Ulster turn to GAA, virtual reality and the NFL for marginal gains

PROFESSIONAL SPORTSPEOPLE WILL look anywhere and everywhere to satisfy their thirst for improvement.

Rugby coaches are no different and the search for marginal gains regularly crosses into other sporting domains and even beyond the world of sport. Ulster’s Neil Doak is a prime example of that in his first season as head coach of the Irish province.

Tommy Bowe’s GAA background helps him under the high ball. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

One of the key dilemmas for coaching teams at the top level is the reduced time they have with their players on the pitch. Increasingly savvy strength and conditioning programmes mean training sessions are shorter than ever.

Quality over quantity. Long gone are the days of Jim Telfer’s two-hour, 100-scrum slogs.

The shortened training sessions usually mean improved quality and concentration, but they also often result in less reps of backline moves, less time on set-piece, and fewer minutes devoted to individual skills and decision-making.

That final element is what Doak and Ulster have attempted to compensate for with the use of virtual reality.

“Obviously it’s hard to replicate a game because it’s full-on, it’s contact and it’s fairly brutal at times, but we’ve tried to replicate it with some virtual reality stuff.”

Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins have been exploring something similar in recent times, and other rugby clubs are experimenting in this field too. Ulster’s project involves players donning full head gear and reacting to visual cues on a video screen in front of them.

“It’s a video with a head mask on, players running at you and you’re looking to evade tackles and that kind of thing,” explained Doak. “It’s through work with Queen’s University, trying to develop that over the last couple of seasons.

Doak was appointed as Ulster’s head coach last October. Source: Presseye/Jonathan Porter/INPHO

“The idea probably came around from Nintendo DS and some of the sports games where you’re making decisions. Like everything, rugby is based on making good decisions.

“It was an avenue that we looked at to see if we could up-skill some of the younger players and then obviously put some of the seasoned internationals under pressure in a computerised environment to help their peripheral vision and their decision-making capabilities.”

Click Here: soccer jackets

Those who recall Tommy Bowe’s ‘Bodycheck’ show on RTÉ back in 2013 might remember having seen an early stage of the software and hardware used for this virtual reality training.

Back in the real world, Doak is a big fan of the NFL and is hoping to turn to American football for some key learnings this year.

The end of the season often provides coaches with the opportunity to take educational trips abroad, and Ulster’s top man is looking into visiting the US to take on board the everyday systems in place in the NFL.

“You’ve got to look at potential structures of other professional sports and see if you can change things, how they review their processes, what their weekly schedules look like and if they’re prepping for games.

“We’ve done pretty well in the last number of years putting schedules together and putting structures together and things are growing nicely. There’s obviously certain things we need to keep improving and the NFL would be a sport I’d be quite keen on.

Doak was on hand in Belfast yesterday to promote the Pro12 final in Kingspan Stadium. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“There’s maybe a couple of opportunities in the latter stages of the season and into the summer of travelling overseas.”

Closer to home, Doak has been open to the cross-pollination of ideas between rugby and GAA, further strengthening Ulster’s ties with Gaelic games after the historic ‘Game for Anto’ in Ravenhill last November.

The GAA have been interested in learning contact skills from Ulster, while Doak has been looking into Gaelic footballers’ proficiency at fielding the ball.

Tommy Bowe has a well-flagged GAA background from his Emyvale days and others such as Craig Gilroy learned many physical skills in football, but perhaps we’ll see a little more over-head catching from Doak’s Ulstermen in the near future.

“The games, from a drill point of view, are quite similar. They can play the ball to all parts of the ground but we’re using it ball-in-hand or kicking. So there are similarities across the board.”

The search for ways to improve never ends.

Jennings the only doubt as Leinster issue clean bill of health for Toulon clashSarries winning matches? Premiership giants bring in Jim McGuinness for Champions Cup talk