Is there evidence of certain players making success for their team far more likely? We canvassed coaches and analysts for their views
In search of rugby’s Force Multipliers
It’s all about the weapons in your arsenal.
In military terms – and we’re boiling it right down here – a ‘force multiplier’ is some element, agent or tactic that increases the effect of a force. So if you have that one thing, watch out everybody, the whole operation has gone up a level.
Which is why the terminology has been adopted in some sports to describe the influence of one player in a team, making success on the field more likely. Essentially, if that star plays, everyone else on the team may enjoy more individual success in match-ups or, ultimately, the team has much better odds of winning.
It is a lovely concept. But in real-world rugby terms, could you ever actually quantify, code or analyse it in any great detail? We wondered. So we asked coaches and analysts across the game what they thought of the notion and if you ever could point to a player and say, ‘Them – their interventions throughout games always make success more likely!’
“The concept for me is really interesting,” begins Darren Lewis, who runs Codex Analysis and teaches MSc level performance analysis, after a career spent with Bath and Gloucester.
“Analysis is in this really grey space where we look at how many things people have done and how well they do it. But I always think that there’s only a tackle to miss, if there’s a tackle to make. So if you get through the game, having made one tackle and one missed tackle, the context of the whole thing is pretty hard to ‘stat’, for want of a better phrase.
“Now it might be that person has put himself in brilliant positions where he doesn’t need to make a tackle. Or it might be that other players in the team have put him in compromised positions where he’s missed a lot of tackles. So the whole concept is really interesting.
“I did some work for a coach before where we were looking at the efficiency of a player’s involvements. But it didn’t include anything that they were doing off the ball. So how hard did you chase a kick and fill a space to prevent the opposition going somewhere? I think analysis in rugby is in this pretty transitional state at the moment but I do think it’s improving as well.”
Lewis is struck by the idea of Top Trumps, that in the perfect world we could see a player’s attributes card and measure their perfect scores for every element of the game and decide what was the best tally for your starting XV. However, we can’t do that, and while he is prompted to think of Owen Farrell’s game management, leadership skills, fitness levels and rugby IQ, we can’t exactly do a like-for-like comparison of a Farrell-helmed England success and a Marcus Smith-led one, all on paper alone. “I think that’s why I love the game,” he adds, of the variability baked into the sport.
Talk to others in the analysis arm of the game and there are some intriguing approaches to the same question.
One elite analyst with a United Rugby Championship side, who asked not to be named, said: “This isn’t something that is used in our coding language (at the club). I’m sure it could be a useful insight if the data gathered was used correctly. It would be very interesting to see how different teams would gather this information, as it’s such a broad concept.
“For example, ‘Forward A’ could bring others into the game through ball movement off nine, whereas their total carry metres may look quite average on a stats sheet. ’Scrum-half A’ could create more opportunities for the team through turnovers, by having an accurate contestable kicking game, even though they may not have any line breaks or try assists.
“In defence for example, maybe positive post-tackle efforts such as positive jackal attempts could be used (as a measurement). There are definitely other elements, such as running lines and quick time-off-floor efforts. There are definitely ‘unseen efforts’ which aren’t coded, that could definitely affect the force multiplier.”
There are so many tunnels with this warren of a concept. But the one leading to the notion of ‘unseen efforts’ is an interesting avenue to explore, particularly in a sport that lauds the grunt work necessary to build any sort of game plan.
“We’ve actually got a stat for that,” says Crusaders and Fiji forwards coach Jason Ryan, on the idea of highlighting work done in the dark. “We actually show little instances of moments that have micro-detail in them, where there’s been a skill-set moment or a mindset moment that’s been a real point of difference or changed something in a game.
“Everyone sees the try from the grandstand don’t they, but we always make sure we identify those little wee micro-details and celebrate that.
“If it’s a tighthead’s bind or it’s a foot placement on the lift or a certain way to defensively catch a ball, all of that stuff’s talked about and lived every day. It’s basically just skill-set execution really, and that and speed of thought are vital in a game of footy. People have to react and make decisions under pressure and at key moments.
“Everyone talks about momentum shifts in games. Well, often that’s because of a little skill-set opportunity or someone’s done something on instinct. And that’s been happening for a long time, whether that’s ‘force multipliers’ or whatever you want to brand it.”
For Ryan, whatever label we want to throw at this subject doesn’t take away from the fact that every position on a rugby pitch is different, every player is capable of making a tiny intervention that affects a game and that top coaches around the world will always celebrate such interventions. All of which is incredibly fair. And as he adds with mirth, no matter what we think, “Forwards just get on with it, don’t they!”
The issue for us is perhaps: which elements of the game do you want to highlight as the most important? It would perhaps mean that again you are trying to attribute value to hundreds of incidents in a game, and then correlate any of those you prefer with the end result. As les Bleus data scientist Jérémy Chéradame tells us via email: “A naive approach would be to carry out a statistical model with each player as a binary variable, to observe the importance of each player on each of these variables. There are probably more appropriate solutions to address this problem I can’t currently think of.”
But this isn’t meant to be some riddle to solve. And perhaps we are getting away from the question at the core of this. Which is one of whether a megastar makes the whole team perform better.
James Martin is the head of performance analysis at the Kobelco Steelers in Japan, having previously done analysis at the Crusaders. And from this question he initially thought of Ardie Savea’s interventions in games that demonstrably change the flow of play. Then he namechecks Dan Carter and Andy Ellis for their on-field chat, direction and motivation mid-game.
But perhaps the influence of star players is most obvious at certain levels. As he explains: “Especially in Japan, the big players over here have a much bigger effect on the game than they might in some other countries. It might be a jackal penalty or might be a big tackle or something, but they’re always doing those little things at the right moment. It stacks up, especially towards the end of the game.”
He gives us an example. In talking about how incomers tend to take a few weeks to get used to the chaos, quick taps and end-to-end action of Japanese rugby, Martin explains how surprised Lukhanyo Am was during a short stint in Kobe recently. He then quickly adds: “It’s exactly what we’ve been talking about actually. He (Am) just made a tackle that I don’t think many rugby players can make, which ended up saving a try for us. It was right as the other team had a bit of momentum as well.
“We were defending on our goal-line, and they’ve gone to shift the ball wide. A guy stepped back in and it looked like (the attacker) had beaten both our players for all money, and then Luk just comes out of nowhere and makes a try-saving tackle and stops him just short of the line. Everyone’s back on D, and it was awesome.”
Martin also talks of how some opposition stars in Japan stand out to the extent that you have to prep for them specifically in your pre-game analysis. He shines a light on Samu Kerevi at Tokyo Sungoliath, who through volume of involvements and his ability to draw more than one defender means that he can create space for his team-mates to exploit.
The other intangible, Martin adds, is how some players can gain confidence from playing with star turns. Perhaps the real lifts can come from perception on this one. But when this concept is put to Wasps assistant Ed Robinson, he automatically jumps to the concept of cohesion.
“A force multiplier is someone who helps the team, that’s what I thought right away,” he says. “So that’s about cohesion. You talk about the Crusaders stuff (highlighting unseen work) and we’d do something similar to that. It all comes back to you doing something for the team. And if I can understand what my team-mate’s gonna do then I can anticipate it and we can play better together.”
The issue in a game of so many moving parts is that you rarely ever get to simulate exactly how a match will pan out, though if you can produce a facsimile of your best in the perfect conditions you can achieve some great things. But how you actively improve anticipation between your elite players is the golden question, Robinson says.
He adds: “For me, it comes from creating a bit of chaos (in training) along with a bit of on the other side of the spectrum, a bit of control. But understanding when’s the right time to just let the player solve the problems, let them try and find a solution together.”
How cohesion relates to this concept is an interesting angle, and Robinson mentions former Wallaby prop Ben Darwin, who is considered an expert in the field of team cohesion. But when the idea of a ‘force multiplier’ is put to him by Rugby World, the Australian replies: “Some players just appear to be force multipliers because of when they are not in the team. It’s more of a reflection of the impact on the change required because of their absence.
“When they are not playing there is a huge underperformance in the short term, until they are used to the next guy.”
Again, we consider perception.
If there is no steadfast, game-wide parameters for who is and isn’t a force multiplier and you used a menu of statistics and clips to make a case for Antoine Dupont being such a player, chances are many of us would go for it, right? Perhaps it is a mass delusion, but you could also do the same for Savea or Michael Hooper.
Now pick a hard-working, regular-starting, but typically uncelebrated lock at a good Gallagher Premiership club. If you made a case for them, no doubt plenty of rugby insiders would cheer.
In the grey zone on this one, perhaps all that currently matters is what your team-mates believe you bring to the pitch. Let the rest of us argue semantics.
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