Factors affecting performance in professional rugby league

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Rugby league is a physically demanding, high-intensity team sport that is played professionally in several countries worldwide. In addition to high physical demands – which are characterised by high speed running, rapid accelerations and frequent collisions – rugby league players also require specific technical and tactical competencies during match-play. A conceptual model of performance for team sports has been proposed where match outcome is considered as the overall performance indicator, and it is thought to be contingent on three key constructs; technical, tactical and physical performance. This thesis contains seven independent studies which develop this conceptual model and investigate the factors that affect match performance in rugby league. Study One investigated the typical variability and smallest worthwhile changes in common performance indicators. These findings have implications for determining sample size, identifying reliable performance measures and selecting appropriate time periods for future applied studies that involve observational match analysis. The second study examined the independent effects of match-related and individual player characteristics on running performance in professional rugby league matches. There was a complex interplay of factors affecting match-running performance in rugby league. The results underline the importance of considering contextual factors when analysing rugby league match-activity profiles. The next three studies developed rugby league specific causal indicators of both physical, tactical and technical performance constructs. Study Three adopted a new “metabolic power” approach for analysing time-motion data which considers the cost of accelerated running efforts. The results showed that the analysis of metabolic power may complement traditional speed-based classifications and improve our understanding of the demands of rugby league match-play. Study Four estimated the expected point value for starting possessions in different field locations during rugby league match-play and calculated the mean expected points for each subsequent play during the possession. The results showed that possessions commencing close to the opposition’s goal line had the highest expected point equity, which decreased as the location of the possession moved towards the team’s own goal line. The expected point values framework from the model has applications for informing playing strategy and assessing individual and team performance in professional rugby league. Study Five examined the variability and association with the probability of winning for technical performance indicators over 384 matches from two National Rugby League seasons. This study identified important technical performance indicators related to winning rugby league matches which can be used to guide match analyses, and inform playing and training strategies. The Sixth study examined the changes in external outputs, including metabolic power variables, and internal response whilst considering contextual factors on physical performance variables during rugby league match-play. The results showed temporal changes in physical performance, heart-rate response and collisions during rugby league match-play, although these are affected by contextual factors. Study Seven compared a range of physical, tactical and technical performance parameters between a successful and a less-successful rugby league team to determine which performance constructs are most related to winning. There were differences in physical and technical performance indicators between the two teams, with the successful team performing less running and fewer collisions but superior technical performance during the match. This thesis examined the physical, tactical and technical constructs of match performance in professional rugby league. It demonstrated that these constructs are often variable and contextual factors need to be considered when analysing match profiles. Indeed, valid and reliable parameters are required to represent the respective performance constructs when assessing overall match performance. Further, the validity of performance measures can be established by demonstrating their relationship with successful match performance. However, increased physical output is not associated with either winning individual matches or obtaining a high final competition ranking; rather, technical proficiency is likely a more important determinant of success in professional rugby league.
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