Connacht rugby’s information revolution

YOU take a breath at the start of the season and tell your wife you’ll see her in May.
Connacht rugby’s information revolution
Senior video analyst for Connacht Rugby, Simon Kavanagh
Senior video analyst for Connacht Rugby, Simon Kavanagh

YOU take a breath at the start of the season and tell your wife you’ll see her in May.

As job pitches go, delivered as a North Atlantic gale whipped rain and sleet horizontally across The Sportsground, it was far from appealing.

But working as senior video analyst with Connacht Rugby, Simon Kavanagh could not be more content.

“It’s a roller coaster, and like a roller coaster you can’t just decide to get off halfway ‘round if things start going wrong. But I could be sitting in an office on a Monday morning, talking at the water cooler. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else but this.”

Weather watch

Andy Friend sits on a chair in the hallway of Connacht’s HQ, rubbing his feet to help quicken the defrosting process. “I have a pair of boots I brought with me from Australia for the rain, and I haven’t taken them off for two months,” he laughs, as other shivering coaching staff members come in from training.

It’s been a typically ‘Connacht’ day; the wind and rain shifting north and south at intervals, the sun threatening to visit before disappearing just as quickly.

Hours ahead of their flight to South Africa where the weather will be somewhat different, there are jobs to be done, no matter what mother nature delivers.

In a room in the upper level of the Sportsground’s Main Stand terrace, Kavanagh and assistant performance analyst Oisín Ó Dalaigh point two high-end cameras through an open shutter at the training field below.

At one end Nigel Carolan and Peter Wilkins are working on attack and defence, with Jimmy Duffy running through a series of lineout calls at the other — 39 players in total are on the pitch, with Peter Robb restricted to endless, tortuous laps alone as he recovers from injury. Six academy players are drafted in to allow full head to head combat, with 30 minutes of forwards play and 30 minutes backs play completed before the groups mix, and then the scrummagers get some alone time behind the goalposts.

The two raised cameras capture all the action, while a €2,500 camera drone waits to be taken out if, and when, the rain subsides.

“We did a weather study a while ago, because we thought ‘if we have these conditions’ we need to make them work for us,” Kavanagh explains as the rain sheets by the open window.

They’ve analysed where points come from in bad weather, how to play if the wind comes from a certain direction and included it in their preparation for each game. The level of detail processed each week is staggering.

“There’s a huge amount of man hours go into things, but it’s when a game is over that we really go to work,” Kavanagh says. “There’d be nine to 10 man hours per coach, so you’re looking at about 50-60-70 hours that go into a game.”

“Is that what they told you?” Friend laughs, when the workload is mentioned, before straightening his smile. “Nah, they work hard, and they do a lot of the silent work, nobody else sees — all of a sudden the numbers just appear; they’re worth their weight in gold.”

Eye in the sky

As the rain threatens to evaporate, we race pitchside, standing at the Bohermore terrace end, and unpack the drone that’s carried around in a steel suitcase like the US president’s ‘nuclear football’. A battery pack is slipped in, the rotors attached and we’re ready to go.

But, this in Connacht and the weather gods conspire to cancel that day’s aerial filming.

It’s disappointing not to see the drone in action, but the very fact it is part of a team’s daily system these days is still thrilling to the likes of Kavanagh.

“I never saw it going this far 12 years ago when I started out, so you just have to be open to change and embrace it,” he said.

“Rugby is probably at the cutting edge of analysis here, it was rugby teams who started it before soccer; Warren Gatland was probably the first man to use it here, now we’ve automated cameras and drones. When we had one camera we thought ‘it can’t get any better than this’ but the speed of change is remarkable. The fact a player can have a coffee and watch training on his phone and discuss a move with a teammate is unreal.”

Friend agrees, and only wishes he had such options in his own playing days.

“It’s brilliant for us, and the players, to be analysing their performance and seeing if what we say we want to get out of training is what we actually get,” he said. “As an individual you’re meant to be delivering something — now you can see is your body height into a tackle right for example. You might feel it’s good, but then you see the replay and think ‘I’m miles off there’.

“The drone is great for seeing lines in attack and defence, and spatial awareness. We used to get that from camera behind the posts, but this is a magnitude better, totally. There’s nowhere to hide, you can see people in sequence — or not, as the case may be.”

That may explain why some of the more senior players aren’t such fans of the new capabilities, but on the whole the analysis is welcomed by the Connacht players.

Footage from training is spliced and coded minutes after training, with players able to access their individual footage an hour or so after they’ve left the field.

The various angles are broken down for the coaches who review the action and pass it on to the players who can watch it on laptops or on the Hudl app on their smartphones.

And that’s just training.

The real heavy lifting begins the day after a game, when Kavanagh and Ó Dalaigh and the other coaches review the game — which has been cut up and filtered in real time.

Most of the staff’s work is done during the week, but there is still an opportunity to make a change while the match is ongoing.

“We can break things down into scrums, lineouts and restarts in real time, and the coaches can watch what they want, go forward and backwards on whatever they want,” Kavanagh said.

“The half-time message is whether they are doing what we set out to do or not... and what they spot at a set-piece perhaps.”

Little wins

The Sunday after a Saturday game will be a packed work day, with game analysis, individual analysis and a statistical report prepared for players and coaches alike.

Once upon a time, the reports were incredibly in depth as Kavanagh “tried to show off what I could do” with the software, but over his four years with the province, things have gradually been pared back.

“When Andy came in we decided we’d play with tempo, physicality and accuracy, then as an analysis team, Oisín and myself came up with ways to measure that. They’re maybe unique to us, but it’s all based on how we want to play the game.

“We look at work off the ball, speed back to feet in defence, effectiveness in carry and tackle, then accuracy in the tackle, pass and breakdown work.

“The player is graded in those areas, and given specific work-ons instead of 40 pieces of information. Then coaches give individual work-ons — with time stamps, and they can go and look at it online.”

From being graded with multiple pie charts, to overall numerical grades, the Connacht ‘player report’ now consists of an emoji-type face, fitting for the younger generation.

Players phone in their vote for their player of the match each Monday, while a whiteboard in the dressing room adds to player ownership of the system. Each man is tasked with writing their ‘weapon’ on it, on which they’ll be graded weekly. Beside that they identify a work-on — one that changes each week — a nod to the desire for consistent improvement.

Information related to the upcoming game is plastered on the walls, with specific weaknesses or vulnerable points pointed out to keep it fresh in the players’ minds.

Sometimes they’ll know an opposition team give up yellow cards, kick for goal, kick little, or in the case of Cardiff Blues recently — become fragile at a certain point in the game.

“We analysed Cardiff and noticed they were most vulnerable just before half-time, we had that on a loop in the dressing room to inform our thinking and we got 14 of our 29 points in that period,” Kavanagh said.

The little wins keep coming. After pointing that out, Kavanagh plays footage of a defensive fault line in the Zebre defence, drone footage of Connacht practising how to exploit it — and then in-game video of that precise pattern of play occurring last season.

“You are nearly punching the air in the box, yeah, they did exactly as we hoped, but it’s not always that way!”

All Guinness PRO14 clubs now share their video footage on a central server after every game — a recent gentleman’s agreement ending the weekly chore of trying to trade with one another, leveling the playing field somewhat.

It informs more than just game plans, too, with Connacht first looking at statistics for potential recruits — before using video to back up what they see in raw data.

“It’s very similar to Moneyball,” Friend agrees. “When we see numbers stand out we look deeper, but it’s still about feel, you need that balance”.

Kavanagh’s wishlist for future analytical advances would include an ‘in-game’ drone view, to aid real-time pattern analysis, while Friend would like to see a deeper dive into the GPS details they’re currently gathering.

“We get a lot of GPS stuff, but I’d like to know when and why the high speed accelerations are happening. We just get a number, given to us at the end of the game. You have the high-speed number, but you’d have to go back and piece it through...is it happening because you’ve seen something and reacted, you’ve been proactive and reacted, or were you being lazy and now you’re trying to cover your ass?

“Sometimes just high numbers doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve had a great game. We’ve no way of connecting where it happened and why.”

Neither are on the horizon just yet, but it seems only a matter of time if recent progress is any measure.

For Kavanagh, who started off as a Film & TV student in GMIT, the last decade or so has taught him to never try and predict what lies ahead.

“The course was great, but I was the only one into sport, and so from that I got requests to video games, then chop them up, from old coaches I’d have played for at Corinthians, and then GAA teams,” he said.

A call arrived from Tommy Kennealy, who owned Avenir, the company that sold SportsCode — later acquired by Hudl — and the rest is history.

In seven years with the company he worked with inter-county GAA teams like Dublin, Galway, Kerry and Mayo (“which I don’t like to say”) as well as the Irish provinces, Ireland’s rugby team and the national soccer team, training each team on the analysis software.

It begged one obvious question: “Giovanni Trapattoni?”

“Very old school, him and Marco [Tardelli] watched videos and DVDs, I remember Trap saying he had a DVD for every game he ever played, a garage full of them, it’s just the full game, they’re not broken down,” he said.

“Things have evolved and changed, so he might have been watching videos when nobody else was, and others were depending on scouts, and then as other coaches, younger coaches, came along, they maybe took away his edge. He may not have evolved as quickly as the younger lads did. Martin O’Neill and Roy [Keane] jumped at it a bit more.”

Travel bug

The reliance on TV footage perhaps explains why Trapattoni was never a fan of traveling to watch games in the UK, but others closer to home were much more willing to embrace technology.

Davy Fitzgerald (“surprisingly high-tech, a deep thinker on the game”) was a big fan at Clare, where patterns of play and the puckout were key, while one particular game with Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s Kerry stands out in Kavanagh’s memory.

“Our first big involvement with Kerry came in ’09, and we noticed Cork’s kickouts had a very specific pattern. Every time you scored they’d go short, left and midfield... in every game.

“So when Kerry played them in the final, we flooded that side of midfield and the goalkeeper didn’t know where to go. Kerry won six of those kickouts that ordinarily Cork would have.”

While he’d whisper his involvement with Mayo, his substantial time with home county Galway is bellowed from the top of the stand. Especially that one day in Castlebar back in 2016.

“We were 7/1 outsiders up there, but they didn’t see us coming,” he smiles. “They said we’d have a coaching box but on gameday they wouldn’t give us one, we had no feed, so we had to look for an edge.

“I’d a friend working at the game so I sat in a broadcast truck outside the ground and got some feeds on my laptop. I was able to radio in messages to the coaches in real time, and we did a number on them late on.

“It was only after the game some Mayo lads were like ‘how the f**k did you get in there?’

Take a deep breath, and tell the wife you’ll see her at full-time.

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