The bone-crunching physicality of modern rugby is matched only by the number-crunching and analysis that accompanies the game nowadays, with mountains of statistics being harvested, interpreted and stored on a weekly basis. In order to stay ahead of the curve, South African rugby has historically relied on a steady stream of hulking, passionate players, but now the Springbok brains-trust are looking to big data to improve the performances of the country’s finest athletes.
Rassie Erasmus – the former flanker who played in 15 of the Boks’ world record 17 wins in a row, as well as in the 1999 Rugby World Cup where the Springboks won the bronze medal match against New Zealand – is the man who is driving the South African Rugby Union’s new digital high-performance approach. Even when playing at the highest level, Erasmus was always searching for better ways to do things, to the point of going out and buying an analysis system derived from the Russian army several years before he retired.
“It was financed by Bankfin for something like R124,000,” he says. “It came in this big black box and was massive. It was days before it would produce results.”
Erasmus’ inquiring mind remains the same, but technology has moved on since then. Two software systems are now being deployed by SARU: ‘Stratus’, which is used for game analysis; and ‘Footprint’ to identify, track and develop young talent as it grows to maturity and leaves the school environment.
The more conventional of the two systems is Stratus, a game analysis tool that is used to code thousands of matches every season. Matches can be downloaded from SuperSport or from the cloud, with each ‘action’ being coded into the database by one of Erasmus’ hard-working data jockeys.
The premise is simple, however the conclusions are worth gold; they reveal, for example, whether Australia tend to flood the breakdown or not. The answer is that they do (often with three players), but the answers themselves are far less important that what is done with them by Springbok management.
As a coach or technical advisor, there are many advantages to having the facts at your fingertips. Firstly, facts take the debate about players out of the subjective realm, rooting it in something tangible. Coaching decisions like selection choices and substitutions can therefore be defended by the statistics. Stats are also invariably long-view, which means that they’re a cool corrective to the vagaries of short-term memory and, in this way, can often be startlingly counter-intuitive.
South African referee Jaco Peyper, for instance, might be one of those guys fans love to hate. But the numbers portray Peyper as being remarkably consistent. This means he’s fair, even-handed and therefore trustworthy, qualities which fans choose to ignore during their emotional, short-term reactions to some of his decisions. Little wonder then that Peyper has been chosen to referee the opening match of the Rugby World Cup at Twickenham on September 18.
You can have all the high-performance systems in the world, but there’s still no substitute for the intangibles that motivate young players on the long journey to becoming a professional.
“Rugby was the only thing I knew when I was growing up,” says Siya Kolisi, the flank forward who played junior club rugby in Zwide township in Port Elizabeth long before he was co-opted into fancy boarding school and provincial systems. “There was nothing else in my life. I was inspired mainly by ‘loosies’ – Big Joe van Niekerk, Schalk Burger and Bobby Skinstad. And, of course, Jean de Villiers. Now I’m there with Schalk and Jean.”
For Kolisi’s Stormers and Springbok teammate Damian de Allende, playing first XV rugby for Milnerton High was maybe also not ideal preparation for where he was destined to end up, but it did give him an inspiring glimpse of what the future might hold, if he could muster the determination. In his first year out of school, things began to fall into place. “In 2011 my club, Hamiltons, paid for me to go to the Rugby Performance Centre in Riebeek West and I only really started gymming then,” he says. “They push you to your limits at the RPC and your conditioning has to be perfect. That was really important for me.” De Allende is an imposing physical specimen, but that’s not his most noteworthy attribute. His real stand-out feature is his competitiveness and appetite for pain.
“The reason why I like to play at 12 is because it puts me closer to the action,” he says. But De Allende is actually equally comfortable at outside centre. Sheer hunger to play, anywhere, is usually the mark of any ambitious youngster, but unfortunately it doesn’t guarantee he won’t fall through cracks in the system. That’s where Erasmus’ second piece of software wizardry, Footprint, enters the picture.
Footprint was initially intended to track young players through four phases, from age 15 until they are 21 and hopefully either playing for the Baby Boks or in possession of their first professional contract. SARU are also using Footprint to analyse their talent pipeline, with the aim of sourcing more players from more schools, thus developing the sport more widely and taking care of transformation criteria without resorting to quotas. But Erasmus’ team have found that Footprint has morphed from a relatively straightforward player identification and tracking tool into something with far greater potential.
Information is now coming in from all 14 feeder unions on an almost daily basis as player data is captured and monitored as players progress through the ranks. Data from a coach’s cellphone or tablet app can be sync’ed with Footprint so that players are accurately ranked across 10 categories: conditioning, support play and handling being three of them. If intervention is needed, this can now happen quickly and automatically, thanks to anomalies being flagged by the system.
National age group selectors, for example, don’t have to wait for Grant Khomo Week (at Under-16 level) or Craven Week to rectify a player’s bad habits. And as players get older and improve, they can now be compared against the benchmark norms of senior Springboks like Burger, De Villiers and Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira.
Footprint continues to evolve into a tool that is properly proactive. Player welfare is also on Erasmus’ team’s radar. “We’re refining all the time,” they say. “We want to end up being able to not only identify and track players, but also look out for player welfare. We don’t want to find out that a player is about to reach a threshold because of over-training. If there’s a mental block for some reason, we want to have enough information on the database to see that coming.”
Burnout is the last thing on Harold Vorster’s mind after he broke through into the Super Rugby elite this season. “After my Super Rugby debut, I’d say that I took maybe three or four matches to get used to the pace and the feel of the game,” says the Lions’ promising new centre. “After that it was all about perseverance and hard work. But by the end of the season and the last two or three matches I was feeling comfortable. It’s important not to get a big head, though.”
While Vorster’s quest to become a Springbok is only just beginning, De Allende’s Bok career is about to take off. That extra experience counts when it comes to dealing with the pressure. “The enjoyment is important to me,” says De Allende. “Before a game, I just chill. I’m not one of those guys to get hyped up. I listen to rap and hip-hop and take it easy.” De Allende’s not alone in believing the real challenge of coping with pro rugby is as mental as it is physical.
“You always put your body on the line,” says Kolisi. “It’s like being hit by a car. When you wake up on a Monday or Tuesday morning after a match on the weekend, you think you’re carrying an injury or a niggle. But you’re just sore. That’s just the way it is.”
That’s just the way it is, and the way it always will be. And that ability to keep on coming back for more is probably still the best measure of a Springbok, even if
it can’t be tracked on a spreadsheet. Yet.