The Lions were the only feel good story in a dark year for South African rugby: technical analyst and defence coach JP Ferreira sat down with Lindsey Schutters to talk about the tech that got them to the Super Rugby final.
It’s Valentine’s Day in Johannesburg and the city’s empty stadium echoes the sound of rugby. The primal call and response between Lions players on the training field and the vacant stands is a stark contrast to the throngs of reinvigorated fans who filled Emirates Airlines Park at home games at the end of the 2016 Super Rugby campaign.
To be fair, it feels almost like the empty seats from earlier this decade when the Lions were relegated to make way for the new whipping boys of SA rugby, the Kings. But a winning team sells tickets and, in rugby, good data ensures good results. There’s a reason that a video camera in the stands is the only bit of technology present at today’s pre-season training session: it’s compiling data so that JP Ferreira can find space.
Data driven rugby
The technology arms race in world rugby, much like American Football, is one fought in the video realm. “The biggest technological advancement since my days is that they have gone digital,” explains Lions legend and 1995 Rugby World Cup winner Balie Swart, who was visiting the training session. “Back then we had VHS and had to cut and paste.” These players today have the benefits of digital distribution via central servers to their device of choice.
Coaches have powerful laptops and purpose-built software for video analyses and quick editing of those feeds. The idea is to chop up clips to illustrate the weak areas in opposition defensive lines and highlight possible mismatches. Much of the 2016 success can be credited to the Asus hardware the team was sponsored. One man analyses the data and edits the videos that get distributed to the players and used in coaching briefings. “With electronics evolving the whole time, you have to keep up with technology or else fall behind.
Asus came on board last year and gave us all the laptops and convertibles. In the semifinals against the Highlanders I had the feed set up from our software on the tablet and ran on the field with it. It was just a small thing, but all you need to do is show the players a screenshot,” says JP Ferreira of the impact the additional technology had on the Lions’ season. They won that semifinal 42-30, with Elton Jantjies turning in a man-of-the-match performance.
It’s all in the code
Ferreira explains that communication from the coaches’ box to the field so that they can capitalise on what the technical staff is seeing is key. In the NFL, quarterbacks have mics in their helmets. Super Rugby relies on a video feed from the broadcasters and the data-capturing skills of the ground staff. Ferreira has been given an assistant for 2017.
The England national squad, for instance, has three people coding data. Coding here means monitoring video feed and capturing data points, like clicking every time your team makes a tackle. “More coders help the workload and help the statistics; everything just becomes bigger and better at national level. But I think it’s the small things. If you don’t have the right gym equipment, for instance, you can’t train as well as the people who do have it,” he says. “Technical analysis is a small, but integral part.”
Technology of interaction
Two seasons ago, the team used OptaPro to log and analyse data. That licensing fee can run into millions of Rand per season, depending on how many features you add. A more rudimentary video import and editing suite has saved money and really showcased Ferreira’s abilities as an analyst, eventually earning a Springbok call to assist Allister Coetzee on the year-end tour. He has an interesting take on South African rugby’s current deficiencies.
“I don’t think the young players today study the elder players as much. At primary school I taped a lot of rugby. I watched the 1995 World Cup as much as I could. Every day when I got home I watched a different game. But what was great was that I could play the different positions. The teachers would say ‘Go to wing’ and I knew what the wing should do. That’s the key for me: the youngsters putting in the time and effort and getting better. That’s what New Zealand does really well. If you play international rugby, the margins are so small that if you find out a tiny amount of information about your opponents, it makes the world of difference.”
Developing talent is also key, as is instilling the senior systems and structures into the younger teams. “You gotta teach the players the systems and the software and it’s gotta happen right down so that if an under-19 guy needs to fill in, he knows. There’s really no time to adjust, he’s just gotta fit in straight away.” Ferreira believes that the technology of interaction is the next wave. Getting the message to the playmakers.
But the safety of fitting earphones isn’t good at the moment. In the NFL they have it in the helmets, but I think rugby is still too physical. The generals of these armies will have to wait until the law changes make deploying those solutions safe. It’s starting already, with yellow cards being issued for any tackles around the neck area.
The unseen sports tech
Virtual scouting is a thing. Next time you see a supreme talent on a junior sports field, look to the sky. Talent scouts use drones as an inconspicuous way to log player data from afar without putting the kids off their game. The scouting sweet spot for natural abilities is between the ages of 5 and 9.
No player can hide from the on-field tracking module. Skin temperature, heart rate, distance covered, positioning, even accelerometers that can measure the intensity of a tackle are in these tiny units stuck between the shoulder blades.
When you see a famous player wearing an Apple watch or the latest Garmin Fenix, they aren’t counting steps like you and me… Instead, the conditioning teams use that data to analyse a player’s recovery; like how much they slept, or resting heart rate deviation.
This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine.