Ian Moore talks to IRFU High Performance Analyst Vinny Hammond about his work, The Lions, and why rugby coaches sit in glass boxes.
A career-starting injury may sound like a sporting anomaly, but it was after picking up a hand injury whilst playing for UCD that Vinny Hammond was introduced to the club’s analysis suite by then Director of Rugby John McClean.
His dissertation in UCD was followed by a MA in Performance Analysis in Cardiff. After cutting his teeth with the IRB (World Rugby) he took up a role with the IRFU where he has remained for the best part of a decade.
Now part of a coaching staff that includes head coach Joe Schmitt, Andy Farrell, Simon Easterby, Jason Cowan, and fellow analyst Mervyn Murphy, he splits his time between work in the office and preparing for games in camp.
“We have two different types of days really, days in the office and then days in camp, where it’s seven in the morning till 11 or 12, where we’re relentlessly looking for tiny gaps.”
“Relationships are pretty tight between us and the coaches, they have to trust us and we’ve built that over time. We’ve been together the guts of six years since Joe started. It doesn’t just happen, we’ve been through some good times and some bad times.”
Using the 2014 Six Nations as an example, he stressed the importance of an analysists work at an elite level and that it really can be the difference between winning and losing.
“People say paralysis by analysis and all that. That’s ok if I was coaching an under-15s. I regularly get asked by people what should they do when coaching their team but if it’s kids, let them play football, let them play rugby. At our level where tournaments are decided by a couple of points, if we can stop one penalty or see one try scoring opportunity over the course of a Six Nations, it’s worth it looking for those margins.”
“If we can stop one penalty or see one try scoring opportunity over the course of a Six Nations, it’s worth it looking for those margins.”
Selected as part of the backroom staff for the recent Lions tour to New Zealand, Hammond worked alongside players and coaches that had been adversaries on the pitch for years.
He states that a player being selected is “the highlight of their careers and it’s certainly a highlight for me. I grew up watching videos of the Lions. I had a Lions jersey as a kid. It’s different: a special environment that’s unique in sport.
“We were in New Zealand for 7 weeks and met up for three or four weeks and you’re with guys you’ve watched playing and you have your mind made up on what they’re like as people and then your perceptions change. Guys you worked against for however many years and then you’re in the car with them to training every day, sitting two feet from them for 12 hours of the day. It’s a crazy but brilliant experience.”
“You’re with guys you’ve watched playing and you have your mind made up on what they’re like as people and then your perceptions change.”
Despite the scrutiny that surrounds the team, from fans and the press alike, he says there were plenty of moments for comic relief on the tour. “Every day there was something with so many different characters around, because the media pressure was so high people think it must be really tense but it was actually a lot of fun.”
“The car was fully branded so we got abused everywhere we’d go, someone in traffic would pull up and give us a bit of stick. We went through a McDonald’s drive through and the people who were serving us started abusing us through the window.”
Past achievements and tour hijinks aside, it’s plain to see that Vinny Hammond is a man that cares deeply about rugby and the future of his profession. Having recently returned from a sports statistics conference in Harvard, Hammond was keen to discuss the differences between increasingly stats-based American sports and those enjoyed over this side of the pond.
“There is one or two stats PhDs hired by every NFL team, every baseball team, where we talk about performance. We like to look at rugby first and let stats aid rather than drive decisions. We’ve got a nice balance and I think that’s a credit to the coaching staff.
“Sometimes you have to rely on your gut and we’ve got five pretty good guts in that office but there’s graduates from a university in Canada who can predict opposition plays with 76% accuracy. You’ve got to take note of things like that. We’d be ignorant to think that it doesn’t apply to us. Would a coach beat 76%? That’s the challenge.”
“Sometimes you have to rely on your gut and we’ve got five pretty good guts in that office.”
While rugby isn’t exactly Moneyball yet, Hammond reckons there are differences between how rugby and sports like soccer and GAA grapple with this side of the game, illustrated by something as simple as where the coach stands.
“It always amazes me how soccer and GAA coaches stand on the touchline. As soon as someone successfully shifts up into the stand it will be a no brainer for them all as the view from the pitch doesn’t make sense to me. It’s a cultural thing, they want to be seen as the motivator.”
“Jim Gavin is amazing, his persona on the side of the pitch. He’s someone who I admire in coaching but unless you have his persona, you’re gonna be better off taking the emotion out of it and heading up to the stands.”
Not content with his work with Ireland and the Lions, Hammond is currently working on his PhD here in UCD with support from the Research Council of Ireland and the IRFU.
“It’s about looking at developing players over the course of a career and how they use performance analysis. At the end of the day It’s all about getting to what actually works, if you’re doing a stack of work that nobody’s able to take in then you’re wasting your time.”
“I want to continue academically, it keeps me in touch with the university. I studied here, played here, coached here, and now I’m back studying again, I just love the place, it means something.”