No stone unturned as Keast digs deep

Exiles coach believes high-tech rugby union strategy can secure place in final. By David Llewellyn
Click to follow
The Independent Online

While the entire London Irish squad were focusing on the matter in hand - tomorrow's Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-final tie against Northampton at the Madejski Stadium in Reading - at some point early in the week coach Andy Keast's mind wandered and settled on the next big game after that - their European Shield quarter-final tie against Ebbw Vale.

"I had already started thinking about next Saturday at Ebbw Vale earlier this week," said Keast, 37 in the midst of Irish's preparations for tomorrow. "I think you have to because whatever happens at the weekend, come Monday morning - whether there is depression at having lost the semi-final, or hangovers from having won - Monday still comes before the next game rather than after the last one, and you have to focus on that."

As obsessive as that may sound, it is the reality of rugby today, and Keast embodies everything that is professional in the modern game. He readily admits that he is a pedant. Attention to detail is the key to much of what he does. "I suppose I am pedantic. I am a very picky person," he explains. "But if you worry about the details the rest takes care of itself. I am always preaching that it is the small things that make all the difference between winning and losing.

"We are looking to get an edge in any small way. All the little bits and pieces, all the minutiae, for a big game like a semi-final have to be right. The side that does that will win. We all get bored in our jobs with repetition, but it is the only way. You have to have repetition and the consistency that springs from doing something over and over again."

That includes Keast, who performed a similar function on the Lions tour to South Africa in 1997, having to study videos of the opposition to work out their strengths, weaknesses and strategies, breaking things down for his players so that they could recognise opposition moves and respond. He also prepares videos of London Irish performances.

That, of course, begs the question: where do the videos come from? "I get them from games that we have played; TV games that we have taped; other clubs," says Keast, who first turned to video analysis in his three seasons coaching the South African province Natal from 1994 to 1996.

"I have good contacts with Saracens, for example, and they sent me a tape. I send them tapes in return. It was a little more difficult getting footage of Ebbw Vale. We have had to call in a few favours in Wales to obtain videos. But we had sent some videos on other clubs down to Wales earlier in the season. That paved the way."

Having obtained the videos he then needs to copy and edit. To do so he needs some serious equipment. Irish have it in the form of £20,000 of editing suite, computer software, two video players, two recorders, two monitors and a customised touch-key pad. This last element, Keast says, is the most crucial. It allows him to break down a match video into as many component parts as he wants and then to put them back together in whatever order he wants.

"It takes me three hours to study a game and take out of it what I need," Keast, a former Metropolitan police officer, says. "But there is now a digital system which speeds up the whole process. If you want to go to a phase at the moment the tape has to be fast-forwarded, whereas, under the digital system it will cut straight to the specific time, just like a CD.

"I would like such a system at Irish and I hope that the powers that be will put up the money so that we can update our system. That will cost another £20,000. But it is, without a doubt, the way forward. Coaches are no longer simply tracksuited guys. Every time I look at a video of opposition I identify something to take on board."

A match is scrutinised and Keast can then prepare individual video tapes of every scrum, line-out, re-start or other phase of play in a match and put them on one video so that the squad can study them. But he also prepares clips for every member of the squad. "I will usually prepare something like an eight-minute tape on an individual player and he will sit down with me and we will go through it in a one-on-one session," he adds.

"The beauty with these individual videos is you can sit with a prop, for example, go through his video and he will say, 'Last week I got that right; this week I got that wrong and it made a big difference. But I am aware that that little thing is making the difference'.

"If they are aware, you are halfway there. Because if they identify what the problem is, or what a situation's problem is, they can then go out and try to put it right. But if they walk out on to the field not thinking about it, not even understanding it, then you are never going to put it right anyway."

The preparation for the Tetley's Bitter Cup match was well under way by the start of the week. As Keast reveals: "I began thinking about this tie a week ago last Thursday. I spent the whole day looking at videos of Northampton."

Whether it pays off is another matter. Even Keast admits: "You can spend a whole day analysing and gain absolutely nothing. But if you don't turn the stone and have a look you don't know if there is anything beneath it."

Whatever the outcome London Irish supporters can count on one certainty: Keast will have left no Northampton stone unturned. It will be up to the Exiles' players to use his researches to their advantage.