COULD WE HAVE PREDICTED THE ALL BLACKS WIN AT THE WORLD CUP BY STATISTICS ALONE?

rugby-world-cup

A few weeks have now passed since the All Blacks completed the first successful defence of the Webb Ellis Trophy, but could certain key statistics have made it seem like a fait a complis before the tournament even started?

Yes it is true that New Zealand were almost everyones ‘safe bet’ to win and the bookies, who are seldom wrong, also had them as clear favourites – odds going from 11-8 to 8-13 by the end of the tournament. But they also had England as second favourites and Australia langushing 5th in line to raise the trophy aloft on 31 October.

Most of us that had New Zealand to win were basing our selection on what we had seen in the last few year’s and the fact that they are…. well, The All Blacks. Surely their inability to win the tournament out of their own country must change sooner rather than later?

What if we had just looked at certain stats, never watched a game that they had played in 2014/15 and didn’t even know the result of the games that they had played? Could we and would we have all come to the same conclusion?

I will offer up stats based on a number of key criteria:-

  • Try scoring
  • Passing
  • Kicking
  • Lineout – on opposition throw
  • Scrum

TRY SCORING

So, its clear that tries in World Cup finals win games. Is it really as simple as that?

Up to and including the 2015 final only one team has scored more than two tries in a final -New Zealand (1987 x 3 and 2015 x 3 out of interest) and in the other 6 finals a total of only 7 tries were scored in total whilst 37 penalty goals were kicked. You could be forgiven for thinking that actually you just need to kick your kicks and that will be enough. Well no. It may surprise you to know that, despite the previous numbers, no losing finalist has cored more tries than the eventual winner in the final and that out of 281 previous RWC matches only 11 (or 4%) were won by a team scoring the fewest tries.

Turn that specifically to the All Blacks and the stats show that they scored 61% of all of their points from tries in the 2014 November Test window (NB all stats in this atricle are taken from that particular period). The closest other team was South Africa with 56%. Interestingly, Scotland was the ONLY Northern Hemisphere team to score more than 50% of their points by scoring tries! The free flowing French only 36% and Italy 0% – not a single try in their autumn internationals!!!!

Of further interest might be that the 4 Southern Hemisphere teams scored a total of 33 tries by comparison to only 25 for the 6 Tier 1 Northern Hemisphere teams!

New Zealand also top the chart on the frequency that they scored a try in the same 2014 period – one every 5 minutes and 56 seconds. The next best team, England, were taking over a minute more to score each try. Where this statistic starts to make even more sense is that NZ were also one of the meanest teams as well, conceding a try on average every 12 minutes and 5 seconds (South Africa were marginally better) and England one every 6 minutes and 36 seconds. So, whilst England might have scored relatively frequently, they were also prone to concede more frequently than they scored!

What I haven’t touched on is that Southern Hemesphere teams are also far more likely to score tries from open play by comparison to their Northern opposition (20:8) and are also more likely to score tries from their own half (12:4).

So, New Zealand are likely to score tries faster than any other Tier 1 team, they score more of their points (61%) by scoring tries than any other Tier 1 team, and, along with the SH teams in general are more likely to score from open play and even from their own half. One category down and it is already stacking up neatly………

PASSING

The heading might be passing, but it could, equally have been ‘continuity’. In other words how likely are New Zealand to try and ‘keep the ball alive’ rather than take the ball into contact?  -I will specifically look at kicking under a separate heading.

At a general level the All Blacks like to pass the ball (an average of 192 passes per match or one pass every 6 seconds – very similar to Australia). What is of particular interest is that their forwards are almost as likely to pass the ball as their backs (Forwards 1 pass every 2.5 possessions, Backs 1 every 1.8 possessions). When you look at Australia and South Africa these figures drop to 1: 4.2 for Australia and 1:4.4 for SA for their forwards. In fact New Zealand top the charts for both forwards and backs passing ratios whilst all others are quite mixed with the exception of Ireland who langush in bottom place for both forwards and backs (1:5.1 and 1:2.9).

So what are we able to deduce from this information alone? New Zealand player’s, from 1-15, are all pre disposed to pass the ball, keep the game flowing and by implication play the game at pace. Ireland are far more likely to take the ball into contact with their forwards and, as we will see later, use kicking as a pro active strategy.

KICKING

It used to be that New Zealand kicked more than any other team- certainly in the lead up to the 2011 RWC this was true. What is clear now is that, whilst they still use kicking as a tactical weapon, they do it far less frequently. You might think that kicking the ball out of hand an average of 24 times in match is high- it actually sits very much in the middle of the statistics collected, with Ireland (31) and Australia (15) topping and tailing the table. Add that to the passing information, above, you will start to see a correlation between the propensity to pass tha ball and the likelyhood to kick the ball – a clear strategic philosophy slowly being teased out.

Where the kicking stats really start to add colour to the above is how frequently the kicks are made in relation to possession. New Zealand’s     N°10 kicked the ball once every 4.5 possessions compared to Irelands 2.5 and their centres once every 28.3 possessions – Ireland once every 8.5. The back 3 once every 11.6 by comparison to a Southern Hemesphere average of c. 4.5.

Add to that the fact that New Zealand kick restarts were 100% contestable (next best were Italy with 62% and bottom Ireland 22%) and we now have a clear picture that New Zealand like to keep the ball alive, they will kick, but not as an overriding strategy and will always try to make the ball recoverable if they do. They will use a kick restart as a third set piece and one that they want to win possession with.

If you are not convinced that the statistics are leading us inexorably to one conclusion then adding the Lineout and Scrum information to the above will, I believe, be the clincher.

LINEOUT – on oppositions throw

New Zealand (66%), along with South Africa (68%) are more likely to contest an opposition throw than any other Tier 1 team with only Italy (and for that read Parisse) getting close at 60% with Scotland, France, England, Wales, Ireland and Argentina not even getting above 50%. The result is that they are both stealing more ball than any other teams (6 and 9 respectively) which they will then use to attack the opposition with.

SCRUM

Here a clear difference in philosophy between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere teams becomes hugely evident. The Southern Hemisphere will use the scrum as a launchpad for an attack and The Northern as a vehicle for winning a penalty. From the statistics gathered NZ, Aus and SA, combined, had a total of 49 scrums, in the November 2014 window, where the ball came out 37 or 78% of the time. Italy, England, France, Wales, Ireland and Scotaland combined had 79 scrums where the ball came out 46 times or 58%  – and please note that these figures were skewed by Ireland who had the ball available 90% of the time (9 out of 10 scrums). New Zealand specifically had 17 scrums and had the ball out 12 times or 70.5% of the time with only South Africa (15/18) being more likely to use the ball.

CONCLUSION

Yes it is possible to make statistics say anything you want, but even the biggest sceptic can see where these are leading us.

New Zealand are amongst the top teams, or the very top team in all of the areas we have looked at. They are more likely to have backs and forwards interacting with a free flowing passing game than any other team. They are less likely to kick the ball away in open play than most and will always try to make their re starts contestable. They also contest the opposition lineout more than not and gain turnover ball as a consequence and, they will use the scrum as an attacking weapon more than any other team bar South Africa. Is it any wonder then that they score most of their points by scoring tries, that their try scoring rate is faster than other Tier 1 team (and are mean in defence with only South Africa conceding at a slower rate) and that, along with their Southern Hemisphere counterparts, are more capable of scoring tries in open play from anywhere on the pitch.

New Zealand are kings of world rugby of that there is no doubt. The statistics more than back up what we have all seen and read about. What is made even clearer is that they do it by playing a certain style of game. What is left for all of the other teams in world rugby to ask themselves is should they try and copy the All Blacks and if so, are they capable of using this blueprint for victory successfully?

NB:- All statistics produced by Corris Thomas A former chartered accountant with a law degree from Exeter University, he was also a Welsh international panel rugby referee, who took charge of a number of international matches while refereeing the national teams of 12 countries. One of those matches was the defeat of the All Blacks by Munster in 1978.
He is Game Analysis consultant who works extensively with the International Rugby Board and other rugby bodies. His work includes tracking in detail how rugby is being played at the highest international levels, which involves producing detailed reports on all major tournaments, identifying trends, and undertaking targeted investigations into specific areas of the game.
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