This year marks the 25th anniversary of the decision to end more than a century of amateurism at a stroke and make the game open. The change has been profound, and not just because players became employees on a payroll rather than “rewarded” in a variety of ways that either breached or circumvented the old rule. The essence of the sport is markedly different, turning from what the late Lions coach Carwyn James said should be its essence, “the enjoyment of the players,” into a job in which those at the top are handsomely rewarded but have every last drop squeezed out of them.
Fun does not come into it, as a recently published research paper by two academics at Bath University, Andrew Manley and Shaun Williams, shows. They interviewed 10 players, the head coach (who had been recently appointed) and an analyst at an unnamed Premiership club for their study and found that a number of players were concerned about how modern technology was giving clubs greater surveillance over them and creating a pressure to perform that, in the desire to be offered a new contract, put individuals before the team.
Manley and Williams called the club they researched The Ravens. “It has maintained a long history of success in both the English and European club game, attracting a diverse range of players with varying national and international playing experience. At the time of the study, the club deployed a comprehensive range of technological devices to map, track and monitor individual performances and player wellbeing. The use of laptops, stadium/training camcorders, global positioning systems (GPS), heart rate monitors, body fat/skinfold recordings, mood score sheets, iPhones/iPads, central servers and mobile application software (mobile app) was reflective of the integrated technical‑administrative routines deployed by the organisation’s managerial staff. Extracting data from these various sources, with a heavy reliance on key performance indicators (KPIs), was central to the management’s strategy for validating performances and establishing benchmarks upon which improvements could be made. Analysts working at the Ravens were responsible for collating and coding performance data retrieved from training sessions and competitive matches.”
Once data was coded, it was entered into spreadsheets where KPIs “could be scrutinised in further detail.” A player’s heart rate, mood, sleep and well-being scores were collated by the strength and conditioning coaches. Some of the biometric data, such as body fat percentage, was made public through the club’s mobile app, and players felt they were judged on statistics rather than performances.
“There was a thing called the Work Efficiency Index,” the club’s captain told Manley and Williams. “It was everything you did divided by how many good and bad. What was crazy was that it gave you a figure the previous coach used. It counted everything you did in a game, around 70 things, and calculated your WEI. It was given to you in the Monday review, used in selection and got to the stage where it would be in contract negotiations. So, if you are telling me I’m not getting a deal because my WEI is down, how do I change it? The coaches would say you do this or that, but there was nothing tangible because the one thing you do might take away from something else. It created the wrong pressure because you were trying to influence your WEI rather than the result of the game.”
The club’s new coach told Manley and Williams that players had been afraid to take risks on the field. “They could not do something because their stats might look wrong and they did not want to put themselves in a position on the Monday morning (at the review) when they could not win.”
One player said: “It makes it more individual in my eyes. You take on your responsibility as opposed to you’re a member of a team and you need to do whatever you can for that team in order for it to succeed. It tends to be now that you’ll get guys that will be like, as long as all my lights are green and everything’s good I’m happy days, I’m sat back, I’m fine, and that for me takes an emphasis off of what you’ve actually got to do for the team.”
Another noted: “Everything’s graded and that’s just the way professionalism has gone because it gives coaches and players a tangible figure to compare; ultimately we’re in a comparison game, aren’t we?”
Some players were resentful of the club app. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this app told where you were when you logged on, said one. “I do think it’s a bit invasive, the level we’re now at in rugby: if you want to be in the top teams in the country you have to put up with it.” Another said: “You have to cover your arse. The website is watching.”
And then there was the pinch test that financially cost players who failed to control their weight. “This year they have been brutal,” said a player. “The off-season is going to be tough for boys who struggle to keep the weight off. They have put fines on so if your target is 70 and you come back at 71, that’s £200 and 81 is £600. The higher-paid players do not care, but it is a big overhead for those at the lower end. One guy was buying a house last season and his missus said he was not eating for four weeks otherwise they would not be able to afford to do it up.”
Players felt they had no control with Big Brother monitoring them constantly. “My phone has gone a few times saying Ravens Rugby while I have been here,” said one. “We have this new app and we have all been given iPads so it could not be more in your life. I know a number of the boys are pissed off because you are expected to take the iPad everywhere, even when you have a few days off and are away with the family. One player left because of the app because his phone only received calls and text messages, not emails, and he would not get a new one.”
The captain told Manley and Williams: “We are not a financial institution run on numbers. We are people, emotional people.” Another said he was concerned statistics were manipulated, twisted to suit the management. The new coach said his predecessor’s data analytics had “broken the players who saw no point in arguing. I just want things to be common sense. I don’t want to be caught up in mathematical bollocks or blinded by science; let’s just talk it through.”