In the leadup to the Premiership final on Saturday, here is an intriguing theory for you. A champion team is not, apparently, defined by brilliant coaching, charismatic leadership, massive biceps or even individual talent. In fact it is primarily dependant on none of those things. Success, instead, hinges on something very different: the level of familiarity between the players and how long all the various ingredients have been collectively simmering.
Take the music industry. Twenty-nine of the 35 bestselling bands of all time, apparently, first met either at school or university. Of course John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who met as teenagers at a local church fête, were individually gifted but could it be the Beatles were great mostly because their formative years were spent in such close proximity? Was it less their skill and innate talent that made the magic happen and more the simple fact they had known each other since their teens?
Talk to Ben Darwin, the former Wallaby prop now immersed in data analysis, and he will tell you all this and more. Having pored over evidence gathered by Gain Line Analytics, the company he co-founded, from nine sports over 30 years – they now crunch more than 2,000 numbers per game – he is absolutely sure he is on to something.
Darwin’s interest first began to take root during his playing days. Australia, for whom he won 28 caps between 2001 and 2003, have often come to Twickenham and won when, in terms of population and mass interest, England should have smashed the Wallabies every time. In contrast, countries such as Wales and Ireland, with smaller populations and fewer selectorial options, would often punch above their weight. As the former front-rower says: “England have currently got about 10 flankers to choose from. When I was a prop for Australia it was me and one other guy. There was no one else. I was confused by the idea that France and England could have so many players and yet not have consistent success.”
In 2013 he began to use his growing data bases to alert rugby clubs worldwide when players were coming off contract. After a while he spotted an interesting trend. “I noticed that when clubs couldn’t afford to sign players they would improve the most. If they did sign players they would go backwards the most.” Gradually he set out to try to measure if long-term stability was beneficial in sport across the board. Having studied the NFL, NBA and Premier League, among others, he discovered it was. “The more stable you are the greater level of understanding you have. You can buy skill but skill doesn’t manifest itself in chaos. If you have lots of different players coming in from different places with different habits it’s hard to get them on the same page, particularly defensively.”
The 44-year-old Darwin, who was born in Crewe and whose father hails from Yorkshire, also cites studies in other working environments which concluded that settled employees tend to deliver most effectively. Apparently the average stockbroker takes three years to reach their peak. In Premier League football, on average, it is two and a half years but strikers tend to transfer easier than midfielders. Darwin’s examination of Premier League academies unearthed something else. “We found that the ability in the academies had nothing to do with the facilities or the talent. It was mainly driven by the stability of the team above them. If they were going into a stable senior team they would go well because everyone understood their role.”
Iceland beating England at Euro 2016 is a classic case study. “It doesn’t make sense. Iceland have a population of 300,000, England have got St George’s Park and everything else. The main reason is that when many of the Iceland players were 12 they had to play for the under-16s because they didn’t have enough players. Tiny countries like Belgium and Wales shouldn’t be able to compete but they do. Coaching England – and France – in football and rugby is the hardest job in the world because of the number of clubs they’re coming from.”
Drill down further still and other nuggets emerge. Ask a rugby player – in either code – to wear a different number on his back and fulfil a slightly less familiar role in a big game and, on average, his team score seven points fewer per game. The defensive stats, interestingly, remain unchanged.
On top of everything else are the false media perceptions. “What we do, not least in journalism, is make people more magic than they are,” Darwin argues. “We tend to mythologise teams. We say the All Blacks are amazing but there is nothing about them that is magical. If they were amazing they would still win even when they introduce new players in key positions. In fact, when they do, they perform exactly the same as everyone else. It’s what we put upon them that is magical. Nor is there statistical evidence that any coach is better than the norm.”
Really? What about the tub-thumping speeches or the charismatic managerial masterminds? Darwin barely suppresses a snort. “There’s so much bullshit in sport about psychology. We’ve found cohesion makes a 40% performance differential. The skill of the coaching is about 2%. Most of it is about the talent you have access to.”
Much to ponder, then, as Exeter and Wasps prepare to lock horns this weekend. Think of the previously dominant teams in English rugby: Bath, Leicester, Saracens. All had squads developed mostly from within and involved a settled bunch of players who knew one another inside out. “It’s not that Exeter necessarily make better players: they take players and get the most out of them,” Darwin suggests. “It’s a completely different way of thinking about talent acquisition and producing success but it’s also right.” His theory of rugby evolution could change how we all look at sport.
South alarm bells
South Africa have perfectly legitimate reasons for pulling out of the Rugby Championship. Neither player welfare nor Covid-19 concerns are minor issues but the Springboks’ decision to stay at home does have potentially worrying implications for the world game. Assuming the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour goes ahead, the Boks will not have played a major Test since the 2019 World Cup final. If the Lions tour is postponed or cancelled, the world champions may not be sighted in competitive action for almost two years. Which, even setting aside the financial implications, is a grim state of affairs. Too much rugby is a dangerous situation, but so is too little.
One to watch
The interrupted 2020 Six Nations championship – remember that? – is finally due to resume this Saturday when Ireland face Italy in Dublin. It is probably worth refreshing our memories about the exact state of play. A bonus-point win for the Irish would put them a point clear of the field ahead of the final round, meaning a bonus-point win against France in Paris next week would clinch Andy Farrell’s side the title regardless of what England and his son Owen do in Rome earlier the same day. The big imponderables, of course, are whether the delay will affect some squads more than others and whether the absence of large crowds will change how teams perform. The only certainty? The absence of travelling fans will be keenly felt by all and sundry.