. The Canada Day celebrations went on well into the night but the late 7pm kick off meant we were trying to get back to our apartments right in the middle of all the celebrations. We were actually stuck on the expressway, next to the CN Tower when all the fireworks went off – could have been a worse place to be stuck in traffic!!

We were flying home the next day – Sunday – and as luck would have it, the team had been invited to Woodbine Race Course for a special Queen’s Plate meeting, which just happens to be right next to the airport. Two birds, one stone. The down side been that I didn’t get to stay and see the Goo Goo Dolls who were playing after the meet (think Iris)! I did, however, get a lift to the airport from a great young Canadian prospect currently making his way up the Wolfpack ladder. Quinn Ngawati is an 18 year old Canadian resident who made his debut for the Wolfpack against the University of Gloucestershire All Golds and what a debut it was. Whilst speaking to him at length at the races, he is a very unassuming and modest person who belies his physical presence on the park. I was genuinely surprised after meeting him at his aggressive and hard hitting debut.

The flight home was later that evening and once back in Blighty, it was probably the strangest journey home from a match I’ve had. Air Transat flight’s from Toronto on Sundays only return to Glasgow, Scotland. They fly to Manchester on Mondays. As we were flying on Sunday, we were to land in Glasgow. We had been in constant touch with the York Knights staff and they had agreed that I could jump on their coach from Glasgow down to West Yorkshire!! I would like to thank John Flatman (the club chairman) James Ford, Chris Spurr, Mark Helme and the whole squad for making what could have been a very awkward journey, an easy one! All great blokes for allowing me on their coach when they could easily have said no.

All back home for 4pm Monday afternoon. Had I enjoyed it? Definitely.  Was I tired? Yeah, a little (the races probably didn’t help!). Is the trip do-able as a visiting team? I would say that if it’s well managed, it’s a very feasible trip to make with little detriment to the away team’s players. The journey there is fine and the jump backwards in time didn’t seem to have any affect on me at all the next day, as we took off at 10am and landed about mid-day. It was harder on the way back having 5 hours taken off you on an overnight flight but the celebrations definitely made that worse! I think that without ‘celebrations’ it wouldn’t have had much affect at all. As a player I could see that the travel could affect re-hab but if you spend Sunday on re-hab before flying I would imagine this would massively reduce the effects.

So roll on the Kingstone Press Championship and let’s see how both Toronto and the visiting teams cope with each other…..

The Academy Process

I can’t help but question things. It’s part of my nature. I’m not sure whether that’s being inquisitive or whether I have an issue with authority (thanks Kurt Haggerty and Mrs O’Connor, both who have questioned this!). I’d like to think I’m inquisitive. That’s why when I was recently offered a position to help launch Calderdale College’s new rugby academy, I was intrigued.

The college runs Halifax RLFC’s Category 3 Rugby League Academy (category 3 being an academy in an educational establishment). However, with the split of Rugby League and Rugby Union in Calderdale being around the 50/50 mark, it seemed only prudent to open the programme up to the 50% that were being overlooked.

As I’ve previously mentioned in another post (The joining of the codes…), I believe that there are massive gains to be made by those that embrace both codes. There is a lot to be learned from each other and I see no reason why players can’t play both (as some regularly do). So why split an academy into separate League and Union ventures?

Hence, the joint academy idea was born. The skill sets are same – we both tackle and pass. We both kick and step, we both attack and defend. Kill the space in defence, exploit the space in attack. Catch, run, talk, visualise. It’s the same game with different rules.

So why not have an academy where players can flourish playing both codes? And then throw into that a 7’s programme at the end of the season and you all of a sudden have an all-rounded player! So here’s the basic plan – train and play both codes during the winter season (September to March / April), some league games, some friendlies – but looking at developing players through a mixture of strength and conditioning, skills and fitness training, analysis and psychology. And then enter a series of 7’s competitions at the end of the season. These will mostly be Union 7’s but I think this is ideal for Rugby League players as the minimal rucking and speed of the game would help the League players adjust. In this period, it’s just skills, skills, skills. Develop handling, develop awareness, develop precision under pressure, develop kicking (even though the voice in your head says never kick in sevens!).

Add into this an educational programme – where players can achieve a BTEC in Sport – and I can’t think of anything I would have enjoyed more when I was 16 or 17. Training and playing in an environment where, when you are not studying, you are involved in the rugby academy process.

The great thing about the academy at Calderdale College is that it gives players a professional training regime in an outstanding facility that also provides them with vocational skills during their 2 year residency. The players get to ‘train’ everyday (which encompasses recovery sessions, analysis, field work, classroom work, gym etc etc) alongside their studies whilst also completing courses such as level 1 / level 2 coaching, gym instruction, sports first aid and other external courses that the college run.

 

By using the partnerships that they have with Halifax RLFC and Huddersfield RUFC, the players get professional coaching and development whilst opening up real player pathways into professional and semi-professional rugby. It really is a win-win all round!

So what’s the down-side? There’s always a down-side isn’t there? Well, no, not that I can see. When we discussed the requirements of the academy, the college were adamant that at the end of the two years, the players should have a vocational qualification with practical experience of the industry that they are studying in. I wanted to make sure that a player who enters the academy is a better all-round player who understands all aspects and is a student of the game itself! I think by having players such as this, it breaks down the stigma between codes, it produces players who know why certain skills and tactics work and not just players who do things because they have been drilled into doing things. I also genuinely hope that I can coach players who are intelligent enough to start using skills learned from one code in the other.

I’ll expand on this a bit because it’s a bit of a passion (or infatuation? I’m not sure….). Anyway, I used to sit and discuss this at great length during games when things happened with the Halifax RLFC assistant coach and all-round rugby guru Chris Rose. Rosie is very much in the same vein as me, in that he coaches, watches and is an aficionado of both codes!! We would watch as, in the last quarter of a game, a team who are chasing the game would produce a short kick off which inevitably they would win back. We would look at each and shake our heads. Now, I’ve looked into this in a very unscientific way of watching some short kick offs and I reckon from the 30 or so that I’ve seen, it’s about 50/50 as to whether they come off. There are two aspects to this that I feel are genuine points. Defensively – if you are receiving the catch, practice receiving short kick offs!! It happens a lot in Union so it’s well practiced but what about if you improvise a bit…..

Have players stand a little closer together on the front line and then if there’s a short kick off get a bit of a lift. The chasing players can’t touch you in the air and you’ll be a foot above everyone else. Safe catch and either offload or take the tackle. Short kick off diffused and I wouldn’t think you see the opposing team use it again.

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And use it when kicking off! When Toronto played Keighley in League 1 earlier this year, Keighley kicked 9 out 10 kick offs short. They won 5 back. That’s 55%. The result from the 4 they didn’t get? Well, a knock back from Toronto which led to a scrambling attack, which led to the first tackle on or around the 20 to 30m mark. Not much different than if they had kicked long and allowed Fui Fui Moi Moi to run at them. And it stopped the wide shift attack. So is it a good strategy? definitely in my eyes.

Pushing in the scrum in League? The long drop out in Union? League have started using scrum plays and Union have started using lead runners and ‘out the back’ plays. It’s all getting closer and closer.

Who knows, the split back in 1895 could even be reversed…shock

 

 

 

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!