Sonny Bill Williams vs Ma’a Nonu: Analysis

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A common theme in the debate over the Sonny Bill Williams v Nonu battle for the All Black No.12 jersey is that Nonu is the best power runner in the New Zealand midfield, and Williams is more of a one-trick pony who creates too many turnovers with his offloads.

I’ve managed to get comparable stats on the two which will show that they are very close in most facets of play. However there are some notable differences.

During the Super Rugby season they have both played only 10 full games each. The rest of the games they were either injured, sent off or suspended.

I disregarded stats from these games. Ten games is not a lot to get a proper picture, but its the best I could do to try and get a fair comparison.

The last game for Williams in respect to stats was the recent Crusaders v Sharks. Nonu’s was the Hurricanes v Crusaders.

Here are the findings.

Defence
Williams has made 96 tackles versus Nonu’s 84.

Williams has 19 tackle assists versus Nonu’s 24, and missed tackles are 12 each.

Breaking it down to a per game basis you could say that the stats are almost the same.

The big difference though is that Williams has forced seven turnovers from his defence, Nonu only two.

Attack
Williams has 104 carries with 42 tackle breaks compared to Nonu’s 71 carries for 29 tackle breaks (I can explain this stat in the questions section). The percentage is roughly the same for both at 41 percent.

Line breaks are 13 for Williams and nine for Nonu, with Williams providing nine linebreak assists to Nonu’s six.

Their percentage rate for hitting the gain line is about 65 percent each.

Metres gained are 1012 for Williams and 794 for Nonu. That averages out to 10.12 metres per carry for Williams and 7.94 metres for Nonu. Again, very similar stats.

The big difference is in the offloads with Williams scoring 48 compared to Nonu’s nine.

Breakdown
Neither player has won turnover ball in the ruck.

Being in the first three players to clean out in the rucks on attack, Williams has hit 59 rucks compared to Nonu’s 72. That translates to about six and seven rucks a game respectively.

There is some difference in the defensive rucks, Williams has hit 47 of them compared to Nonu’s 22.

Errors
Both have conceded five penalties, made 14 forced and unforced errors, and 20 handling errors. Identical.

Kicking
A very small feature of their games, but Williams has kicked six times for 174 metres with an average distance of 29 metres.

Nonu has kicked 12 times for 422m at an average of 35.1 metres a kick.

Conclusion
Although the stats are very similar, the trend shows that Williams has a higher workrate than Nonu.

That doesn’t necessarily equate to a better player.

The biggest difference which is no surprise is the offoads. Its a clear point of difference between the two.

The turnovers caused by Williams’ defence however is a surprise.

Another surprise is how they both have the same amount of errors, considering that Williams is said to employ a riskier game with his offloads.

I suppose one of the things that Graham Henry has to decide is which combination is more important to the All Blacks. The 10 and 12 or the 12, 13 combo.

The All Blacks I’m sure will also have a lot more data at hand.

An example of how deep the the stats can possibly go is that in the NRL they have the probability of the options a player takes in most situations and the success rate of those options.

Something like “Marshall steps to the right 90 percent of the time he takes the line on in the opposition’s half.”

There are so many variables that the Al Black coaches will have to take into account, and I suppose the stats are just one part of the puzzle.

Nonu’s experience and accomplishments in Test rugby may give him the edge. Nonu steps up when he puts on the black jersey.

The thing that Williams has going for him is that his game is rapidly improving. He has only been playing rugby in NZ for about a year compared to Nonu’s nine.

I reckon the All Black coaches will have to make a judgement call on who they think has more improvement in them.

Basic logic would assume that Williams has more improvement in him but just because Williams has picked up the game so quickly doesn’t mean that he will continue on that improvement curve.

His improvement may plateau around the Rugby World Cup 2011, maybe not. Or maybe he’ll take an even bigger step up in the Test arena. Who knows?

Stating that Williams is too risky is a little off the mark.

The three wise men have to see how Williams handles the Test arena, and the Tri Nations is the perfect platform to test out the theories.

Nonu’s already proven. If it doesn’t work out then at least they know.

My call is that Williams will at the very least get a start against the Boks and Wallabies early in the Tri Nations, with the All Blacks settling on the midfield combo in the later Tri Nations games.

One thing that is settled, though, is that the debate will rage on regardless of who gets the prize.

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