A tough choice? George Smith, Michael Hooper, and Liam Gill
Michael Hooper of the Wallabies runs into some strong Lions defence. (Photo: Paul Barkley/LookPro)
There have been media reports about how picking George Smith this weekend constitutes a ‘tough choice’ for the Wallabies.
Peering past such characteristically bland insights into the bloody obvious, I thought a brief statistical analysis (ie a form of the objective basis that the paper should actually be basing their conclusions on for the reader’s benefit) might be useful.
Using the Fox Sports’ stats from Super Rugby, two things become very obvious. First, Smith, Gill, and Hooper are all very different types of 7. They do different things, they have different strengths and weaknesses.
Second, based on the stats, Smith is clearly the best pick.
Looking more in detail, neither Gill nor Hooper is the full package (yet). Gill is basically a poacher/a tackle jackal/and not much else. He is what Smith was when Smith was 20 years old.
Other than that, he adds very little – he doesn’t run the ball much and he doesn’t make a lot of tackles. (Anecdotally, one might add that he’s just not good enough in the in close contact for a full 80 minutes of test rugby at the moment.)
As for Hooper, he does a lot, but not everything he does is effective. On average he gives up two penalties every single match (to 1 for Smith, and 0.5 for Gill) and he also misses more than two tackles a match.
On balance, however, he remains a more well-rounded pick than Gill. He also adds an x-factor with his attack: he is in the top 15 players in all of Super Rugby for line breaks. He has more linebreaks, in fact, than Israel Folau.
Smith is clearly in a class above both of these players. He contributes in every category (except linebreaks). He was never known as an effective ball runner, but that is obviously something he has added to his game in his time away from Australia.
He runs the ball more often even than Hooper, he busts tackles, and he offloads like it’s his job (1.3 per match versus 0.2 for Gill and 0.43 for Hooper).
It is worth noting that Izzy’s second try in Brisbane came from an offload, and our offloading on Saturday was particularly poor (one from Palu to no-one when he had four players to pick from springs to mind).
He also effects slightly more turnovers and pilfers even than Gill (1.3 per match versus 1.06; the figure is only 0.64 for Hooper). In other words, even at what Gill does best, Smith does it better.
Who to pick?
Obviously, stats only tell part of the story. But they can also help debunk human preconceptions and I think these figues do that effectively.
There are no grounds, statistically, for picking Gill over Smith. The logical choice would therefore be to bring Smith into the squad for Gill. Again, it is worth noting that 7s in the modern era classically get better as they get older and diversify their skills.
Everyone blames Carlos Spencer for the All Blacks losing the World Cup semi-final to the Wallabies in 2003. The real culprit was none other than Richie McCaw, who gave away no fewer than four penalties in the match, three of them kickable.
Since then, of course, he has added more running and brawn to his game and I think we can expect Gill to do the same.
Regarding Smith’s fitness, it’s worth noting that he himself said before last week’s match that he was ready to go. I think it can be taken that Smith is a professional and knows his body.
He is equal tenth on the all time test caps list and finished playing in 2009, so he could have added more had he so wanted. Few have been able to match that sort of longevity in a high-contact position. He knows when he is fit to play.
There’s also Smith’s experience and history of great performances in big matches. Neither of the other two come close to him on that count.
Finally, it’s often a decent rule of thumb to do what the opposition don’t want you to do.
Again, this is a no-brainer. Especially with Warburton out, the last thing the Lions want is to run out at Sydney, with the emotions high, no momentum in the series, and see George Bloody Smith at 7.
For all these reasons, Smith needs to start, with Hooper on the bench, probably to come on for Palu at the 50 minute mark.