We talk with sports scientist Nathan Beardsley about the crossover between the sports

In  the latest edition of Rugby World magazine, Bath, England and Lions flyer Anthony Watson and Liverpool midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain come together to talk stats. The ones that matter to them and where their games might be heading.

But as we waded through running numbers provided by GPS sports tech company STATSports for the piece, we began wondering where the crossover between rugby and football arrives, if there is more than meets the eye, and whether us punters understand our favourite sports as much as we’d like to think.

To even broach this, though, we need a spirit guide. Which is where England Rugby sports scientist Nathan Beardsley – formerly of Nottingham Forest FC – comes in.

“Certainly from a coach’s point of view, contextually you have to understand (the sports),” he says when asked if he can see both the blurring of lines between rugby and football and at the same time the vast differences.

“You have to blend that, bridging the gap with the strength conditioning. Because obviously you’ve got various formations or styles of play in both games. So formations are probably the best way to differentiate between physical outputs. In football if you’re playing a 3-4-3 versus a 4-3-3 (formation), that’s going to require more work from those front three players, depending on how much they want to defend or not.

rugby and football

Anthony Watson takes contact (Getty Images)

“For rugby, it would be more like a playing style. So how much distance you’d get if we’re playing more of a kicking game, for example. You’re going to see a lot more movement in the back three – they’re going to have a lot more to do if the opposition are trying to manipulate that back three and find the space.

“Whereas going the other way, if you’re going to play with more of a kind of ‘Castle’ attack (trying to go for it around the opposition 22), the work is less for someone like (Anthony Watson) and the back three, because he’s kind of just biding his time. In the NRL they would call it ‘Moneyball’ – so whenever you’re in the opposition’s 22, ‘we’re on, it’s try time’.

“In terms of blending your programme for the coaching and S&C, if you’re changing formations or styles, it’s important for the S&C coaches to understand that. Then they can give the players the right (amount of work) throughout the week, for what we would expect them to do on a game day. And if you’re consistent in your formations or your playing style, that’s a lot easier because then the players are going to be hitting similar distances – though obviously game dependent – or within a certain threshold.

“We want to expose them to a certain amount of High Metabolic Load Distance (HMLD – see our feature in the current issue), a certain amount of high-speed running, accelerations, decelerations…. You certainly want to be ticking off max speed exposure, preferably over 90% of their max speed, so that it’s not a shock when it comes to the game.”

Beardsley talks of seeing an increase in ball-in-play time in the Premiership. The consequences of this mean that, of course, the distances that players run rack up. And then there is the need for conditioning accordingly. He talks of some teams going all-out in the first 20 or the last 20 minutes (in football, he talks of the last ten minutes).

All Blacks soccer

All Black Ngani Laumape dribbles a football (Getty Images)

As he says of this: “Rugby is becoming a lot more like football, with the energy demands. I guess with more of that exciting, end-to-end kind of play.”

Beardsley calls up the example of how Japan play rugby, talking of their approach for high ball-in-play time, trying to clock up as many metres per minutes as possible.

He compares that to Wales, who he says are not slow but if you look at the nuances, they are more tackle-dominant – there will be many more contacts in a game with them than Japan, and so the acceleration figures for the forwards in particular should go up, as they power over short distances to hit more rucks.

Asked about whether we value the right stats in either game, the sports scientist says: “I think things are just becoming more individualised now.

“Data plays a big part obviously. Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne (who recently made a big contract decision based on an analysis of his and his team-mates’ attributes and potential) has obviously got the technical-tactical part as well, but the physical side is certainly a strong foundation, as he’s got to be able to do what’s required from a physical point of view. Then he fits the structure of the team. So a lot of teams are now using that data to recruit players.

“Certain teams will look at the physical characteristics, and if they can’t get players from that band of technical stars, they’ll say, ‘Okay, at least he can do X, Y and Z physically, so he’ll fit into what we need within our formation’.”

rugby and football

Burnley forward Ashley Barnes runs with the ball (Getty Images)

Back on individualisation, Beardsley points out that a centre-back in a back three should have vastly different running demands than a centre-back in a traditional 4-4-2. So conditioning programmes need to reflect that. And whenever he hears the old clichés about footballers not lifting weights, he affords himself a smile.

“Do the rugby players lift a lot more? Is there more of a lifting culture, compared to football? Well, yeah, because there’s a massive need for that. But it’s not as big a gap as you’d think.”

With the team synergy style of Burnley, conditioning is key. It needs relatively strong, fast players, Beardsley says. Those players will definitely run and will keep to their formation.

The number of stats we can get in rugby and football now can be dizzying. Teams like England Rugby will have league tables of what they see as the important things, Beardsley says. However the art of coaching is reading all that, seeing it through the matrix of numbers, and marrying it with the personality traits, tactical nous and willingness of the athletes at your disposal.

Rugby and football


He’s spoken with the guys at STATSports about whether pundits and analysts have access to the most important figures in the future, so that fans too get the right information to better understand what they have just seen, in context.

In the end, as amateur players in both rugby and football get their hands on more of the tech now available to the pros, perhaps we will see the discourse around the sports evolve. Certainly the running of numbers is always ticking along in the background. The value of those who can interpret that is higher than it’s ever been… In any major sport.

Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Anthony Watson are ambassadors for STATSports, one of the world leaders in GPS sports technology. Their Apex Athlete Series is available for athletes at every level from STATSports.com

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