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The GAIN LINE Report #16 November 2015
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The Impact of Code Hoppers
The general assumption about team performance is that it is based around how skilful a set of players and coach are. The more highly skilled they are, the better their performance should be. This is a misconception that has caused coaches to be sacked, players traded in and out and given fans significant frustration.
 
Players swapping between Rugby Union and Rugby League is a good example of the perception of how Skill impacts performance. If a player is a naturally skilful athlete then the perception is that there should be no reason why they can’t perform in the other form of the game. What is not taken into consideration here is how cohesion is impacted when these decisions are made. Cohesion can drive up to as much as 40% of performance. Skill alone is not enough.
There is a lot of scrutiny surrounding Sam Burgess’ change from Rugby League to Rugby Union and now his return the League. There were some who just could not see anything other than his success when he made the move to Union based on the fact that he is an exceptional Rugby League player and athlete. Again, the perception is that it’s Skill that dictates performance. What this doesn’t take into consideration is that performance of a team is greater then the sum of the individuals, and the individual's performance is a function of the players around them.
 
As history has told us, player talent, skill and temperament are no indicator of a successful transition. The move of Rugby League’s Benji Marshall to Rugby Union was testament to this. Even he admitted that his old Rugby League playing habits could not be changed. This is not just about running angles or passing depth but also how he worked with the players around him. There are plenty of stories of players moving between clubs and then not performing - “I don’t know what happened. They are not the player we signed. Something changed when they were on the plane on their way here” says the new club!
We decided to dig a bit deeper into Code Hoppers to understand the impact they have made in Rugby Union. We looked at players who have changed codes and the difficulties associated with the process. This included players who changed from NFL, Gaelic Football, Rugby League and AFL.

There have been 53 players identified that had swapped codes to International Professional Rugby Union. 

 
Of those, 10 were returning to the game they had played previously, leaving 43 true code swappers. 

Of those 43 players, 13 shifted codes before they were 21 meaning they were mostly within amateur programs. Because these players crossed codes at a relatively young age and without the rigors of professional training and structures the transition to Rugby tended to be easier. 

 
This leaves 30 players. 2 Forwards and 28 Backs. 

 
Of the 28 Backs the average number of tests played was 11.6. 

 
Of the 2 Forwards (note: Andy Farrell was trialled at Flanker but in this study he is classed as a Centre), Brad Thorne, who was 26 when he crossed, had limited success until his very successful second stint in the game. Leonard Peters, a NFL squad member, became a Flanker but failed to make an impact. 

 
Of the 28 Backs, 15 played either fullback or wing. Those 15 Wingers and Fullbacks had an average of 16.2 tests, 6 of which played more than 10 tests. 

 
The remaining 13 played Fly Half and in the Centres. Average Tests for this group was 7.2 games. 7 played test Rugby with 9 players eventually returning to League. 

 
Age is a significant factor in the success of a code swap for Fly Halves and Centres. The average age of transition from League to Union is 26 years. Sam Burgess was 3 years younger than Benji Marshall, 3 years older than Sonny Bill Williams and the same age as Iestyn Harris and Barrie Jon Mather when they transitioned to Union. 

 
Players who were 25 or less at age of transition played an average of 9.8 test, but players 26 and up played an average of 5.6 tests.

Note: These figures are pre 2015-Rugby World Cup
So what are the key learnings?
 
The main attributes of a successful transition to Rugby Union are for players to have transitioned inside 4 years from the start of their previous professional code. The longer they play one code the more entrenched their habits will become and harder it will be to change.

Position is significant as those who played Wing or Fullback show a greater level of success. These positions tend to be on the end of a chain so the positional impact is less. Cohesion between the decision makers e.g. Fly Half & Centre is more important than players on the end of a chain such as Wingers or Fullbacks.
At Centre, Sonny Bill Williams is an outlier when looking at positions of transitioning players. In no way should his impact in the game be understated but what he does on the field is not complicated. He has created a specific niche in the way he plays and the players around him work off that.
Australia’s most successful League converts have played on the wing or fullback with Isreal Folau currently filling the role of Wallabies Fullback. It must also be noted that Wendell Sailor, Lote Tuqiri, and Matt Rogers (37, 67 & 45 tests respectively) all returned to Rugby League following their Rugby Union stints. Only Berrick Barnes made a significant impact in a decision making role (51 Tests) but he transitioned from League to Union when only 20 years of age, and still remains in the game.
 
When considering the impact Sam Burgess has made on Rugby Union he can’t be looked at in isolation. His effectiveness playing for England is a function of the shared experience with the players around him. Because cohesion can drive up to 40% of team performance this must be considered as well as his perceived skill as a player and athlete. Team cohesion is just as important as understanding the game plan, meeting S&C targets or raw talent. Much of the talk around his change to Rugby Union was about his athletic ability, work ethic etc. Not many people discussed the impact of cohesion in these matters. While it is touched on “..it will take some time.. “, there is a general lack of understanding on the true impact of cohesion in these circumstances.
 
Based on previous experience Sam Burgess was on the cusp of being too old to transition. Being 7 years into his professional sporting career his habits are much more ingrained than that of a younger player. It was harder for him to fit into the structures of Rugby Union and subsequently harder to develop positive shared experience with teammates and intern to develop the skill attributes that were needed to play Rugby Union - similar the the Juggler analogy discussed in The GAIN LINE Report #15. Given more time he would have been able to integrate into Rugby Union and would have had the opportunity to show what he was truly capable of. 

Statistically speaking, Sam Burgess met the criteria of someone who would return to Rugby League.

Note: The basis of this article was first published by GAIN LINE as a Blog on www.rugbyculture.co.nz in February 2015. At that time the prediction was for Sam Burgess to return to Rugby League. 

Liverpool FC's TWI% has been dropping since it's 15 year peak in 2012/13. Over the last 3 season TWI has dropped by 32%. A team's TWI manifests itself very strongly in their defensive ability. Over the last three seasons Liverpool FC's Goals Against has steadily increased. On the current 2015/16 season trend, Goals Against will fall in the mid-40's. This adds to the overall negative defensive trend as a result of the ongoing drop in TWI.
Since 2012/13 the overall trend of TWI% has been inverse to the overall trend of Goals Against. This is indicative of defensive ability as a function of team cohesion.
It was Brendan Rodgers who paid the price for Liverpool FC's perceived poor performance but with the drop in performance in-line with the drop in TWI it was the inefficient* transfers that where actually to blame. However, who is ultimately responsible for transfer decisions at Liverpool FC when they are made by the "Transfer Committee"? It seems a case, like many, that the buck stops with the Manager.

*The reference the inefficient transfers is with respect to the effect transfers have on a teams TWI. 

GAIN LINE is an operations and management consultancy with a unique perspective on success in professional sports. We believe great teams are more than just the sum of their parts; we believe great teams are the product of the linkages and connections within their playing group. As such, we help clubs build these linkages and connections with a view to sustainable, long-term success both on and off the field. As distinct from other firms in the industry, GAIN LINE places a strong focus on data analysis and quantitative research. This means we offer our clients solutions that are grounded in evidence and real-world experience.

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