Playing the numbers game

AMONG the many innovations Jack Gibson is credited with introducing to rugby league is the regular incorporation of statistical analysis into improving his teams.
Gibson, who is widely acknowledged as one of – if not the – greatest coaches in the history of the sport, is believed to be the first to use the then-nascent computer technology to track player performance, along with compiling and using individual player tackle counts.
Having spent time studying the methods of American football coaches Vince Lombardi and Dick Nolan, Gibson was all too aware of the benefits these approaches and what the use of video analysis could bring to what was then still a part-time sport.
Even before his death aged 79 in 2008, Gibson was hailed as an innovator and his five New South Wales Rugby League Premiership titles during spells in charge of Eastern Suburbs and Parramatta are testament to his work as a coach.
Unsurprisingly, Gibson’s methods have been adopted and adapted by those who have followed both in his homeland of Australia and further afield, especially as the game moved into the full-time era.
The use of game film and tracking player statistics are now part and parcel of nearly all sports in the 21st Century and rugby league is no exception.
However, the code has perhaps yet to embrace the analytics revolution which has taken root elsewhere on the back of the approaches pioneered in baseball over the last 25 years and immortalised in the book and film ‘Moneyball’.
Or at least if it has, no-one has spoken much about it or is keeping quiet so as not as to give their opponents any sort of competitive advantage.
The only notable example of advanced analytics being used in rugby league came four years ago when then-Manly Sea Eagles head coach Des Hasler utilised a statistic called Contributor Value Rating (CVR) to help his team go from eighth-place finishers the previous season to 2011 NRL Champions.
CVR was developed along with NRL Stats’ Andrew Moufarridge using the numbers Manly video analyst Will Badel had collected from watching and cataloguing every single Sea Eagles game from the past four seasons.
It allowed Hasler to see the areas his side were falling short in, as well as removing any reputation-based preconceptions about players to allow rational decisions to be made using numerical evidence.
However, little has been spoken of about it or any other developments on that front in rugby league since.
Of course, there are plenty of statistics available – the Super League website alone has all the top try scorers, tackle makers, goal kickers and metre makers for clubs and played going back to 2003.
The difficulty lies in trying to find which ones influence where games are won and lost, unlike baseball where the Oakland Athletics were able to exploit on-base percentage and slugging percentage being undervalued on the open market to pick up players others overlooked.
That is to do with the nature of games like baseball and cricket, which are team sports where individual contributions are easier to quantify and show what effect they have had on the outcome.
Rugby league is like any other team game which requires all of the players working together and makes it harder to objectively assess individual contributions to results, short of the stats which can be easily measured above, although CVR goes a long way to addressing that.
In truth though, it only scratches the surface and the question remains as to how much effort has been focused on this area by clubs and their analysts.
The fact five of the 12 Super League teams – Castleford Tigers, Catalans Dragons, Huddersfield Giants, St Helens and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats – do not list anyone on their staff who has a specific responsibility for performance analysis would suggest not much.
This is not to say the work is not being down at these or the other seven sides – or indeed at any other level – while they all have access to the various historic and current season statistics collected by data supplier OPTA.
And with those outside the so-called ‘big four’ having to face up to some harsh financial realities, the incentive is there for them to look for any way they might be able to gain an upper hand.
After all, it is adverse circumstances which led to Hasler looking for another way at Manly. It is also these which drove Gibson to find new and better ways, revolutionising coaching and the game in the process.

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Rugby league’s Boxing Day tradition


ONE of the few things to lament about rugby league’s decision to switch from a winter sport to a summer sport 20 years ago is the demise of meaningful Boxing Day fixtures.
Games over the festive period in both the round and oval ball games have been pretty much a permanent fixture on the British sporting calendar since the Football League played a round of matches in its inaugural season back in 1888.
Of course, St Stephen’s Day has not seen any competitive rugby league matches in 20 years during the shortened Centenary season – and even then only two were top-flight games played on that Tuesday.
One of those was the traditional showdown between Wigan and St Helens, where the Sky Sports cameras in were attendance to capture the Cherry and Whites running out 58-4 victors against their injury-hit rivals and Scott Quinell grabbing four tries alone.
No less than 16 players were missing for the Saints and even a moment of madness from Neil Cowie could not stop the hosts triumphing in front of a 19,526 crowd at Central Park, with Simon Booth’s try providing scant consolation.
But while Wigan were romping towards being crowned the last winners of the Stones Bitter Championship ahead of the switch to summer and the dawn of Super League, there were two other teams doing battle across the other side of the Pennines.
A bumper crowd of 18,000 were at Headingley to watch Leeds face off with fellow Yorkshire side Castleford, which proved somewhat closer as the hosts secured a 28-16 win, with two tries from Marvin Golden, and one each for Francis Cummins, Jim Fallon and Carl Hall.

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Who says Boxing Day friendlies aren’t serious? (Picture: Leeds Rhinos)

Boxing Day fixtures have become a staple at Leeds during the Super League era, with the Rhinos and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats now established as annual opponents on December 26.
A friendly in all but name – the 2016 edition is officially known as the ‘Wetherby Whaler Festive Challenge’ – this and the other matches played over the festive period form part of the preparations for the new season.
But while the start of Super League on February 4 is looming on the horizon, the fact remains it is still closer to the final fixture of the 2015 season – England’s third Test victory over New Zealand – than it is to the start of the next.
Not that these matches are entirely pointless though. Indeed, three years ago these and other pre-season fixtures were used to trial variations to the Laws of the Game, which was also the case in 1998.
Back then, Leeds featured Australian winger Wendell Sailor – over in the UK on a three-month contract with the city’s rugby union team – in their 12-6 win over Halifax.
However, reports from the day state that Sailor had something of a limited impact, with an 18-year-old loose forward going by the name of Kevin Sinfield grabbing the headlines instead for his stand-out performance.
The other game which has remained something of a Boxing Day tradition is the Heavy Woollen Derby between Batley Bulldogs and Dewsbury Rams, which this year takes place at the latter’s Crown Flatt ground.
Two other derby matches take place on December 27, with Widnes Vikings hosting Warrington Wolves and Castleford Tigers going up against Featherstone Rovers.
Then there is the clash between Barrow Raiders and a Barrow & District Select team, which is set to include former Raiders Adam Nicholson and Mike Backhouse alongside the other top amateur players from around Cumbria.
After that, the friendlies do not really get going until midway through January and no doubt the debate will continue as to whether the matches at this time of year serve any purpose aside from keeping alive a somewhat anachronistic rugby league tradition.
Still, it is Christmas, so what harm is there in keeping a little bit of tradition alive?

Remembering St Helens and Wigan’s other professional teams


ABOUT the only thing fans of Hull FC and Hull Kingston Rovers will agree on is their claim to the showdown between the clubs from the east and west of the city being the only “true” derby.
The claim is based on the fact that, aside from Leeds Rhinos and Hunslet Hawks – the days of those two being involved in regular competitive derby matches having long since faded into the distant past – and perhaps the teams based in and around the Greater Manchester area, there are no other professional clubs based in the same town.
One of the biggest derby matches outside Kingston-Upon-Hull is, of course, the encounters between St Helens and Wigan Warriors, who have been crossing swords ever since a scoreless draw in the first season of Northern Union rugby.
At various points in their history though, each of these teams have had their own cross-town rivals.
St Helens became a two-professional team town in the 1915-16 season when the Pilkington Glass works side became one of three teams to join the ranks of the Wartime Emergency League, along with Featherstone Rovers – not the current team of the same name – and Brighouse Rangers.
Featherstone lasted just one season and Brighouse withdrew in 1919, but the club known as St Helens Recs continued in the professional ranks right up until the start of the Second World War.
Founded as recreation for the workers at Pilkington in 1878, the club were members of the RFU before switching to football in 1898, with this in turn being followed by swapping codes again to rugby league in 1913.
Recs’ first season playing in the paid ranks saw them finish a creditable seventh out of 24 teams on win percentage, with 15 wins, two draws and nine defeats from their 26 matches.
Every season of wartime rugby saw them finish above the more-established St Helens team and they became mainstays of what would become the Rugby Football League at the conclusion of hostilities.
Recs’ best season was arguably the 1926-27 campaign, where they won the Lancashire League and finished top of the Championship table before losing to Swinton in the play-off final.
They also beat St Helens in the semi-finals, which was a small measure of revenge for losing to their cross-town rivals in the Lancashire Cup final at Wilderspool in November of that season.
Recs did win the county cup in 1923 and 1930, as well as being runners-up on two other occasions, while their on-field success saw nine of their players earn caps for England and Great Britain during their time in the league.
However, the economic depression of the 1930s began to bite, with the effects of that and falling attendances conspiring to see Recs disband at the end of the 1938-39 season.
The team reformed as Pilkington Recs in 1949 and these days play in the National Conference League, as well as having an A team in the North West League and a thriving junior section.
Eight miles away in Wigan, the Warriors have always been the dominant rugby league force in the town, although there have been two attempts to set up another professional team there.
The first came in the 1921-22 season when amateur club Highfield, based in nearby Pemberton, were elected to the Championship.
However, they generally struggled and eventually became London Highfield, with the relocation to the Capital starting a nomadic life which would see them call Liverpool, Huyton, Rucorn and Prescot home before their eventual demise in 1997.
Another attempt to set up a second professional team in Wigan came in 1987 when Blackpool Borough, who had been forced to leave their home ground due to it being deemed unsafe in the wake of the Bradford stadium fire.
They were taken over by a consortium who relocated the team to Springfield Park, the home of Wigan Athletic Football Club, although the move was not welcomed by the more-established Cherry and Whites.
Nevertheless, the 1987-88 campaign saw Borough narrowly miss out on promotion from the Second Division, finishing fourth, as well as reach the Second Division Premiership semi-finals and John Player Trophy quarter-finals.
But while Borough had initially signed a five-year deal with an option for a further five years to play at Springfield Park, the partnership with Athletic was dissolved after just one following an argument over unpaid rent in early 1988.
Like Highfield, they became something of a travelling team, becoming Chorley Borough, Trafford Borough and then returning to their original home of Blackpool under the Gladiators moniker.
In a strange quirk of fate, they too folded in the same year as the club who could trace their legacy back to Wigan Highfield, by which time they were playing in the Alliance reserve league.
The history of these clubs further illustrates the precarious nature of professional rugby league. It is therefore testament to the strength of the sport in Hull that the city can continue to support two top-flight full-time sides.

Rugby league and BBC Sports Personality of the Year


SHOULD Kevin Sinfield go on to be crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year for 2015, he would achieve the type of recognition no other rugby league player has done before.
It is perhaps not surprising to hear no-one from the 13-man code has won the main prize at the Beeb’s annual end-of-year sporting review and prize-giving ceremony in its 61-year history.
That looks unlikely to change, at least if the bookies are to be believed, with most making tennis star Andy Murray odds-on favourite and the golden girl of British athletics, Jessica Ennis-Hill, also in contention.
Sinfield’s odds are hovering around 14/1, although even if he were to finish in the top three in the public vote it would be a breakthrough for rugby league as no other player has even managed that before.
The fact even darts – itself a sport which is persistently sneered at and looked down upon – got recognised when Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor finished second in 2010 after winning his 15th World Championship is more fuel to the fire for the rugby league conspiracy theorists.
Curiously, the only rugby league player who has been honoured in any sort of manner by the BBC is Mal Meninga, who was named Overseas Sports Personality of the Year in 1990 after captaining Australia on their successful tour of Great Britain in the same year.
The only other rugby league personality to be honoured at the event is another Australian, Daniel Anderson, who was named Coach of the Year in 2006 after guiding St Helens to the treble.
The all-conquering team which beat Huddersfield Giants in the Challenge Cup final, topped the Super League table and then went on to trounce Hull in the Grand Final were named Team of the Year too, completing a unique double award from the national broadcaster.
St Helens’ award was the first time in 12 years one of the sport’s sides had been honoured, following Wigan – pre-Warriors tag – being recognised arguably as much for their half-decade dominance of rugby league as their Stones Bitter Championship, Premiership and Challenge Cup treble.
It could be said Sinfield’s nomination this year is more a case of recognising an outstanding career after deciding to cross the divide to rugby union, rather than necessarily his performance throughout Super League XX.
After all, it was Leeds Rhinos team-mates Zak Hardaker (Man of Steel), Kallum Watkins (Leeds Player of the Year) and Adam Cuthbertson (Leeds Fans’ Player of the Year) who picked up individual honours following the club’s outstanding season.
Still, few would argue Sinfield deserves some sort of national accolade for his 18-year one-club career which saw him win seven Super League titles, three World Club Challenge crowns, two Challenge Cups, captain club and country with distinction, and retire with only Jim Sullivan and Neil Fox having scored more points.
Should Sinfield come in the top three it would be another proud moment for the 35-year-old, but it would also be a big step for rugby league as a whole to see one of its greatest ambassadors in recent years achieve recognition from the wider public.

“Same game, different rules” – Crossing the rugby league and NFL divide


HOT on the heels of Sam Burgess making his return to rugby league, another one of the clan now looks set to try his hand at switching codes.
Rather than making the conventional league-to-union swap, younger brother Tom is assessing the prospect of switching football codes all together.
The 23-year-old England international is reported to have been trying out with the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills in the National Football League, with the prop being lined up to play as a tight end.
It comes just months after Jarryd Hayne earned a spot on the San Francisco 49ers’ 53-man roster for the current NFL season, although he has since been cut and re-signed to their practise squad after playing five games at running back and rushing for a total of 25 yards.
Burgess broached the subject in a recent interview, saying: “I have shown interest in NFL for a while and I’d spoken to a few of my friends about how I’d love to go there.
“Somehow it’s been turned into I’ve got a contract out there. That’s not the case, there’s nothing there yet and I’ve not spoken to anyone.
“It is something I definitely wouldn’t turn my nose up at, I’d look into it, but there’s nothing there currently.”
So while he is practising with teams, he is by no means certain to earn a deal – particularly as he has a contract with South Sydney Rabbitohs until 2018.
Although American football and rugby league are vastly different games to watch and play, they are not so far apart as might be perceived. Indeed, the late, great Jack Gibson went so far as to describe them as: “Same game, different rules.”
Both evolved from the game of rugby football – rugby league in the industrial north of England, the gridiron game in the colleges of America – and even as early as the 1933, Australian administrator Harry Sunderland and legendary Chicago Bears head coach George Halas were exchanging correspondence over the possibility of a cross-code match.
Then there was the 1953 tour of Australia by wrestling promoter and former NFL player Mike Dimitro’s American All-Stars, where 22 rugby league rookies from the USA – none of whom had ever played the game before – undertook a 26-game tour of Australia and New Zealand.
No-one really attempted to switch both sports until Manfred Moore joined Newtown Jets from the Oakland Raiders in 1977, with the move financed by Australian entrepreneur John Singleton.
Moore, a Super Bowl winner with the Raiders in 1976, had played rugby in college but was otherwise unfamiliar with the sport.
Nevertheless, just 98 days after winning the Super Bowl and with only three training sessions under his belt, Moore stepped out onto the Henson Park field to make his NSWRL bow for the Jets against Western Suburbs.
Starting on the wing, Moore’s debut could hardly have gone better. He capped the 17-10 win by scoring a try – becoming the first person to score a first grade try inn Australia and a touchdown in the NFL – and was immortalised in a photograph of him throwing the ball quarterback-style over the Henson Park main stand.
But the part-time nature of rugby league at the time meant he was unable to get up to speed with the sport as quickly as he needed to, eventually being dropped to the reserve team.
Homesickness affected Moore too and he decided to call it a day after suffering a cut above the eye while playing in the second row, returning to America and signing for the Minnesota Vikings.
The other former NFL player to try his hand at league was Frenchman Philippe Gardent, who signed to play in National League One for the Celtic Crusaders in 2008.
It was not the first time Gardent had switched sports, being almost a CB Fry-esque multi-sport competitor.
His background was in winter sports, representing France in the bobsleigh and being an accomplished skier, but started playing American football at the age of 17 after being asked to by some friends.
Eventually, Gardent was picked up by NFL Europe side Berlin Thunder and then moved to Cologne Centurions, doing enough to earn a shot with the Washington Redskins and playing in pre-season matches for them.
A move to the Carolina Panthers followed, but this proved short-lived and he then trialled with the Montreal Allouettes of the Canadian Football League – itself a subtle variant of the gridiron game.
It was not long before he arrived in Bridgend though as a conversation with compatriot and Crusaders’ fitness and conditioning coach, Thibault Giroud, led to him making the move to rugby league.
Gardent played six times for the Welsh side, lining up at prop, but spent much of the season with the colts team and left at the conclusion of the campaign.
Who knows, perhaps Hayne could yet go on to make his mark in the NFL or Burgess could become a star in both sports. But as history shows, the transition is a hugely difficult one – no matter how talented an athlete one might be.

Grounds for concern – Sheffield Eagles and Oldham on the move again

AFTER a year exiled in Doncaster, Sheffield Eagles look set for a return to their home city in 2016.
Last week, this year’s third-place Championship finishers announced they will – subject to RFL approval – be playing their home games at Sheffield Hallam University Sports Park just off Junction 34 of the M1 next year.
Playing 20 miles away at the Keepmoat Stadium while their new ground at the Olympic Legacy Park is constructed was never more than a temporary solution for the Eagles, who have struggled to find a genuinely long-term home in their 31-year history.
Even the original iteration of the Sheffield club, which was merged with Huddersfield in 1999 while drowning in debt, had something of a nomadic existence.
When they were founded by Gary Hetherington in 1984, the Eagles made their home along with the stock car racers and greyhounds at Owlerton Stadium, before having to leave five years later due to the ground being declared unfit for professional rugby league in the wake of the disaster at nearby Hillsborough.
So, having won promotion in 1989, the Eagles were forced to spend their first season of top-flight rugby ground-sharing with both of the Sheffield football teams, as well as games at Wakefield’s Belle Vue, and the football grounds in Barnsley and Chesterfield.
A move to the recently-constructed Don Valley Stadium followed in 1990 and remained their home for nine years, coinciding with the most successful period in the club’s history.
But the glory, culminating in the run to the Challenge Cup final and subsequent shock 17-8 victory over Wigan Warriors at Wembley, could not mask the problems the club was facing and they accepted a £1million payment from the RFL to merge with Huddersfield Giants.
The Sheffield-Huddersfield team – colloquially known as ‘Shuddersfied’ – split home games between the two venues, but the experiment lasted just one season and the Giants reverted to simply Huddersfield as the new Century dawned.
Thanks in no small part to the efforts of Wembley hero Mark Aston, Sheffield Eagles returned as a separate entity, joining the Northern Ford Premiership and taking up residence at the Don Valley again.
However, the athletics track always meant supporters were somewhat disconnected from the action and in a bid to increase attendances and improve atmosphere, the Eagles entered a groundshare agreement with Sheffield United, with home games being played at Bramall Lane in 2010 and 2011.
Then games were split between Bramall Lane and the Don Valley, before the demolition of the latter saw them move back to Owlerton last year – only for ground regulations to again force them out.
The original plan for last year was to play at next year’s home of Bawtry Road and there still remains much work to do before then, including upgrading it to a 3,000 capacity venue and improving site access.
The eventual aim is to move into the Olympic Legacy Park – which, ironically, is being built on the site of the Eagles’ spiritual home at the Don Valley – where a new ground will be built for them.
Finally having a home to call their own should provide Sheffield with long-term stability, which will be particularly crucial now they have decided to revert to full-time status as they bid to return to Super League.
Across the Pennines at Oldham though, the Roughyeds are on the move again after the RFL decreed their Whitebank Stadium was not of the appropriate standard for Championship rugby following their promotion from League One.
Oldham have been something of a nomadic club since moving out of their traditional Watersheddings home in 1997, selling their ground to alleviate heavy debts and move in with the local football team along with the likes of Rochdale Hornets and Halifax.
Oldham Athletic’s Boundary Park has been something of an on-off home in the intervening years, with Ashton United’s Hurst Cross and Sedgeley Park RUFC also hosting the Roughyeds before, with the help of the council, the acquired Whitebank Stadium.
But this year’s promotion means they must find somewhere else to play while the ground is upgraded, with a return to Boundary Park looking the most likely but far from certain.
Sheffield and Oldham are not the only clubs in this situation, with Swinton Lions’ hopes of returning to their home borough being constantly thwarted and London Broncos on the move again for 2016, this time to Ealing Trailfinders RUFC.
They do, at least, have long-term plans in place though and hope the years of not being able to put down permanent roots could finally be coming to an end.