Across the Laighin: Meet the team tasked with staying one step ahead
February 4, 2021 4:46 pm Marcus Ó Buachalla
‘Across The Laighin’ is a new quarterly magazine published exclusively for the benefit of Official Members.
The first issue went live before Christmas and over the coming weeks we will be giving Leinster Rugby supporters access to excerpts from some of the interviews and feature pieces.
In the third piece we sat down with the analysis team in Leinster Rugby to get an insight into the team working hard to stay one, if not two, steps ahead of the opposition each week.
Emmet, Brian, Eoin and Juliette spoke to ‘Across The Laighin’ about their own background, their roles and what is takes to be part of the Leinster Rugby analysis team.
Meet Emmet Farrell, Head Analyst at Leinster Rugby and his team of performance analysts: Brian Colclough, Eoin Smyth and Juliette Fortune.
Emmet closes his laptop at 11.30pm on the plane back from France to Dublin airport. The bright lights of Dublin city are below.
Leinster Rugby have just played Montpellier in the first round of the Heineken Champions Cup and while the players, coaching staff and back room team have eyes only for the cot, Farrell has eyes only for the laptop.
While the rest of the traveling party will be back home in bed, he and the other analysts will be busy compiling clips and statistics on the game that was. They might be in bed by three. It might be four. It might.
This is their lot. A constant chase against time and against sleep to try and stay one step ahead of the coaches, the players and of course, the opposition.
“Of course, there are challenges,” Farrell explains.
“To be a good analyst, you need someone who has a strong work ethic but who also isn’t afraid of late nights but then also getting up the next day early to go at it again.
“We do this so that the team can be as best prepared as they can be, the coaches and the players, to perform on a Saturday. That is where the enjoyment is.
“Seeing our work and scouting come off during a game or something that you highlighted to a particular player and that his opposite number likes to step off his right foot or whatever…us as an analysis team playing a part in the result.
“I say that to the guys the whole time to reinforce that message. You have to enjoy those moments. When it’s three in the morning and we are back in UCD coding but we are just off the back of a really good win and we have played our part. You have to enjoy those moments.”
Farrell – or ‘Bumper’ as he was known by Michael Cheika and as a result known ever since then as ‘Bumper’ in Leinster in honour of the late Australian rugby league star Frank ‘Bumper’ Farrell – has been with Leinster Rugby since 2003 as an analyst so he knows Leinster Rugby and the game inside and out.
He played at all levels with Leinster Rugby and was capped by Ireland ‘A’ until a nasty injury put paid to his rugby playing plans. He was destined for a life in the real world as he calls it himself when he took a call from the then Leinster Communications Manager.
“Tom McCormack rang me to say that a position had come up as an analyst. When I was playing we didn’t have one so it was a relatively new role but the analyst that was there, Brett Igoe, had left to join Matt Williams in Scotland.
“So I went in and had a chat with Mick Dawson and Gary Ella, the head coach at the time and I got the job. The rest as they say is a long torrid history!”
Staying a Step Ahead
“During pre-season, when there are no matches to distract us, that is when we map out how we want to play or what we want to look to deliver over the season ahead so the coaching team and the analysis team are aligned then for the season ahead. The idea of those sessions though is to understand what the game style and the game plan is.
“So when you get to a Thursday scouting session and you present what you have seen Munster deliver for example you already know what the coaches are looking for because it was agreed months before.
“There is a rule that we have and that is that what we do has to affect the performance. All the work has to be relative to what we want to achieve.”
It seems to be very much a meeting of minds these meetings with coaches and analysts working together with a common aim; how to prepare the team as best as possible so that they can perform to the best of their ability.
“Absolutely. The last thing you want is for those Thursday meetings to be just a load of information and analysis that is redundant. Or us to present a crazy move that we think would work but the coaches dismiss because it would consume too much time during the week,” continues Farrell.
“Those Thursday scouting meetings are a conversation and it’s very much aligned at this stage. We know what they are looking for and by and large we know how to produce that for them.”
Where to Focus?
Farrell outlines that they would code five games that the opposition have played and that they would all have particular areas to look at.
“Brian is very heavy on set-piece analysis. Line-out and scrum, numbers, movements and he is very well drilled now into what Robin (McBryde) is looking for. He’s worked hard to understand that which is very important when a new coach comes in. Restarts as well so he works very closely with Leo on those.
“Jules then does a lot more team-based analysis. How they scored, where they scored, who is scoring, when do they concede, after four phases, five phases. When are they likely to give away penalties etc. So her focus is very much on the team.
“For me my focus is on the visual elements, the video and showing the various set-ups that a team would have, what’s good to use this week, where can we attack, what we should use or shouldn’t use.”
Ideally the five games would include a dominant win, a loss where they have been outplayed, then two games where the margin was tight in either a win or a loss and then a fifth game.
They are also presented in chronological order to try to identify any patterns or an evolution to their games but mostly it’s about seeing a team dealing with different scenarios on game day.
It’s a lot and it explains why a team of four is required to help out as Leinster Rugby strive to keep all interested stakeholders as informed as possible ahead of every game.
The Young Gun
With Farrell as Head Analyst and Brian Colclough as his assistant, Eoin Smyth is the Academy Performance Analyst and finally Juliette Fortune is an intern with the team for the last season and a half.
Fortune, at 23, is the youngest but has hit the ground running in her 18 months in the role, thanks in large part to her third level qualifications but also a keen sporting interest.
“GAA was my sport growing up and still is as I still play with Bray Emmets in Wicklow. I dabbled a bit when I was younger with soccer, tag rugby, hockey and what have you but I never really ventured too far away from the GAA. I have two older sisters but I was the one waving the sporty flag in our family.
“I went to the Loretto in Bray and when I left school I applied to do a degree in Sports Science & Health in DCU and that gave me then the opportunity to stay involved in sport or to work in sport but I didn’t know what avenue yet. Physio, nutrition maybe but sports science as a degree would give me a good grounding in a number of disciplines.
“It was a four-year course but in my second year there was a Technology in Sport module and while I knew statistics and analysis in sport was big, I didn’t realise at the time just how big.
“I had a lecturer, David Passmore, who works with Irish Hockey and he lectured and he really sold that part of it to me. The brain element of the sport if you will and the mental side and I was hooked from there. By the time I was in third and fourth year I was picking all the team based, the coaching based and the tech-based modules.”
While the coding software utilised by Fortune in college was different to what she uses now with Leinster Rugby, the process and the desired outcome was the same.
Trying to deliver content that makes a coaches or a players’ match day preparation as informed as possible without clogging their heads up with too many numbers.
A fine balance and a lesson that she learned very early on.
The Right Hand Man
Colclough for his part is now into his third full-time season in Leinster Rugby as Farrell’s assistant and like Fortune, he too started as an intern.
He attended St. Laurence’s Primary School in Greystones, before going to Blackrock College but while studying Business & Management in DIT, something didn’t quite feel right and a gentle nudge from sister Aideen sent him in the direction of Leinster Rugby.
“Late one night in my final year and struggling through my thesis my sister just said it to me. ‘Why are you still bothering with this. You’ve no interest in business or management. Why don’t you have a look at something you care about?’
“So yeah I was the same as Jules, started out here on an internship and loved it but probably took the long route to get here.
“I knew Bumper from my time playing club rugby in Blackrock and as an outhalf myself I suppose I always had an interest in the strategy and the intricacies of the game and I really enjoyed how he presented the game to us as players.
“Bumper mentioned it to me at a time when I was a bit lost in college and not enjoying the course and where I was headed and he then put me in touch with the Irish Analyst Vinny Hammond and a few things just fell into place.
“I managed to start an internship in Leinster while also taking a distance learning Masters in Professional Sports Practice in Cardiff Metropolitan University. So I was catching up on the theory side with my studies while being immersed in it on a daily basis in Leinster. I had a great year working with Bumper and with John Buckley who was here before me.”
An Eye to the Future
The final element in the Leinster Rugby analysis armoury is Eoin Smyth.
Smyth is now into his sixth year at Leinster Rugby and looks after the Leinster ‘A’ team analysis, the age grade programmes and the Academy analysis.
It is also no surprise that Smyth was chosen for the Academy and age grade role given his own Leinster journey is steeped in the grassroots and the youth of the game.
Before becoming an analyst he was employed as a Club & Community Rugby Officer working in the clubs and schools of Coolmine, Blanchardstown, Ballymun and Finglas trying to spread the Leinster Rugby gospel.
“Growing up soccer was the sport at home as my Dad was mad into it. But the rugby background is from my time in Mount Temple in Clontarf where I went to school. The options in the first few weeks were rugby, hockey and cricket and you had to try them and I was lucky that I played under some great coaches and rugby people like Jim Casey, Maurice Maxwell and Derek Maybury so I just fell in love with the game then. The same then in DCU where I initially went to college, then down in IT Carlow.
“I played as a flanker first in school, enjoyed that the most I think. Then on the wing in fourth year and finally in sixth year our coach at the time, Derek Maybury, had the idea to put me in the second row! So it was an interesting few years!
“As a CCRO with Leinster then I really enjoyed getting out there and working with kids and trying to instil in them that same love for the game that I had.”
Like Fortune, Smyth studied for a role such as this first in DCU where he studied Computer Science but then after that in college in IT Carlow where he studied Sports & Exercise where he took a sports analysis module.
From The Ground up
“When I left school I started coaching straight away back with Mount Temple first and I really enjoyed that side to it. I’ve been involved with Belvedere College over the years as well so I had that eye, wanted to be involved in sport but really enjoyed the analysis part of all of that.
“It was through a chat with Declan Fassbender and Billy Phelan in Leinster that I managed to get an opportunity to watch a few Leinster ‘A’ training sessions when Girvan Dempsey was Academy Manager and I suppose it was just good timing that I was there just when they started to have a look at maybe filling the position on a full time basis.”
Given the huge value that Leinster Rugby puts on the From The Ground Up model it is no surprise that they have a resource in Smyth dedicated to the age grade and All-Ireland League sides and getting footage of the next generation of players into the hands of the decision makers.
“Leo would be one of the biggest advocates of that model but also look at the Development Officers that we have. Also the CROs, the CCROs, people on the ground, in and around the clubs and schools. They are all getting in and around the province talking to teachers, to coaches, to parents and all the while taking little bits of knowledge back to us here in Leinster. We try to have that connection to as many people as we can.
“So I would get every single AIL game and we are looking at the lads in our Academy or sub-Academy playing but then we see all the other players too. Look at Barry Daly or look at Rowan Osborne or more recently Greg McGrath. They weren’t in our system but we were still scouting them and their form in the club game. We are always scouting and always looking.
“Leo or Stuart will happily say ‘get in there’ to players in our Academy or sub-Academy that they feel are ready. So those lads will be in our system but there are others there that aren’t but will get a shot because of our scouting and analysis and I think that’s a huge plus of our model.“
The Tools of the Trade
Smyth is based down in Energia Park more often than not and has at his disposal some of the most advanced gadgets like the Spiideo system referenced earlier.
“It’s effectively covers everything that’s on the pitch” explains Smyth, “but also the best thing for me is that if I have to be up in UCD for whatever reason I can monitor everything and record everything remotely.
“The possibilities then for the content you capture is great. You can select a player, highlight him across a session or a schools game that is played in Energia Park so for a player education or a coach education piece it is a huge tool for us to have at our disposal.
“Some of the education pieces if we didn’t have this technology, it would take a team of 12 analysts each with their own camera, to cover it all but the advantage of this system is that the four cameras cover everything and allows us to manipulate those four cameras afterwards whatever way we want.”
A far cry from the VHS days for Farrell but technology like the kind Smyth references and the analysis team’s reliance on it frames the success or otherwise of their working week.
They are forever a technical glitch away from not capturing what they need which is why their preparation is also key.
Fortune never leaves the office to head anywhere without a “second everything” as when you are far away from the comforts of the analysis room, it is too late to figure out that you are missing your batteries or you don’t have another cable to replace the faulty one.
While Colclough is also mindful that Southern Hemisphere temperatures are usually absent most days in UCD with the cold and rain more often than not causing havoc with sensitive equipment.
For his part, Farrell is also wary of the evolution of the technology they use but also utilising what’s right rather what’s the latest and shiniest gadget.
But for all four, the main issue creating havoc is not enough hours in the day.
“If you gave me 100 hours a week to just watch tape I’d watch it” says Smyth “and then still find something else to clip or scout. It’s the nature of the beast.
“But you are a performance analyst and you can’t lose sight of that. What can you do to help that performance piece and the only way to do that is to be close to them and having that relationship with your coaches and players.”
The Little Wins
“It’s the little wins for me along the way. A trophy at the end of the season is great don’t get me wrong but along the way the little contributions that you and the rest of the guys have made,” Farrell says.
“You see these players before they were capped. Their ups and downs. What has made them the players that they are today. You know some of them 10, 12 years.
“Hopefully there is an element of helping them to achieve what they want to achieve and to reach their potential. It’s not quite on the field with them but it’s not far off.”
“I love it here. Leinster Rugby is one of the standard-bearers for club rugby in Europe, possibly in the world,” Colclough adds.
“Working here in an atmosphere where people are constantly striving for excellence and there is a will to win and to be better and to keep driving, it’s inspiring and it’s a privilege to be a part of that.”
Four of the hardest workers in the room.
Far away from the bright lights. But no less deserving of the focus.