Wallabies: Tight five, possession, and Michael Hooper

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Are there any trends or statistics from the two Bledisloe matches so far this season that give us a better insight into performance?

The tight five ball carriers
One of the most common questions regarding the current Wallaby pack has been which, if any, of the tight five players can be the big ball carriers the Wallabies need.

In the first two Bledisloe Cup matches of 2013 it’s been James Horwill that’s stepped up to do the majority of the ball carrying and has been the clear leader in metres gained as you can see in the graph below.

The problem with this sort of comparison is the amount of time each player has been on the field to rack up these numbers and which period of the game they played.

Another way to compare players now that we’ve got data from two matches is the ‘Per 80 Minute’ measure which averages out the involvements over an 80 minute period to eliminate the disparity in time played.

Of course there’s no way to account for the fact that players who played more minutes would have tired when playing for longer than another player who played for a shorter period so it’s best to compare starters against starters and reserves against reserves.

I’ve also included the average metres per carry in the graph and on that basis it’s James Slipper who’s been the most effective of the Wallabies tight five.

Click on the button alongside the different measures in the graph to see how the players stack up under the different measures.

Horwill and Stephen Moore have also been prominent on that measure.

Slipper’s scrummaging has been good and it’s going to be difficult for Benn Robinson to get back into the starting team. Although Scott Sio has done nothing wrong I do think Robinson would be a good option for the bench against South Africa with his experience.

However, the problem with the Wallabies scrum has been on the tighthead side, not the loosehead side where Robinson plays exclusively so although I’d like to see him on the bench I don’t see him as the solution to the scrummaging woes.

Can you win matches with the lower share of possession?
In the two Bledisloe Cup matches between the Wallabies and the All Blacks we’ve seen the team with the lower share of possession coming out on top with the All Blacks averaging 48% of possession across the two matches.

In Super Rugby this year the Chiefs had the lowest share of possession in the regular season averaging 47%. It was again the Chiefs with the lowest possession of the six teams during the finals series with 48%. The Brumbies were the next lowest in the finals series with 49%.

In the Lions series it was the Lions who averaged 46% of possession and in the 2011 RWC the winning teams in the knockout stages had 45% of possession. The All Blacks won the final with 44% possession and the Wallabies won the playoff for third place with just 36% possession.

The numbers I’ve listed regarding 2013 are based on the number of phases each team had the ball in their possession which I believe is the best measure rather than the number of times each team started possession with the ball or the minutes they had possession of the ball.

The trend in the game as to whether it’s better to play with the ball, or without it, is a changing one. It depends on the interpretation of the laws at the breakdown, and the trend at the moment appears to be that having more possession is not a key to the game.

The Wallabies still have more tweaking to do to get the balance of their kicking game right but I doubt the Springboks will end up with more possession than the Wallabies when they meet in two weeks as their game plan revolves around not having the ball.

Michael Hooper update
Last week I showed you some statistics comparing the work rate of Michael Hooper with Richie McCaw. Some readers suggested it was wrong to question the performance of one of the Wallabies’ best players, particularly when other commentators were praising him so highly. Others complained that I hadn’t included involvements in defensive rucks in that comparison so it was misleading and unfair to Hooper.

After the second match I’ve updated the numbers to include defensive rucks for both matches.

Looking back to previous articles I’ve written I undertook exactly the same analysis comparing David Pocock’s work rate on the same basis against McCaw after the 2011 RWC semi-final between the Wallabies and All Blacks. I thought it may be interesting to update the current analysis by including that data.

The data for Hooper and McCaw in 2013 in the graph below is on a ‘Per 80 Minute’ basis across both Bledisloe matches. Both Pocock and McCaw played the full 80 minutes in the 2011 match so the numbers are a good comparison.

New Zealand's Richie McCaw, top, gets the upper hand on his Australian open side counterpart Michael Hooper

New Zealand’s Richie McCaw, top, gets the upper hand on his open side counterpart Australia’s Michael Hooper during the first Bledisloe Cup Test in 2013 (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Whilst Hooper is a good player this shows how much the Wallabies miss a player like Pocock who can really challenge McCaw.

In 153 minutes of rugby over the two matches so far this season McCaw had 115 involvements (17 carries, 32 attempted tackles, 39 attacking rucks and 27 defensive rucks) whereas Hooper played 156 minutes and had 64 involvements (10 carries, 12 attempted tackles, 25 attacking rucks and 17 defensive rucks). McCaw’s involvements over the two matches were 80% higher than that of Hooper.

In the second match Hooper had fewer involvements than in the first match and had less than half the involvements of McCaw – 28 compared to 59!

McCaw looks fresh after his recent sabbatical and remains the benchmark number seven in world rugby. Regardless of the terrific work Hooper does at times for the Wallabies he doesn’t have the ‘incredible’ work rate many claim he has and if he can lift his work rate it will be a real bonus for the Wallabies.

Scott Allen has been writing in depth analysis and opinion pieces on the game since 2009. He is an experienced coach who coaches Premier Grade with University of Queensland. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottA_.
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