Portrayals of Northern and Southern Hemisphere rugby are typically contrasting: the latter marked by ball movement, skill and attacking invention, and the former tightly contested and brutally physical. The pre-eminence of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa for much of the professional era often meant that this contrast of style was also framed as a contrast of quality, and that its natural consequence was the rest of the rugby world falling into step with such an approach to the game. This pre-eminence, however, has faltered for both sporting and economic reasons, and with it the notion that style is a necessary prerequisite of substantive performance in international rugby. In the wake of the 2015 World Cup, the home nations in particular have been resurgent, and their success has been a result of honing traditional strengths: ball retention, breakdown work, defence and tactical kicking. On top of these foundations, individual skill levels have improved as a result of sustained exposure to a high level of coaching and a focus on all-round player development at all levels.
These increased skill levels have undoubtedly had a positive effect on the quality of attacking play in European rugby, and at international level both Wales and Scotland in particular have expressed publicly a desire to ‘modernise’ and change the way they look to play with ball in hand. Nevertheless, an examination of the Six Nations in comparison to other competitions during this World Cup cycle – as will be seen below – suggests that such deeply entrenched stylistic differences have sustained, and that higher skill levels are being applied within a markedly difference game structure to the international game in the Southern Hemisphere. This has important implications for test match rugby in the long-term: looking further ahead into the future of the international game, the apparently inevitable movement towards Northern economic and on-field dominance will have a clear effect on the nature of the on-field product. However, this also raises interesting questions in the context of the 2018 Six Nations championship, which begins on Saturday 3rd February: in particular, whether changes to breakdown laws will negate any such attempts and push Northern Hemisphere rugby even further down its current path, or the attacking ‘philosophy’ espoused by Gregor Townsend will result in Scotland truly departing from the European model.
Continue reading “2018 Six Nations preview: different hemisperes, different styles?”
The analysis of international rugby is laden with danger. Fixtures are infrequent (on average, Tier 1 nations have played fewer than 12 games per season across 2016 and 2017), yet the traditional depiction of test matches – imbued with a deep emotional resonance – lends itself to the inference of significant meaning from single data points. A loss by New Zealand in a test match is attributed with significance that a loss by Saracens in a Premiership game is not, because of the sparsely populated environment in which it stands. For another data point on a club or franchise, it may only be necessary to wait another seven days; months can pass between internationals. The degree of light which a single game can shed on the underlying abilities of the respective teams is the same in each scenario, but the difference in the first case is that an additional data point to confirm or deny a suspected trend is usually not far away; analysis can be measured and sceptical, knowing that in a short time a little more information will become available, rather than conclusive and emphatic.
Two years into a World Cup cycle there is sufficient information available to review the performance of each team, with Tier 1 nations having played between 20 and 29 test matches each. What follows is an attempt to establish not only which teams have been successful, but also the tactical approach which they have employed in order to be successful.
Continue reading “Halfway to the 2019 Rugby World Cup”
The respective Autumn campaigns of Ireland and Australia sat at opposite extremes of the stylistic spectrum: Michael Cheika’s side alternated between incisive wide attack and moments of frustrating indiscipline and poor decision-making, while Joe Schmidt’s carried powerfully and was exceptionally accurate at tackle and breakdown. Despite claiming wins over New Zealand and Australia, a number of issues in attack which have been present throughout Schmidt’s tenure recurred in the 12 point loss to the All Blacks in Dublin, during which they spent long periods deep inside opposition territory and came away with no tries. This performance comes with the caveat that Jonny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and CJ Stander – three key figures in their attack in Chicago – had all left the field within half an hour, but we have seen enough of Ireland’s attack with those players present over the past three seasons to tentatively assume that scoring five tries against the world champions was the exception that proves the rule: in order to be so ruthlessly successful, the attacking system they operate requires accuracy and intensity which is unsustainable over a series, season or World Cup cycle.
Contrast this to Australia, whose 1-3-3-1 system looks to have been enhanced by the addition of former New Zealand skills coach Mick Byrne to the coaching staff; in amongst the senseless infringements and maddening turnovers, they have been able to create wide line breaks regularly and finish these chances rather clinically. Their offloading game has clearly developed as the season has progressed, but Reece Hodge’s two ill-advised efforts in the first half are evidence that their decision-making and execution in this area still needs work. Sefa Naivalu’s effort on the left wing in the last five minutes of the test is another excellent example of their required technical progress: after manipulating his arms above the tackler he attempts to transfer the ball without readjusting the height of his hand, and the ball follows a path from high to low which is impossible for his teammate to regather. (Compare this to the supreme work of Anton Lienert-Brown – as Will Greenwood highlights here – who excels at lifting the ball into space for his team-mates from low to high.) As these skills continue to develop, however, Australia’s wide phase attack – which is already one of the best in the world – will continue to grow, and gives Michael Cheika a clear focus around which to build his gameplan.
The diagrams below (inspired by the stellar work of Dutch football blog 11tegen11.net) represent an attempt to visualise both teams’ attacking styles by mapping common passing combinations from November’s test match. Each line between players represents two or more passes between these players (with passer and recipient indicated by the direction of the arrow), and the width of each line corresponds to the number of passes. Where a line emanates from one player but does not have a direct recipient, it indicates that the player made two or more passes from that position to a multitude of players but no more than one to any single player. The diagram does not attempt to map the x- and y-coordinates of each pass; arrows pointed in the direction of the right touchline indicate passing combinations made when the team was playing from left to right, and vice versa.
Continue reading “Statistical analysis: passing combinations, Ireland vs. Australia”
New Zealand completed a 3-0 whitewash over Wales at Forsyth Barr stadium this morning. Wales came out strongly in the first test, attacking with width and ambition and giving the All Blacks a scare in their first forty minutes of rugby in 2016. But the home side strengthened as the series went on, and Israel Dagg’s following a long defensive stand two minutes after the clock had gone red was a fitting culmination of their progression over the three games.
Continue reading “Statistical analysis: New Zealand vs. Wales”
Before last week’s first test at Newlands, I wrote this piece for Ultimate Rugby on Ireland’s attack over the past 3 seasons under Joe Schmidt. It was great to see Ireland come out and move the ball wide effectively early in the contest – Paddy Jackson at 10, Robbie Henshaw at 13 and Jared Payne at 15 were all important to their success in this regard. Henshaw exhibited the passing ability that has been clear from his play with Connacht, while Jared Payne’s positional play attacking from fullback was far superior to that of Rob Kearney during the 6 Nations. The red card to CJ Stander in the opening quarter obviously caused Ireland to narrow their attack and implement a more conservative gameplan, but it will be fascinating to see how they approach the second test with a series win there for the taking.
This was originally a guest post on Ultimate Rugby.
Continue reading “Statistical analysis: Ireland’s attacking mindset”
This was originally a guest post on Ultimate Rugby.
Connacht’s success in the 2015/16 Pro12 has come on the back of a gameplan which puts faith in their attacking system and excellent handling skills. This has been clear in the way they have scored their tries throughout the year, but perhaps overlooked is its importance in the way they attempt to manage a lead in close games.
Continue reading “Statistical analysis: Connacht’s approach to game management could decide Pro12 Final”
The New Zealand franchises dominate the overall standings as the Super Rugby season approaches its June break, holding three of the four Australasian wildcard spots. There have been some outstanding intra-conference clashes in the competition so far, with the South Island Derby between the Highlanders and Crusaders in Round 12 a particular highlight for its intensity and quality on both sides of the ball. As we will see by examining some basic statistics, it is not only their success but their distinctive styles of play which make these two teams among the most interesting to watch in the competition.
Continue reading “Statistical analysis: Super Rugby, Round 13”