Data analytics is a strange industry. As a data analyst, I often consider what I do as akin to attempting to pin down a bullet train.
Regardless of the colour of the ball, the size of the players or the shape of the playing field, all sports change as new ideas gain traction and old beliefs and strategies fall out of favour with clubs.
Rugby union, for example, has undergone momentous change since the code was (officially) professionalised in the mid-1990s.
From an analyst’s perspective, with these types of rapid transformations affecting sports around the world, it has grown harder and harder to help teams stay ahead of the pack.
In response to these changes, the data analytics industry has developed increasingly complicated tools and metrics to evaluate on-field performance – GPS tracking of player movement, biomechanical analysis, etc.
This type of micro-level analysis – although undoubtedly useful – is so widely used that it is beginning to display diminishing marginal returns.
To find a competitive advantage, clubs now need to move beyond focusing solely on on-field data and understand that a successful team is an extension of a successful organisation.
Even an individual with a cursory knowledge of contemporary management and psychology theory knows that the fate of an organisation depends upon not just the ‘quality’ or skills of its component members, but the manner in which each individual works together.
If one removes some of the academic jargon, this notion is perfectly consonant with the age-old adage about a champion team, not a team of champions.
For this reason, the recruiting philosophy of clubs is fundamentally the bedrock of success.
In my role, I look for patterns in a club’s recruitment efforts in an attempt to decipher the side’s potential for long-term success and stability. In short, teams need to focus on list management as a priority.
After all, recruitment decisions made in the present profoundly shape the future direction of a club.
Case in point: I recently saw a program on Foxtel on the Richmond Football Club. Called The Lost Years, the program charted the rise and fall of the Tigers, effectively framing the club’s lack of recent success on a series of poor recruitment decisions made in the late-1970s and early-1980s – namely the arrival of John Pitura and the eventual departure of Teasdale, Jackson and Raines.
Richmond’s problems were further compounded when the club continued to pursue the very same course of action that had lead to their initial downturn in performance (ie – signing established players from other clubs).
It would be unfair, however, to attribute this type of behaviour to Richmond alone. It has never failed to amaze me how clubs will make the same mistakes.
Most rugby, football and AFL club boards too impatient. Instead of building a successful team from the ground up through player development, boards often look to bypass this elementary stage and ‘parachute’ external talent into their sides.
With the odd exception, rarely does active and aggressive list management of this sort breed long-term success in professional team sports.
As a caveat, I have no understanding of the finer details of rugby league. I have, however, spent considerable time over the last couple of years poring over data in professional team sports trying to find some “pattern in the chaos”.
In rugby league right now there are two clubs for whom the alarm bells are ringing the loudest from a recruitment perspective. One is the Brisbane Broncos; the other is the Super League side, the Salford Red Devils.
The Brisbane Broncos are perhaps the iconic rugby league club of the past 20 years. With a slew of titles to their name and a large and powerful supporter base, the Broncos, for much of their history, have looked to home-grown talent (Lockyer, Langer, Webcke, Renouf, etc) and outstanding coaching as the cornerstone for success.
Rather than ship in stars from Sydney, the Broncos instead tapped into the wealth of local talent at their disposal with a singular focus from the outset.
With shared playing history at many of the same junior clubs, these players were familiar with one another prior their very first training sessions at the club.
Continued through much of the 1990s and 2000s, this inwardly-focused recruitment policy laid the groundwork for a strong, tight-knit culture at the Broncos.
On-field, the closeness of the playing group was manifested in the side’s incredible defensive record and efficient ball-use. The silly mistakes and communication errors common to all team sports were largely neutralised by a string of Broncos sides that seemed to ‘gel’.
Worryingly for the side’s 25,000-plus members, the Broncos are no longer the club they once were. Whereas the Broncos dynasty of the 1990s and 2000s was built by a club with a long-term focus, the 2014 Broncos are a very different organisation.
The club has over recent years sought to address its underlying problems with short-term fixes. Rather than build from within and move local talent through the correct development channels, the Broncos have resorted to ‘plugging’ gaps in their playing list via external signings such as Ben Barba, Scott Prince, and Todd Lowrie.
Although undoubtedly talented players, these external signings have served to subvert and disrupt the club’s attempts at reforging a unified and singular Bronco culture.
Additionally, signing big-name players from other clubs also sows the seeds of discontent within a club, as long-term servants of a side feel hard done-by when outsiders are brought in on lucrative contracts.
Over in the Super League, Salford are similarly a case study in poor recruitment policy. Staving off financial ruin with a new owner promising the riches of future success, the Red Devils are flush with cash but woefully misguided.
Far from a traditional powerhouse in English rugby league, Salford – under the (mis)guidance of their new owner, Marwan Koukash – are seeking to establish themselves as a force to rival Wigan, Leeds, et al.
Unquestionably grand, the fault with these ambitions is not in their scale but in their execution. By signing the likes of Rangi Chase, Gareth Hook and Adrian Morley, Salford are attempting to assemble a winning side out of talented players who have little to no connection with one another.
In buying a number of individually talented players and expecting this talent to translate at the aggregate level, Salford are overlooking the reality that rugby league is first and foremost a team sport.
In other words, in buying Rangi Chase, Salford will not receive the player who performed so well as a half at Castleford in recent years, but a different player working with unfamiliar teammates in a new culture.
As Chase is a serious talent, he may well have a stellar year for the Red Devils, but this does not change the fact that in signing the England stand-off, Salford have taken a major gamble. The same is true of Hook, Morley and Salford’s other signings.
In addition to the risk that these key signings may fail to perform, Salford face another problem posed by their aggressive, externally-focused recruitment policy.
Chase, Morley and many of Salford’s new recruits are, for want of a better word, journeymen. Bouncing from one club to the next, these types of players tend not to remain at any one club for more than a few seasons.
This is in stark contrast to internally promoted players, who – as supported by the data – tend to remain with a club for far longer.
From Salford’s perspective, this is problematic in that it implies that the club’s new recruits may not remain long enough for long-term success and stability to be achieved. After all, what’s to stop Chase or Morley leaving Salford – like they left Castleford and Warrington, respectively – if another newly cashed-up club emerges on the scene?
Whereas Salford and the Broncos have little in common from an historical point of view, both sides appear to falling prey to the allure of short-term fixes.
For the Broncos, the danger lies in undoing almost two decades worth of hard work. A number of rash signings over the past few seasons have caused the club considerable damage.
This downturn in form shows no sign of abating for the Broncos in 2014. The club has little hope of meaningfully improving on last season’s 12th place position.
To reverse their fortunes, the Broncos need to settle in for an extended period of rebuilding and player development.
For Salford, the prospects are even worse. Based on lengthy quantitative research, Salford are the least internally focused professional sporting club we have tested.
The individual talent of the Reds players will only get the side so far. In all likelihood, Salford will be undone by the lack of shared history among the playing group.
Communication between players on the field will suffer, and a strong, unified team culture will fail to develop. The side will snare the odd win, but this will only come off the back of flashy individual performance, rather than a concerted team effort.
Salford will be scored against heavily, as strong defence is overwhelmingly about cohesion and awareness. In 2014, expect to see Salford remain one of the Super League’s cellar dwellers.
Ben is a retired former Wallaby front rower who has been asked about his neck injury more than a million times by his reckoning. Yes, it’s fine, thanks for asking. Ben was lucky enough to be involved with, mainly as a hanger on, some wonderful sides at the Brumbies and Wallabies. He works in coaching, analysis and media and has started his own analysis company Gainline. Ben’s company tracks teams recruitment of players and how it impacts on their results.