As any good school counsellor will have told you, sport has a number of transferable skills. Ambition, communication, dedication, teamwork – the list goes on. That said, the question of what rugby players do after retirement from the game has received increasing recognition of late, with a number of former players noting their difficulties and current players discussing their plans. Coaching and the media aren’t for everyone, after all.

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A particularly interesting example is Ben Darwin, the 28-cap Australia prop who found himself retiring early through injury and taking a natural-seeming step into coaching before realising his interest and talents lay elsewhere. 

Now the co-founder of GAIN LINE Analytics, an operations and management consultancy founded on data analysis from his coaching days but applied to the business world as much as sport, the 43-year-old is able to draw some fascinating conclusions from perceived difficulties or disadvantages.

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Darwin, the old Australia tighthead, is preaching his gospel to a host of sporting and non-sporting industries and is clearly absorbed by the work and its potential application. “The first thing to know about me is I have really bad ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), but I see that as an advantage I didn’t do very well in school, even though I went to a Sydney private school. 

“But when my parents broke up, I dreamed of playing for Australia,” Darwin told RugbyPass. “I put my head down into that goal but I wasn’t a very good player at the time. I sort of just put my efforts into it to try to put my attention somewhere else. 

“Eventually, I was part of the Brumbies, which was this kind of team of off-cuts that didn’t even make sense when you look at it in a different manner. Then we won the Super Rugby title and I made the Wallabies, played for a couple of years for the Wallabies before I had my spinal injury in 2003. 

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“Then I jumped into some coaching in a whole different bunch of places: Western Force, Melbourne Rebels – two expansion franchises. That’s really important to this process because I saw that you can’t just throw teams together and win. And then I was in Japan where I coached two teams.

“I jumped around in my coaching quite quickly and saw a lot. I’d go to one place and the team would never lose. And then I go to another place and do exactly the same thing and the team didn’t win. So I started to understand as a coach I had very little input on what was happening.”

It was this that drew Darwin into data analytics. “I looked a lot at the stuff that data analysts do, looking at how teams play and go about that process, and I started to realise that everyone was looking on the wrong side of the coin. 

“There’s two sides of the coin – the causative side, and the output side. Even the ability to improve a team is an output of the way the team or club is run. And everyone is looking at the output side and maybe following the wrong kind of leads as I would put it. 

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“My last job in Japan, the team I had went undefeated and I was fired at the end of the season. So I was like, ‘Coaching sucks! I’m going to jump into video analysis and data analytics’. I really didn’t have any idea what I was going to do but I had two kids at the time and I just had to make it up as I went along. 

“The first thing I did was I built a database of all the players in the world in league and in union and I was looking at when they were coming off contract.”

What Darwin started to notice was that the most successful teams all have one factor in common – and it wasn’t what you might expect. “There are some coaches that underperform but 90 per cent of coaches are where they should be. 

Darwin rugby career finished injury

Ben Darwin is stretchered off at the 2003 World Cup (Photo by Greg Wood/AFP via Getty Images)

“Now, here’s what’s interesting: When we looked at coaches joining teams, we looked at coaches with experience as head coach and we looked at coaches with no experience as a head coach. There’s no statistical difference between the two of them except the experienced coaches underperformed in their first year because they come in and they change things.”

Culture, he added, was also misleading. It might correlate to successful teams but it’s not causative. There are plenty of wildly successful teams with objectively horrible cultures, he explained, citing the Wimbledon football Crazy Gang in England during the 1980s and ’90s.

Darwin also highlighted the AFL West Coast Eagles who made the finals 16 times between 1990 and 2007, winning three Australia Premierships despite “it becoming apparent over time that the club had a horrific drug culture, with the death of the ex-captain due to a drug overdose in retirement, the addiction and repeated incarnation of its best player Ben Cousins, and up to eight other players arrested on drugs charges or assault.

“We tend to retrospectively place culture as a cause after the fact whether it be to negatively or positively attribute the cause of success or failure,” explained Darwin. So, if the decisive factor isn’t coaches or culture (or facilities or money), what is the factor Darwin sees as the predictor of success? Cohesion.

They are two metrics for measuring cohesion: teamwork index (TWI) and key cohesion markers (KCM) that identify “the quantity and intensity of linkages within a team”. The higher the number, the higher the cohesion – and the more likely the organisation is to be sustainably successful. 

The inspiration came from studying military and hospital data before assessing 15 other sports, and these metrics are now applied across industries. In rugby union, however, these metrics led Darwin to this: a seeming lack of resources can be beneficial because it creates cohesion out of necessity.

Darwin claimed it was a factor in the success of the Australia teams he played in. If he had a bad game, for example, there was rarely an obvious replacement, meaning he stayed in the side and developed alongside his fellow players.

This similarly applied to Leicester City’s 2016 Premier League title win. Darwin did the maths. No team in the competition that year had a TWI of above 40 per cent heading into the 2015/16 season (for reference, last year’s Super Rugby-winning Crusaders were at 93 per cent). 

Coach Claudio Ranieri, previously nicknamed ‘Tinkerman’ for his approach to team selections, left the side as unchanged as possible throughout the season, especially in defence. Leicester went from strength to strength despite pundits expecting them to tail off.

How does this apply to rugby union then? If you don’t have a team that knows each other inside out, what can you do? The cohesion metrics are kept a secret but they are based on three simple components – interpersonal understanding, system understanding, and role understanding.

“The most important thing in the short term is to actually understand what you have in front of you: in chaos, great players can look terrible,” said Darwin. “As an organisation, in the long-term, the only way to win is through long-term stability. We know that instability is almost guaranteed to result in losses. Therefore, the only way to win is to be stable and lose, and that’s where teams get unstuck.”

Darwin analytics World Rugby

Ben Darwin presents at a World Rugby conference (Photo by Tom Shaw/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Darwin cited an Australia NRL example: after a team loses a game by 20 points, the instinct is to make changes. But according to Darwin’s stats, “If you make three changes to the team, when you lose a game by 20 points or more, the chances of you winning next week are 34 per cent. If you make two changes, it’s 39 per cent. If you make one change, it’s 43 per cent. If you make no changes, it’s 49 per cent.”

The former Australian front row believes that you have to act with the long-term in mind and the board have a huge role in setting that agenda. Players that appear supremely skilled in one environment can struggle in another, as a number of French club owners have discovered. 

You might get lucky and be able to buy temporary success in the right context but, as Darwin’s research has shown, it’s not the approach itself that is responsible for that success.

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