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'What happens to a team under pressure? The Irish have got better at that'

Ben Darwin of GAIN LINE Analytics says Irish rugby has been getting plenty right.

IT WON’T BE a major surprise to any Irish rugby fan that Leinster are, statistically speaking, the most cohesive team in the Guinness Pro14 and one of the most cohesive teams in the entire sport.

GAIN LINE Analytics, who measure these things for a living, hold Leinster and the Crusaders in New Zealand up as shining examples of the importance of “linkages and connections” within an organisation, sporting or otherwise.

leinster-players-celebrate-after-winning-the-guinness-pro14-final Leinster have a stable environment and cohesive squad. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

When Connacht won the Pro12 – as it was then – in 2015/16, they ranked as the most cohesive team in the league.

“Connacht had to be number one in the comp to win it because, no offence to them, there wasn’t as much talent in their squad as other teams,” explains Ben Darwin, an ex-Wallabies prop and co-founder of GAIN LINE.

“Connacht have dropped away significantly since then in terms of cohesion.”

Benetton, who reached the Pro14 play-offs for the first time last season ranked as the third most-cohesive team in the competition, so GAIN LINE’s models had predicted their success.

Darwin is fascinating to speak to and very enthusiastic about his work, which revolves around understanding “why some sports teams and organisations not only win, but win consistently.”

He played for the Wallabies in the early 2000s but was forced to retire due to a neck injury, resulting in a move into coaching with the likes of the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels. Darwin’s roles involved lots of the usual kind of analysis associated with pro sports, but something gnawed away at him and GAIN LINE is the result.

“I found that a lot of data wasn’t telling me why a team was winning, it was just another version of the score – so things like Ireland making more linebreaks than Scotland. But that doesn’t tell me why Ireland has got so much better over the last 20 years.

“Why has England struggled to be consistent? There weren’t wider answers, just short answers. Often, people just give the answer of ‘culture,’ but what does that look like? A lot of analysis is retrospective.”

Darwin launched GAIN LINE with co-founder Simon Strachan in 2013, his deep research having shown him that the performance of any team is directly linked to the cohesion of that team.

“People say a team is more than a sum of its parts and I used to agree with that but a team can’t be more than the sum of its parts – you’re just looking at the wrong parts. So what are the parts we’re not seeing? The intra-parts.”

Darwin now helps teams and companies – 70% of GAIN LINE’s revenue comes from the corporate world – to measure, analyse and create cohesion, with clients including national sporting bodies and clubs from various sports around the world, including some big names in rugby union.

cian-healy-james-ryan-and-tadhg-furlong-celebrate-winning Ireland have had hugely positive results from a focus on stability and cohesion. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Across the course of our conversation, it becomes clear that Darwin believes Irish rugby has been doing superb work in this field. The system driven by the IRFU has created provinces and a national team in which players have built strong combinations and understand each other on a deep level.

For Irish rugby to go from being consistently poor in the Five Nations in the 1990s to serial contenders in the Six Nations recently, as well as beating the likes of the All Blacks, is no coincidence in Darwin’s eyes.

“The decision of the IRFU to give tax opportunities to players, the introduction of the Pro14, the relative lack of importation of foreign players into the Irish provinces, then also requiring players to play in Ireland to play for Ireland – those four things have massively impacted the performance of Ireland,” says Darwin.

“It takes 10 years for those decisions to play out, as we’ve seen.

“Maybe these Irish players wouldn’t have become the players they are if they went abroad and then came back, like the old system.

“These things are like a factory and it’s not based on the genetic disposition or incredible coaching – it’s about allowing players the time and scenario to create skill.

“Irish rugby has been improving gradually since around 2002 or 2003. There have been periods where it has underperformed and periods where it has performed to its capacity.”

For Darwin, stability in any environment is essential to allow players to thrive and, again, the Irish system is in good order in this sense.

Chopping and changing personnel extensively every summer does not achieve positive results. Complimenting a stable squad with one or two new additions – who can more easily slot into the existing system – does.

He explains the ‘Bayern Munich mirage,’ whereby you take a player out of a very well-established, highly-cohesive team and put them into a new side.

“What arrives is not that player,” says Darwin. “What you see is not what you get. A player is the product of his environment – so not just his skill but all the players around him.

brian-odriscoll-and-gordon-darcy O'Driscoll and D'Arcy had a superb understanding. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“O’Driscoll and D’Arcy, for example, what were they like without each other? All the best centre pairings have always played at the same club together.

“If you go to Leinster or the Crusaders, when you run your line, everyone else is running their line perfectly. In somewhere like Toulon now, you’re going into chaos and it’s very hard to function in that environment.

“Look how stable Leinster and the Crusaders are. Crusaders players could come from one high school, into a university team, into the Canterbury team, into Crusaders, into the All Blacks. There was a period where the three World Rugby players of the year came from the same club.”

Ireland’s current 31-man World Cup squad is made up of 14 Leinster players, 12 Munster men, three from Ulster and two from Connacht.

Some might suggest that it would be more positive for Ireland to have more Ulster and Connacht involvement in future squads but, in Darwin’s cohesion-centred view, this is the perfect blend.

“The thing I would recommend against for Irish rugby would be trying to make all four provinces even in quality.

“You want to actually make the national team come from predominantly two teams and then the other two teams provide one or two players. That’s speaking from the way we measure these things.

“Most of the cohesion that comes in Test rugby is actually driven at a domestic level. You only get 10 to 12 Tests a year, so it’s better to absorb cohesion into the national team.”

Darwin – who predicted Ireland’s win over the All Blacks in 2016 partly based on the All Blacks having an unfamiliar centre pairing and flanker Jerome Kaino moving into the second row – also indicates that Irish rugby should benefit from the continuity of Andy Farrell taking over from Joe Schmidt after the World Cup. 

That said, Darwin is not convinced that coaches are actually decisive factors. He doesn’t buy into the ‘cult of the coach’.

“Often, new coaches come in and try to change too much in a team, so players have to learn something new or actually adjust something they’ve done a different way – players really struggle with unlearning what they’ve learned before,” he says.

rugby-union-british-lions-tour-of-australia-wallabies Darwin is tackled at a Wallabies training session in 2001. Source: EMPICS Sport

“The coach is helpful but good coaches are given time to focus on the detail. Chaos removes any ability to coach. Sometimes bad coaches win titles but the question really is how much difference to coaches make at all?

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“Most club teams get worse when you change the coach, most get better the longer a coach stays. But mainly teams end up where they should be. We see 90% of teams where they should be and 10% underperforming.

“We did a study on the AFL and found that if a coach was hired late before the new season, the team did much better because the coach would arrive and it was too late to make and recruitments so they continued with the team they had.

“A year later, that new coach would often make those changes and end up getting fired because he changed too much.”

As for Ireland’s chances of success at the World Cup in Japan, Darwin indicates that cohesion is crucial at the global tournament.

GAIN LINE’s analysis shows that every previous World Cup winner has been one of the three most-cohesive teams at the competition and he stresses the importance of defending in this regard.

“Defence generally wins tournaments. Non-cohesive teams can often score tries, but they just can’t defend as well.

“Cohesion has the biggest effect on defence in rugby union. If you look at Irish rugby, they’re probably not scoring many more points than they used to but they’re defending a lot better.

“Human beings struggle to put down short-term memory when they’re stressed, and they also struggle to access short-term memory when they’re stressed. So what we’ve found is that under fatigue, low-cohesion teams tend to collapse.

“England have had this weird ability to start games and tournaments really well, then collapse. Think about them against England in the Six Nations this year, against Wales and Australia in the last World Cup.

“With Ireland at the moment, you’re basically talking about a bunch of guys who played together in underage teams, the U20s, their provinces, then the national team. They’re playing basically all the same systems and structures. Even a Leinster player will know how the Munster lineout functions, so they have that understanding.

“What happens to a team under pressure? The Irish have got better at that.”

andy-farrell-with-joe-schmidt Andy Farrell takes over from Joe Schmidt after the World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There is much more to the work GAIN LINE do and Darwin is full of anecdotes and examples about the importance of cohesion, as well as the perils of constant chopping and changing.

He is amused by narratives like those around the All Blacks’ culture being their most important attribute.

“The mafia is cohesive but their culture isn’t great,” says Darwin as he underlines that the All Blacks “are just as badly-behaved as anyone else.”

He questions talk around ‘wonder coaches’ too, stressing that he sees no evidence for their existence, and again underlines the vital nature of stability in an environment and the cohesion that can result.

Duty-bound to move onto his next meeting, Darwin parts with a final few words of wisdom.

“If you look after your academy, your academy looks after you.” 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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