— The Chase (@thechasesport) January 31, 2019
Category: Statistical analysis
While there have been several hints that the All Blacks are planning an evolution of their attacking strategy as they begin their 2018 season, the underlying principles which have made their ball progression with ball in hand the most effective in international rugby during the current RWC cycle are unlikely to change. By examining data from New Zealand’s fixtures against Tier 1 opposition between 2016 and 2018 – and comparing it to the same data for the two other top teams in this period, England and Ireland – a picture emerges of the feature which sets the All Blacks apart when they attack with the ball.
Leinster head into Saturday’s European Rugby Champions Cup final with an unbeaten tournament record, and comfortably the best per-game points difference (+14.5) and try difference (+2.0) of all teams in the competition. This average margin of victory dwarfs that of their opponents Racing 92 – who have averaged +4.9 points and +0.8 tries per 80 mins on their way to a 6-2 record – and was achieved despite drawing three very strong opponents in the pool stage. Exeter, Glasgow and Montpellier each top their respective domestic league tables at the end of the 2017-18 regular season, but were defeated home and away by the Irish province; only one of Leinster’s six pool victories (Round 4 at home to Exeter) came by fewer than 7 points.
Saracens and Scarlets – defending Champions Cup and Pro12 champions respectively – were no more successful in their visits to Dublin, and after 11- and 14-point victories at the quarter- and semi-final stages only Racing stand in the way of a perfect season for Leinster in Europe’s premier club competition.
With Kieran Read yet to recover from back surgery, New Zealand face the prospect of starting the 2018 season as they began and ended 2017: without their talismanic captain and number 8. Ardie Savea was his replacement in last June’s opening test against Samoa, while Luke Whitelock was given the start in the final match of the year at the Millenium Stadium; the Highlanders forward appears to be an early front-runner for the jersey in 2018 along with the uncapped Akira Ioane, who made clear strides as part of the All Blacks’ touring squad last November and has brought an improved level of performance in Super Rugby so far this season.
Whitelock and Ioane will face off directly in Friday’s clash between the Blues and Highlanders at Eden Park, and the contrast between their respective styles of play will be evident. Examining the role that Read has fulfilled for New Zealand in the current World Cup cycle – and how this role has changed over the course of his international career – provides an insight into what may expected of his replacement, and may give an indication as to which back row combination Steve Hansen and his selectors will opt for in June.
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.
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.
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.
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.