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Premiership Rugby – Predicting Future Performance Part 2 Posted 9 months ago

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Premiership Rugby – Predicting Future Performance Part 2

Previously I outlined the significance of Cohesion on team performance, how it is measured and it’s proportional impact. In Rugby Union cohesion is fundamental to success because of the nature of the sport. The dynamic interactions of 180o invasion sport e.g. 2 teams attacking/defending front-on makes the linkages, especially in defense, critical.

As previously discussed, TWI® is a strong indicator of long-term performance. While having the highest TWI® in a competition doesn’t automatically infer a team will win a championship, but what it does do is put the team in the strongest position to win and do so over multiple seasons. Teams with low TWI® can perform well within a season, assuming that their in-season cohesion markers are strong. However across seasons they are generally volatile, not being able to put consistent season-by-season results together.

The correlation of TWI® to success in Rugby over the last 12 months has played out very strongly.

• 2015/2016 Aviva Premiership winner ranked #2 for TWI®
• 2015/2016 Pro12 winner ranked #1 for TWI® (vs #3 in final)
• 2015/2016 Top 14 ladder leader ranked #2 for TWI®
• 2016 Super Rugby winner ranked #1 for TWI® (vs #2 in final)

Within the Premiership itself ladder position is indicative of TWI®. The graph below shows ladder position by the average TWI® trend over the last five seasons – the height of the column indicates the value of TWI®.

As seen by the graph, TWI® has been a strong dictator of final ladder position for the Premiership with the ladder leader averaging the highest TWI® down to last place averaging the lowest. However, even though the overall trend is for high TWI® teams to be successful, mid to low TWI® teams can still be in the mix at the end of the season but there are a number of additional factors at play.

Tracking the Premiership over the last 5 years identified some obvious trends in performance. There was no surprise to see London Irish put themselves in a position to be relegated by the end of last season with a consistently dropping TWI®. Their spot has now been taken by Bristol who will struggle over the season. Unfortunately for the promoted teams it is not just good enough to move competitions. If the organisation has worked towards solely gaining promotion then they have set themselves up for more failure than success. The Championship is a lower cohesion competition than the Premiership, (therefore) winning and getting promoted is not enough. For a team to get promoted and stay in the Premiership they must plan their strategy around staying in the Premiership, not just winning the Championship. Promotion is just a natural part of that progression.

Exeter was able to make the transition successfully and have been very positive and consistent in their recruiting since. Exeter has added positively to their numbers this season putting them in a congested group at the top. The perennial heavyweights in Saracens, Leicester and Northampton have maintained their strong rankings. While the Saints haven’t got off to the best start this season it is no cause for alarm. There can be in-season drivers to poor performance but with strong cohesion overall teams can ride this out – as long as the organisation doesn’t ‘blink’. Harlequins seem to be recovering from this organisational ‘blink’ following the 2014/15 season. Previously they were able to ride some seasonal poor performances but the 2014/15 season promoted a change in recruiting policy which they are still stabilising from. They have also suffered from having a high number of representative players in their squad over the last few seasons. While it is assumed having internationals in a team is an advantage it can be detrimental from a cohesion and therefore performance perspective*.

*The Super Rugby Crusaders are a classic example of this suffering what we call the “All Black Hangover”. They are by far the most dominant Super Rugby team but in the last 5 years of the McCaw/Carter era they had a 35% winning record in the first 5 rounds as they reintegrated their All Black players.

Bath has gone through a similar situation to Harlequins following 2015/16 but while their numbers aren’t strong they have started the season well. The makeup of Bath tends to give volatile results both in-season and season-by-season, and even if they continue to perform strongly (by keeping their in-season cohesion marker high) generally it won’t be sustainable into the next season. A great test for Bath’s new coaching staff is how they relate to the very different cohesion dynamic in the Premiership competition compared to Super Rugby. While coaching is an important factor in a team’s performance it does not have as much impact as generally thought.

Both Gloucester and Sale, with there mid ranking TWI®, have followed this with their ladder position quite consistently over the last 5 years and this is the expectation again. Even though there has been some variation in ladder position season-by-season, this variation has as much to do with other teams performances changing season-by-season than their individual performance alone. While there is no expectation for them to be challenging at the top of the table, only a significant in-season issue will put them in any chance of the relegation zone. Sitting between Gloucester, Sale and the bottom is Worcester. While they have shown some moderate improvement this season they will still be sitting uncomfortably above relagation.

Wasps have made some positive recruiting decisions which if continued will enable them to consistently compete at the top of the table. Something they have not been able to do for quite a while. The trick for teams like Wasps is for them to understand what they have done to get where they are – it’s what we call ‘conscious-competence’. Without that understanding a team can very easily make recruiting decisions based on a short-term vision – “all we need now is player X,Y&Z to win the title” – and find themselves back down the table for the next few seasons. I see this happen across many sports, with one of the best examples being Premier League Football.

Lastly, Newcastle has made some very positive recruiting decisions for this season (whether intentional or not based on my opening from Part 1 of this article). This should give them some breathing space and hopefully give the organisation an opportunity to think long-term without the threat of relegation creating a focus on short-term decisions.

Predicting seasonal performance based on TWI® can be problematic because TWI® plays out over the long-term. Cohesion still plays a significant role within a season when the seasonal cohesion markers come into play. A high TWI® team can have a poor season through injury or change of coach, just to name a couple of factors, but they have the ability to rebound quickly the following season. The observations made here are looking at the long-term potential of each team. This Premiership season may play out differently to what I described but the underlying drivers will impact each team in the seasons to come.

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Ben Darwin represented the ACT Brumbies in Super Rugby and gained 28 Caps for the Wallabies mostly playing at Tighthead Prop. Following is professional playing career he amassed considerable experience in coaching, player development and analysis. This includes a variety of coaching and performance analysis positions with the Western Force, Melbourne Rebels and in Japan with NTT Shining Arcs and Suntory Sungoliath. Driven by a desire to introduce a greater degree of empirical analysis into professional sport, Ben started GAIN LINE Analytics in 2013. With the ongoing development of Cohesion Analytics Ben now works within professional Rugby League, Rugby Union, European Football and Cricket as well as significant media and speaking commitments.

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