This is a good read.
Tom Fordyce |
If you were to see England defence coach Mike Ford playing with his iPhone during a team training session, you should fight the temptation to shout at him and tell him to leave his emails till later.
He'll be watching a video clip of the move just completed, filmed from both the halfway line and an elevated camera behind the posts and sent directly to his phone by the team analyst. With a drag of the finger he'll then show the players in question exactly where they went wrong, and what they should be doing instead.
Forget clipboards, chalkboards and screaming from the touchline. Rugby analysis has been revolutionised, and the professional game altered forever as a result.
In charge of England's set-up is former Bath captain and coach John Hall, with Tony Ashton (son of former England and Ireland coach Brian) and Mike Hughes (analyst for Britain's Olympic track cyclists in Beijing) embedded with the elite squad, others with the Saxons, under-20s and under-18s and a backroom support team at the company's offices in Wiltshire.
"I'm a practical guy - I don't believe in ghosts," says Hall, and when you see how much data is collected, analysed and used, his meaning becomes clear.
Training sessions first. When the elite squad comes together, the analysts have every drill, every practice, filmed and recorded from two angles. "It gives a panoramic view of the shape of the game," explains Hall.
Coaches can access the clips instantly on the iPhones. Once the session is complete, they can download all the video onto their laptops, and micro-search for specific items - all line-outs from that training camp, for example (hands up Steve Borthwick), or scrum five in session three on Thursday last week.
In the team room, four or five viewing stations are set up for the players to do the same. In one corner is a grey hard-drive containing every England-related match from the last four years.
"The coaches now have more time with the players than ever before, but it's about using that time efficiently," says Hall.
Through a central web portal, players and coaches can watch and download any international or domestic game from recent seasons. To save time, there are different edits of each match available - one for the home team, one for solely attacking and kicking, another for defence and contact. Footage is available from a wide angle, reverse camera on the other side of the pitch and hoist camera high behind one set of posts.
Should they want to dig deeper or be more specific, a search function allows them to select a particular competition, match and player, and pull up a video package to match. If a coach wants to examine every line break Ben Foden made last year for Northampton, it's a couple of clicks away; if they'd like to see every example of Nick Easter's ball-carrying in Six Nations matches away from home, they could do that too.
"A lot of coaching is done on gut instinct, and not backed up by raw data," says Hall. "What we do is provide the coaches with the material to make their own decisions from. Stats aren't a replacement for rugby knowledge - they're for backing up what you think."
During training, players can be given a small GPS device to wear in a small harness between the shoulder blades. This records how far each player has travelled in each session, to which parts of the pitch, how fast they have travelled and what G-forces they've been hit with in contact.
"You want to have players exactly right for matches," says Hall. "The extra data enables you to make training specific to each player. Two open-side flankers could have completely different stats, so you'd adjust their programme accordingly. It's the same with players' heart-rates. Their overall heart-rate in a session might be low, but if you can see that it hits its maximum in short bursts, you can feed that back to the physiologists so they can adapt training to make it more specific to what they do."
During matches themselves, the analysts will be sitting with laptop open just a few feet away from Martin Johnson and his coaching staff.
On his screen is a live stats window - line-outs won and lost, percentages of ball kicked and run, tackles and passes made and missed. A simultaneous video window allows live match footage to be paused, re-wound, highlighted and chopped into clips to be sent to those iPhones for half-time team-talks.
If Johnson wants to see any incident again, it can be pulled up for instantaneous replay. If a player has been injured, medical staff can review the clip to help ascertain what treatment is most appropriate.
"A good analyst should be able to second-guess what a coach is looking for," says Hall. "They should be the eyes and ears of the coaches."
England are not alone in employing an analyst's skills. Ireland have Mervyn Murphy, ensconced in what the players call The Bunker. Gavin Scott, Scotland's expert, uses a radio-controlled helicopter called the Cyberhawk to video training sessions from 60 metres overhead. Wales's Rhys Long is defence coach Shaun Edwards's key colleague ("I probably spend more time talking to Rhys than anyone else. I probably speak to him four or five times a day," Edwards told me).
England's analysts and their enormous online database are intimately involved before big games. Opposition matches can be dissected, referees' traits examined ("it's not 'he blows his whistle 30 times' but more 'he's hot on offside from kicks, or he calls scrum engagements like this...'").
Should Johnson and his management team be debating the merits of various players in a selection meeting, stats can be pulled out to turn hunches into fact.
Which England-qualified hooker is the best carrier of the ball? Johnson might have a rough idea, but by clicking on number two he can bring up stats for all the players at his disposal and make instant comparisons. If he wants first-hand evidence of George Chuter's work, another click on the stat brings up a video clip featuring every single one of his carries that season.
It's a staggering amount of information, accessible in so many ways. There are also detailed sets of data logging every minute played in the Premiership by England-qualified players (which is used to monitor player burn-out and calculate payments from the RFU to clubs under the elite player agreement) and a tracking system to follow the progress of players through the age-group and Saxons squads. A rugby fan could keep himself amused for days, pulling up clips from different matches, watching Player A's tries from one season or another's crunching hits from a particular part of the pitch.
But... is it good for rugby? Doesn't so much scrutiny threaten paralysis by analysis, turning players into robots, leaving them unable to play with spontaneity and freedom? Hall is convinced otherwise.
"It's never the driver, only the support. To be a successful coach, you have to have your own style. If you want to play off the cuff, you use analysis to support that. I'm all for open, flowing rugby."
Has it narrowed the gap between the big international teams? Is there room for surprises when every single move has been studied, rewound and studied again?
"If we make one or two per cent difference, we've done our job well," says Hall. "The big difference is the players. How good are they? How good is the coaching? The analysis is a component in the coaching matrix."
I ask him how the players feel. When it's possible to highlight every missed tackle made, on which phase, in which area of the pitch, there's no hiding place left.
Hall smiles. "That's the way the game is going. The rewards are so great now. You can't expect to find a hiding place."