NEWS
10/04/2011 02:37 EDT | Updated 12/03/2011 05:12 EST

Away from Rugby World Cup, training technology gives coaches and players new perspective

DUNEDIN, New Zealand - Coaches at the Rugby World Cup are restricted to watching their players from the touchline, or at best from a box high up in the stands. Perhaps not for much longer.

An off-the-cuff discussion two years ago with New Zealand backs coach Wayne Smith about then Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, the so-called Mad Scientist, prompted Otago University lecturer Hayden Croft to develop a system that lets support staff watch a from players' perspective in real time.

Planted discretely inside what looks like a protective scrum cap, the units have yet to be sanctioned for games by the ruling International Rugby Board.

But the common use of GPS to track players, and television replays to rule on borderline try decisions, show top-level rugby has a strong recent history of embracing technology for the betterment of the game.

"There's a lot of technology out there these days and coaches have become a wee bit wary of technology for technology's sake," Croft said. "This actual technology is just video and images, really.

"We're not selling data analysis software or anything like that."

A signal a quarter of the strength of a cellphone transmits action to a laptop, on which a coach can record, tag incidents, loop and replay instantly to illustrate to a player just where and when he made the right or wrong call.

That may have been to take the ball into contact when there were better options outside, hurling a pass when there was none on, or something more subtle such as a hooker using his wrong leg in a scrum or a scrumhalf stepping unnecessarily before passing from the base of a ruck.

"If you look at the top guys in world rugby, you'd immediately say they're not the best players (just) because they're big and strong, but because they make the right decisions and read the play very well," Croft said.

With Otago having used it in training for New Zealand's national ITM Cup, Croft has seen his technology provide plenty of feedback already.

"There was a lot of comments that the loose forwards weren't looking in the right place and were ball-watching," Croft said. "There was an incident we put on where he was staring at the breakdown. The coach was able to say 'you need to look where the ball is coming from and also scan every couple of seconds what's in front of you.'

"It's really good for showing guys the importance of head movement and scanning. That's a known thing: that good players know how to scan well."

Live footage of big backrow forwards bearing down on the ball handler gives the viewer a perspective to rival that of cricket's now ubiquitous stump-cam, which shows the full trajectory of a bowler's delivery as it beats the batsman and crashes into the wickets.

"It's also something that's not been seen by people who haven't played a lot of rugby in years," Croft said. "A lot of people remember it from growing up but their memories are quite foggy and they forget about game situations.

"People are like 'wow, there's a heck of a lot going on.'"

But beneath the drama, there are countless applications and subtleties it can uncover.

"In the lineout, you see guys raise their eyebrows a lot as a signal to the thrower," Croft said. "This helps tune the guys to those little things that are going on. We're coming up with all these applications, but straight away we'll give it to a coach and they'll come up with something completely unique."

Otago Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph, a former All Black, has been sufficiently convinced by Croft's system to use it through next year's Super 15.

"I'm not sure how Jamie will use that but it's great to get feedback from a pretty astute coach," Croft said. "He's very sure about what he wants to do."

The technology was dubbed "Carter Cam" in its initial stages by local media, a reference to New Zealand flyhalf Dan Carter.

"Leach was talking about decision making and how he trains his players," Croft explained of the original concept. "They strapped a handycam onto the quarterback's helmet and ran a few plays and ran the tape back.

"It took the quarterback about 3 minutes to talk his way through a 2- or 3-second play, so it highlighted the complexity of the decision-making process and strategic plays."

But the time it took to deconstruct those plays presented a real problem to the likes of Smith, who gets only limited time to work with players.

Within three weeks, Croft and a colleague put together a similar unit enabling coaches to watch live.

"Feedback needs to be as immediate as possible," Croft said. "They used it in a couple of trainings but in the end there were some issues when the guys were moving quickly, the image signal quality broke up.

"So we went away and we've been working away, communicating with the NZRU the last couple of years."

Croft said players recognize and react to first-person replays far better than to any other angle.

"We find that they can watch the game half an hour later and remember all those plays because your brain records the snapshot from that incident," Croft said. "It's very familiar recall, it's quite incredible.

"It's like if you go to the stadium to watch a test and then the next day you watch the replay on TV, you don't actually remember a lot of stuff because it's totally different."

Other than the protective fabric cap housing the camera, the revised system is completely manufactured in the rugby-mad province of Otago on New Zealand's south island.

Insight Sport — Croft, technical director Edwin Nieman and directors Mark Miller and Peter Brook — used the same software company that supplies the England and Wales Cricket Board with analysis programs.

New Zealand isn't the only country to embrace technology to tweak training methods. Australia coach Robbie Deans uses GPS to record how far, how fast and exactly where his players run.

"To be able to do something on a training field then review it 2 seconds later and possibly address an area of need immediately is so much more effective," Deans said. "Before the adoption of this technology, a coach would have to wait until the footage could be reviewed later that day or the next day. It's a great tool to have."