Chances are that as you watch Munster play Stade Francais in Paris today, the television director will cut to a camera trained on the coaches’ box at Stade Jean Bouin.

Your eyes will doubtless focus on Munster head coach Anthony Foley, then drift perhaps to his assistants, Brian Walsh and Ian Costello. And then you might notice the other fellas.

George Murray is one of those and while his name may not be familiar to many, save the AIL diehards who remember him as a Shannon scrum-half, you can rest assured that without him, Munster’s coaches and players would not have been able to prepare for today’s crunch Champions Cup tie as thoroughly as they did.

Murray is lead performance analyst, responsible for providing all the information Foley and his staff need to improve performance and arm them for the next opponents. As the Wicklow man explained to the Irish Examiner this week, it is a job that has changed immeasurably in the 13 years he has been at Munster. Yet despite the technological advancements, it is a job that still succeeds or fails on analyst’s ability to deliver huge amounts of painstakingly gathered data in a succinct and effective manner.

So when Murray, brought to Munster by incoming head coach Alan Gaffney in 2002, collates 10 or 12 hours of video footage on an opposition side a fortnight before gameday, he condenses that into a 40-minute database package for the coaches the following week. They, in turn, must distil that further to present a clear and easily absorbed message to their players in game-week.

“That’s the philosophy around it,” Murray said, “painting a picture for the players to understand and buy into and take on board quickly rather than showing lots and lots of variations of different things.

“Anybody who’s trying to learn off video can generally only pick up on three or four things and make that important.

“So we’ve got 40 minutes of footage for the coaches and the art for them is to take that on board and bring that down to maybe a maximum of about 10 minutes, which is about 30 minutes’ talking time, and that’s about all anyone will last in a meeting room.”

Murray this week handed over his work on Treviso, whom Munster will visit in their Champions Cup pool finale on January 24. What he presented in that package was more than a highlights reel.

“The key element of performance analysis is identifying strengths and weaknesses in the opposition and in your own game. Where it’s evolved to, more importantly, is probably watching trend analysis over time, using statistical reports.

“I’m a little bit old school when it comes to this area — I pride myself and the people who work with me on our eyes watching the video and reporting that back to the coaches. It’s common sense, really, more so than just lots of statistics. That’s an element of it but it’s only there to complement what the rugby eye sees.

“We’re going to also be looking at kicking game, different units, restarts, defence previews, individual player previews. So there’s lots of 10-minute videos but what we’re there for is to try and bring that workload down and try and be the coaches’ eyes to a certain extent, by identifying things that are important.

“To that end, we go through a process at the beginning of the season to try and learn what the coaches see and build up the trust so that we can be their eyes. So a key part of the week is that crunching of opposition’s games, backing it up with statistics to add power to what we’re seeing on video.” Analysing opposition teams is only part of the workload. Using Sportscode software, Murray and assistants Paul O’Brien and Brian Fitzgerald code an average of 2,500 instances per game, each assessed with multiple types of gradings.

“Post-game, we’ll analyse all our own players. We do a qualitative analysis on everything, not just the quantity of tackles, carries, passes etc, but the effectiveness of all those instances is the critical element.

“It’s not just a tackle, there could be four or five gradings to each tackle and what we call post-tackle action, stuff like that.

“To say we’re going to be right 2,500 times out of 2,500 is never realistic. We’ll never get in a players’ mindset as to why he did that during a game, but we have to put something on it, which is why we don’t use it as a battering tool. It’s a learning tool.”

For Murray, the important thing about his analysis is seeing what’s working for Munster and pinpointing what can be improved, a particularly onerous task over the past month during a record-equalling five-game losing streak which ended last Saturday with victory at Ulster.

“The last number of weeks was pretty hard on everybody but we stayed pretty much on task with everything and the areas we were struggling in, we knew what happened, were able to identify it and were able to see it happening, not just on video but identify it statistically.

“That was key to keeping a focus and improving. When you take your eye off yourself, and only stick your eye on the opposition, I think you’re going to fall back a bit. It’s key to keep driving your game forward and identify those things.

“What’s vital for us is constantly learning, especially with the group of players we have now. We’ve lost a lot of experience but the more education we can give and the more learnings we have, we can use this as a learning tool, and the quicker they’ll evolve as rugby players as well.”

Changing times bring new ideas

When former AIL player and coach George Murray jumped feet first into performance analysis as a Leinster development officer at the turn of the century, it was a discipline still in its infancy.

He used to drive around the country collecting VHS tapes of games and sneak into opponent’s games, as a paying customer, armed with a video camera.

These days, with virtually every game around the globe available at the click of a mouse, things are much easier and the possibilities for improvement endless.

“We’ve tried a lot of things over the years, some have failed and some succeeded,” he said. “I remember when I first bought an Endzone, a 30-foot hoist camera, and a big marquee tent and brought them out to training at UL. The players looked at me like ‘what the hell is this idiot at now?’ “Laughs and jokes aside, that stuff is still there six or seven years later. We were able to put a projector in under the tent and review instantly what they were doing on the pitch and they started to say ‘okay, there’s a bit of value to this.’”

Murray is now even using a drone to record overhead views of Munster training sessions, at least if the Irish climate permits.

“We’re testing them out, seeing what value it adds, particularly with defence and attack patterns to see general movement, where players are getting to off the ball. In matches that’s fine, because we have four or five angles we can call on with the bird’s eye cameras but in training height can be limited and the drone does give us a bird’s eye view.

“It does give us amazing footage. The players like it because they can see where they’re going. There’s limitations, rain, wind, etc, but we have it in the back of the van, ready to go at any training session. When its practical we’ll absolutely use it.”


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