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Week three of the 2023 Rugby World Cup wrapped up on Sunday after several days of pulsating action. Antoine Dupont’s facial fracture and Georgia’s last minute draw with Portugal made the early headlines, but Ireland vs South Africa and Wales vs Australia were the focal point of the weekend. In the end, Ireland topped South Africa 13-8 in an enthralling slugfest and Wales defeated the Wallabies 40-6 in a one-sided affair. Both matches served as an adequate reminder that cohesion is a key factor in any team’s success.
Cohesion, as defined by GAIN LINE Analytics co-founder Simon Strachan, is “the objective level of understanding between the participants of a team.” The greater the understanding between team members, the greater the on-field performance can be. It is a measurement system that helps explain why Leinster, Toulouse and the Crusaders have maintained their excellence over time and shows why Ireland and France might be poised to lift the William Webb Ellis Cup, while traditional powerhouse Australia is struggling.
GAIN LINE Analytics
GAIN LINE Analytics was co-founded in 2013 by Ben Darwin and Simon Strachan. Darwin played rugby for over a decade, representing Australia at the 2003 Rugby World Cup and against the British and Irish Lions in 2001. He has also held coaching positions in Australia and Japan and is now the GM of Corporate for GAIN LINE. Strachan is the GM of Sport at GAIN LINE and has a background in teaching, coaching and as a rugby analyst.
GAIN LINE is an operations and management consultancy that seeks to understand why sports teams win consistently over time. It uses its unique “Cohesion Analytics Methodology” – based on quantitative research and data analysis – to examine the potential for long-term success at any given sports organization. Strachan, Darwin and co. provide workshops, performance audits, subscription services, research and speak at events for sports organizations and private businesses.
According to Strachan, when he or his colleagues sit in a room with sports professionals and explain what they do, “people tend to understand it,” but he understands trusting the analytics “still requires people to make a leap of faith.” Changing operating procedures requires admitting the organization could be working smarter, and betting on long-term success can be a difficult sell in a sector with a hire and fire, instant gratification culture. Often, those who bet on the long-term are gone by the time there is a tangible reward.
How to Measure Cohesion
In layman’s terms, cohesion describes how well a player knows the teammate they line up next to. It is an assessment of the three P’s: people, position and program. Cohesion is not a measurement of social understanding. It does not factor in how much two players may enjoy each other’s company off the field, nor does it take into account individual skill level, which Strachan explains is very hard to measure and has a lower disparity at the elite level than cohesion. Most importantly, cohesion looks at a player’s understanding of their role within the team, the team’s game plan and interactions between teammates to carry out the game plan. It is a data-driven version of what many fans would casually call “team chemistry.”
Cohesion is measured via GAIN LINE’s Team Work Index (TWI). The TWI looks at the quantity and intensity of linkages within a team. Linkages depend on shared experiences between players and the strength of the organization’s system. Strong linkages require long-term repetition – i.e. playing together over and over again – and consistency of team selection. To have a high TWI score an organization needs to have top-down alignment, meaning the owners, executives, coaches, analysts are on the same page, helping create strong linkages between players.
Short-term stability is one way to build linkages and increase cohesion and thereby results. Strachan references Leicester City Football Club’s amazing 2016 title winning season as a perfect example of this. Leicester City lost only one of its last nine games the season prior, avoiding relegation. The next season, despite bringing in a new manager, the squad and starting eleven remained almost unchanged and the Foxes rode the stability all the way to the title.
Time, however, is the greatest driver of long-term cohesion. Clubs that build an appropriate system give their players natural linkages over long periods of time, making integration into professional teams more comfortable. A great example of this is the 2014 World Cup winning German National Team, the bulk of which was made up of Bayern Munich players who had come up through the age groups together, winning trophies along the way. In rugby union, the Crusaders are the gold standard for long-term success. Strachan says that pre-covid there was a study that showed when a player debuted for the Crusaders he had already played with eleven of his teammates. The naturally cohesive environment allows “debutants”to excel in comfortable team structure with teammates they already know. The Crusaders set up has led to 12 Super Rugby titles since 1998, including the last seven..
Strachan says TWI measures how an organization puts a squad together. It is a measurement of the organizational philosophy and clearly depicts if there is a build or buy mentality. In his eyes, it is the best indicator in sports for long-term success. It also sets the expectations for an organization, showing them where they are in their development process. So with all this in mind, which teams at this Rugby World Cup should expect success?
The Most Cohesive Teams at this RWC
Look no further than the current number one team in the world. According to Strachan and Darwin, Ireland has one of the highest levels of cohesion of any nation in the tournament. This comes from the four province system – and particularly Leinster – which drives talent through the age groups to the national team. It is a naturally cohesive environment which has allowed many of today’s current players to develop together over time. Moreover, Head Coach Andy Farrell has picked a consistent side since taking over (and during this tournament), allowing players to nail down their roles in the team and understand each other’s movements under pressure. Ireland look poised to make a deep run in the tournament, although they will have to cope with the pressure of being ranked #1 in the world and defeat some of the other favorites.
The team Ireland just beat, South Africa, is not far behind. Strachan reckons that winning the World Cup in 2019 was actually ahead of schedule and that this edition of the Springboks has excellent cohesion metrics. With most of the 2019 team returning for this World Cup, the new players are entering a team with high normative behaviors. His example is Mannie Libbok. The new number ten will be flanked by players inside and outside him who have already won the World Cup playing together. He also notes that the South African system is built to deliver talent to the highest level with high school feeding into local competition, then Currie Cup, the URC and finally the national side. It is also worth noting that while many South Africans play abroad, most grew up playing together for their provinces, and they can rebuild cohesion in extended pre-tournament camps.
Despite recent results – most notably the loss to France in the opening game – Strachan says New Zealand should not be discounted. The Kiwis are in the statistical cohesion zone that hints at a potential World Cup victory, although the Celtic nations’ improvement is making life more difficult for them. Over time the Kiwi rugby system has produced cohesive groups of players destined for success. This is largely thanks to Canterbury and Crusaders Rugby which has produced previous All Black greats. Now it can be thanked for stars like Jordan, Mo’unga, Barrett, Whitelock and more.
However, Strachan says that All Black’s performances since 2007 are becoming less dominant. Winning percentage has remained high and New Zealand has won two World Cups during this time period, but performances have been less commanding. The margin of victory is decreasing and close wins have turned into narrow losses, most notably against Ireland and England. Strachan notes that New Zealand’s waning dominance has two major causes: the feeder system is crumbling, and there is a talent drain. Going forward, New Zealand Rugby will have to find ways to stem the loss of players and rebuild its provincial rugby infrastructure or risk sliding down the international rugby pecking order.
France is the other hot favorite for this tournament. The bulk of their team is selected from two highly successful clubs in Toulouse and La Rochelle. Moreover, there is a core group of players who have come through the u20s tournament together as winners. In a recent podcast, former French international Ben Kayser mentioned that several of the players in the French forward pack have been scrummaging together since they were ten years old. The French will also have serious home field advantage on their side. Strachan notes that GAIN LINE’s data has found that traditionally the home team in rugby union wins just over 50% of the matches, but in France that number is in the mid-seventies. Expect the host to make a deep run barring a major turn of fortune.
So what could disrupt one of these four teams from winning? First and foremost, the draw. All four of these teams are on the same side of the bracket and thus will face each other in the quarter-finals, meaning two will go home early.
Injuries also play a key factor in disrupting team cohesion. France and South Africa know this firsthand. Pre-tournament France lost Romain Ntamack to an ACL tear and Paul Willemse to a thigh injury. In the first game they also lost hooker Julien Marchand, and now their captain and talisman Antoine Dupont has suffered a facial injury. All of these injuries will stress the depth and cohesion of the French squad. Where before Ntamack and Dupont knew exactly how to play off each other, now France have the less tested combination of Jalibert and Lucu.
Similarly South Africa entered the tournament without Lukhanyo Am and Handré Pollard, although Pollard is now back. Two key decision makers were removed from the team, but clearly there were redundancies in Kriel and Libbok which have allowed the Boks to continue performing at a high level. The question for both France and South Africa now is how many more players can they seamlessly replace before cohesion significantly drops. Likewise, what would happen to Ireland if they lost Johnny Sexton, and how would the All Black’s cope without Aaron Smith or Sam Whitelock?
Cards must also be factored into tournament performance. With red cards increasing in prevalence, it could take one bad mistake to change a team’s cohesion. While England were able to defeat Argentina down to 14 men, playing down a man for a significant portion of a test match will obviously lower team cohesion and increase the pressure on each individual decision. With knockout rugby approaching, availability of starting players will be one of the most important elements for the nations competing for the title.
Australia’s Lack of Cohesion
In the run up to this World Cup, three of the larger nations showed worrying signs when it came to TWI: Wales, England and Australia. Wales and England replaced their coaches and despite poor starts have come back into contention thanks to fairly consistent selection and a reliance on players who have played together before. Even Wales’s relatively young squad has co-captains who have played together all through their youth and veterans like Adams, North and Williams who have been capped together for Wales and the British and Irish Lions.
Australia on the other hand has not coped well with change. Unlike South Africa, Ireland and New Zealand, Australia’s national rugby union system is not creating natural cohesion amongst young players. The small playing population has been spread across five Super Rugby sides, limiting their time playing together. Moreover, despite being the best Australian side by some distance, the ACT Brumbies only had six players selected for the Wallabies World Cup squad. On top of that, many veterans – notably Quade Cooper, Bernard Foley, and former captain, Michael Hooper – were not selected for the side and there were limited redundancies for key positions like flyhalf. This left the Wallabies with an extremely young and disjointed side lacking game time together and the proper experience to contest high level test matches.
It is no surprise the Wallabies struggled for success in this World Cup, although if these players continue to play together they will have a long journey along which they can build strong linkages and increase cohesion. Perhaps this was Jones’s thinking when picking his squad.
Translation to Business
Cohesion is not an exact measurement of performance. Skill is still involved and changes in personnel will always have an effect, however it is a good indicator of expected performance and can show where a sporting organization is doing well and where it needs to improve. Strachan says when GAIN LINE begins working with a new organization it arms itself with as much information as possible about the team and individuals. It looks to understand the pain points and enhance the organization’s raison d’etre. Most important is to create alignment throughout the organization and this means working with executives and key decision makers.
GAIN LINE is beginning to branch out and is now working with football clubs, financial firms and farmers. Strachan notes that much of the original research came from HR and financial data which they brought into sports. But he says that the measurements are the same no matter the industry and cohesion can be related to KPIs and to develop high normative business behaviors. The bottom line is, for any organization to have long-term success it will need to build a coherent operating system which enhances cohesion amongst workers and creates an understanding of which decisions should be made under pressure.