Sonny Bill Williams vs Ma’a Nonu: Analysis

Damien Roar Rookie

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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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

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

    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.

    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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    The Crowd Says (32)

    • July 4th 2011 @ 8:45am
      Dave said | July 4th 2011 @ 8:45am | ! Report

      Just a couple of extra factors to think about. Williams may have forced more turnovers from his defence but he has arguably been backed up by a more effective counter ruck at the crusaders than the hurricanes which would skew this statistic.

      Similarly regarding the higher number of carries, Williams has been running off a dominant crusaders pack which has provided more possession and consequently more opportunity to carry the ball. Nonu has not had the same sort of possession at the hurricanes.

      As such the difference in workrate on attack may be slightly overstated. On defence however one could consider Nonu’s tackle rate to be a little lower given the amount of time the canes have spent on the back foot this season.

      • Roar Guru

        July 4th 2011 @ 4:11pm
        Damien said | July 4th 2011 @ 4:11pm | ! Report

        You raise valid points Dave.

        I suppose the breakdown stats aren’t so different, The numbers make it 10.6 breadown hits per game for SBW compared to 9.4 for Nonu. Thats pretty close. Deeper stats would have shown what effect did those hits have. Quick, slow or lost ball on attack. And how did the defensive breakdown hits affect the opposition. Did they get quick, slow ball or did they just lose the ball or the scrum feed.

        A good reason that Nonu may not hit the defensive breakdowns (he has more attack breakdown hits than SBW) as much is because he knows its a lost cause for that perticular breakdown and he is experienced to know to save his gas. As for SBW maybe he’s just too keen and hits any breakdown if he thinks there’s a small hope of a turnover where Nonu would have not made the same decision. Also maybe SBW’s just a fitter player. We all hear about how much of a freakish athlete he is.

        • Roar Guru

          July 4th 2011 @ 4:36pm
          Damien said | July 4th 2011 @ 4:36pm | ! Report

          Your point about SBW having better backup in defense is true. However one on one SBW is a brute when he tackles. Some of the turnovers could have just been from the impact. No disrespect to Nonu but I reckon loosies and midfielders would rather run into Nonu than SBW.

    • Columnist

      July 4th 2011 @ 8:46am
      Spiro Zavos said | July 4th 2011 @ 8:46am | ! Report

      A very good analysis and the conclusions make a lot of sense. What do you think about a Williams-Nonu centre pairing, with perhaps the combination playing left and right centres in the Rugby League mode? I noticed in the Crusaders-Stormers match that occasionally Williams pooped up at outside centre. Or is it too close to a RWC tournament for experimentation along these lines?

      • July 4th 2011 @ 9:20am
        Willy said | July 4th 2011 @ 9:20am | ! Report

        “I noticed in the Crusaders-Stormers match that occasionally Williams pooped up at outside centre.”

        That’s disgusting.

        I hope he changed his shorts afterwards.

        • July 4th 2011 @ 10:29am
          soapit said | July 4th 2011 @ 10:29am | ! Report

          or at least used one of those little plastic baggy things

        • July 4th 2011 @ 4:29pm
          Dave said | July 4th 2011 @ 4:29pm | ! Report

          No wonder the defense hung off him

      • July 4th 2011 @ 2:19pm
        mudskipper said | July 4th 2011 @ 2:19pm | ! Report

        I think the more complex the All Blacks make it the better for the Wallabies…

      • July 4th 2011 @ 3:09pm
        Steve said | July 4th 2011 @ 3:09pm | ! Report

        I think he might be used at Centre the same way the Crusaders do but I feel he might get caught out in defense if played there all game, NZer’s a acutely aware of playing non specialist at centre and getting found out, Christian Cullen and Mils being 2 examples. Plus a good as both these players are they don’t really compliments each other, Conrad Smith is a great combo to have with either, Even Fruen who is a giant is much more subtle in his play the either man.

        • July 4th 2011 @ 4:19pm
          Dave said | July 4th 2011 @ 4:19pm | ! Report

          They played Luke McAlister at 13 against Australia once as well, bit of a disaster.

        • July 7th 2011 @ 10:20pm
          winston said | July 7th 2011 @ 10:20pm | ! Report

          Please not again. We need a13 at 13

      • Roar Guru

        July 4th 2011 @ 4:09pm
        Greg Russell said | July 4th 2011 @ 4:09pm | ! Report

        A few weeks ago there were rumors – ironically, coming out of rugby league ranks – that SBW and Nonu would be the midfield combination at the Blues next year, thus granting Spiro his wish of the two playing together.

        While Nonu is now confirmed for the Blues and it is accepted that earthquakes are going to drive SBW from Christchurch, the strong word right now is that SBW will follow Wayne Smith to the Chiefs next year. That would pair him up with Richard Kahui, which would also be a terrifically potent combo (if Kahui can avoid injury).

        • Roar Guru

          July 4th 2011 @ 4:13pm
          Damien said | July 4th 2011 @ 4:13pm | ! Report

          Hopefully SBW can avoid injury as well..

        • July 4th 2011 @ 4:15pm
          Brett McKay said | July 4th 2011 @ 4:15pm | ! Report

          quite right Greg, and if SBW is joined at the Chiefs by Aaron Cruden, suddenly that’s a backline worth noticing.

          The question I have about NZ player movement though regards the first fives – did Carter’s 4yr contract scare them all away?? By my rough count, Donald, McAlister, Brett, Delany, and Berquist have or will sign with overseas clubs. Not that I don’t think another young punk will pop up in their place, but it’s seems weird that so many 10s would head OS at the same time..

          • July 4th 2011 @ 4:26pm
            Dave said | July 4th 2011 @ 4:26pm | ! Report

            Could be a world cup year syndrome, Donald and McAlister probably don’t hold out too much hope of being around for the 2015 world cup so might as well head off to the big money. Brett is facing the reality that he is moving backwards in the all black 1st5 queue. Berquist has arguably never been in All Black frame and apparently had lined up a deal to go overseas last year but it fell through at the last minute. Still a fair out flow though.

        • July 5th 2011 @ 7:17am
          kingplaymaker said | July 5th 2011 @ 7:17am | ! Report

          Spiro and Greg I quote an earlier answer I gave to a point by Greg elsewhere on how SBW runs wider and wider and spreads the opposition defence:

          ‘your description of the change in SBW’s tactics reminds me of the way Ma Nonu often begins by bashing into the opposition in the middle of the field and then drifting out wider, and being more ambiguous about whether to bash himself or pass. With the extra runners and space out there it is easier find some way through, but presumably it depends on literally hammering into the opposition early in the match so they are forced to commit numbers to the centre, who can later be drawn out. This is also one imagines why an inside centre and not an outside centre has to be the one to play like this. It essentially makes this player the lynchpin of the whole attack, rather than the flyhalf, as he is the one choosing whether to go through the middle or move things wide.

          It also implies the question who is best to play outside SBW. Is it obviously Conrad Smith? Perhaps in the same way that Nonu creates so much danger at 12 that the slippery Smith can capitalise on it, he could do the same outside SBW. But then you have to wonder if so many defenders are concentrated on SBW, when running close or more importantly wide, whether another power runner would face a baffled and disordered rabble and make rubble out of it. A player like Fruean for the Crusaders, and perhaps Nonu for the All Blacks? Not only this, but Nonu can also repeat and mirror the SBW effect once more in a sequence of spreading waves, threatening to plough through or pass on. Would it be possible to stop a doubled version of this technique, with the two best linebreakers in the world, both with superb passing skills, working in tandem?’

    • July 4th 2011 @ 8:59am
      Fivehole said | July 4th 2011 @ 8:59am | ! Report

      Something is wrong with your metres gained in attack. Based on your figures, i get an average of 9.73 for Williams and 11.18 for Nonu – Thats more than a metre per run – very valuable.

      Also, although Williams and Nonu have the same error rates, what about the errors Williams causes his teammates to create via hospital passes and dud offloads. Admittedy it is good to see creativity, but sometimes he tries too much.

      • Roar Guru

        July 4th 2011 @ 3:55pm
        Damien said | July 4th 2011 @ 3:55pm | ! Report

        I’m sure a dud offload is considered an SBW mistake and is included in his error count. His worst game for mistakes was against the Chiefs and it is reflected in his stats for that game. In that game he had 10 carries for 5 unforced errors and 1 handling error.

        In saying that though you may have noticed that he doesn’t offload as much as he did in the start of the season. He is much more selective.

        The Crusaders are all aware of the SBW offload. They speak about always being alert for the offload. So at this level if you drop a half decent offload then its the other players fault. Its not like he can say “I didn’t expect that’.

    • July 4th 2011 @ 10:24am
      Damien said | July 4th 2011 @ 10:24am | ! Report

      Fivehole – Thanks for the correction. That was lazy of me. I just divided the metres gained by 10 which of course is wrong when calculating a per carry stat.

      Wrote this in the 4.5 hr gap between the 2 games in the weekend.

      The carries are close enough for mine. The stat doesn’t reveal what the different types of carries eg. open space, tight run one off the ruck that sort of thing. That would give us clearer picture. I’m sure the AB’s have that data.

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    • July 4th 2011 @ 10:57am
      Eric said | July 4th 2011 @ 10:57am | ! Report

      Interesting stats, but one plays for winning Crusaders, one plays for losing Canes. How about the stat “how many tries did the wingers outside them score”?

    • July 4th 2011 @ 11:05am
      Damien said | July 4th 2011 @ 11:05am | ! Report

      Eric – True that. I can just imagine the range and depth of data that the AB’s have access to.

      I’m sure every variable like the type of team and the teams game plan, the role of the player within that team framework and the rest if it would be taken into consideration during selection.

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