A tough choice? George Smith, Michael Hooper, and Liam Gill

Jamie Miller Roar Rookie

By Jamie Miller, Jamie Miller is a Roar Rookie

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    Michael Hooper of the Wallabies runs into some strong Lions defence. (Photo: Paul Barkley/LookPro)

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    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.

    The Findings
    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.

    The Analysis
    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.

    Have Your Say

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    The Crowd Says (40)

    • July 4th 2013 @ 1:04pm
      Jereme Lane said | July 4th 2013 @ 1:04pm | ! Report

      Correct choice has been made i feel. Also Palu threw it to genia who tripped over the bloke who tackled palu!!

    • Roar Guru

      July 4th 2013 @ 1:26pm
      AdamS said | July 4th 2013 @ 1:26pm | ! Report

      Relying heavily on Polite to stay true to form.
      If he decides to police then StGeorge tops my list to get a card.

      • July 4th 2013 @ 2:04pm
        Stin said | July 4th 2013 @ 2:04pm | ! Report

        What’s Poite’s form?

    • Roar Guru

      July 4th 2013 @ 1:43pm
      Nick Turnbull said | July 4th 2013 @ 1:43pm | ! Report

      G’day Jamie,

      firstly well done for putting together a detailed analysis of the 3 contenders for the Wallaby 7 jumper. Mate there is much to be said for stat’s however they are not the be all and end all. I gather that your statement in relation to Smith “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.” is incorrect. Just have a look at his high light reel. George Smith and Col Windon are probably our greatest running open side flankers.

      I can’t agree with you that Michael Hooper is the best choice for the Australian bench for this particular test. As you say, “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.” This is the crux of it for me in context to this series. Michael Hooper has not found away to impose himself in either test. Liam Gill however with very limited opportunity has already had a major impact, when required, in this series with a memorable line-out win against the thrown followed up by pick and drive work at the break down. And it is the break down where Australia will need to be more accurate and competitive this weekend.

      Clearly George Smith is the master and needs to start. But his possible replacement will need to be able to compete on the deck and in the tight because considering the Lions team selected that is where this match will be decided. At the collision, an area Michael Hooper has not featured enough in this series is where Sean O’Brien revels. Gatland is no fool and knows he will not be able to run Australia of the park; he will need to bash us off the ball. For all of Hooper’s guts and determination he just has not featured effectively or consistently where it counts, at the break down.

      For the Wallabies to counter this I would like to think Robbie Deans will play as little as rugby as possible in our own half and play as much rugby in the Lions half. Once there compete for everything on the deck; an area Gill is better that Hooper. I have found Rod Kafer has done a bit on Rugby HQ about a similar game between the Reds and the Chief ‘s earlier this year. Have a look at Gill’s stats at the break-down and further more have a look at those way ward boots from the chiefs; IRB where were you then? Back to Gill and Hooper; I agree Hooper all round offers a team more than Gill, however it was the Wallabies lack of skill, and accuracy at the break down and our inability to force a turnover in that department consistently against the Lions that tips me towards Liam Gill as being the best back up for George Smith this weekend. Obviously that will not be the case however.
      Good luck to Michael Hooper when he gets his chance and go the Wallabies!

      • Roar Guru

        July 4th 2013 @ 5:27pm
        PeterK said | July 4th 2013 @ 5:27pm | ! Report

        very good post, totally agree, it is also along this line of reasoning, the balance of the pack, and the games savers at the breakdown why Pocock is the best of the 3.

      • July 4th 2013 @ 6:49pm
        Jereme Lane said | July 4th 2013 @ 6:49pm | ! Report

        Interesting point nick when you say that stats aren’t everything. Hooper’s missed tackles are usually one off the ruck where he gets down low (as he has too against the big boys) and drives them back inside and then someone else brings them to ground. I Would be interested to know if anyone can remember an important missed tackle from hooper this series or in the super rugby because I can’t. (Not including defending at inside centre)

        As for Liam gill I have found him to be just as ineffectual as hooper at the breakdown. In fact in game 1 I thought gill was berrick Barnes twice (because of the headgear) because he was getting smashed in the rucks before I realized Barnes was off and it was actually gill.

        Hoopers running game is way above what gill offers in the pick and drive stakes especially considering that deans rarely allows pick and drive unlike mckenzie who insists on it

        • July 4th 2013 @ 7:05pm
          Nick Turnbull said | July 4th 2013 @ 7:05pm | ! Report

          Thats obviously why James Horwill praised Liam Gill for his work at the breakdown and why Robbie Deans is flawed as a tactician and selector because P & D works when done well.

          The Lions just got bigger. Hooper got worked by Warburton who is big but not as powerful as O’Brien yet the logic is Hooper will be able to stand up to it. Its flawed. Gill is proven better in tight and better pilferer.

          If you think Hooper has won the breakdown this series its a position I cant support and think it only logical to play our best pilferers; Smith & Gill.

          • July 4th 2013 @ 8:17pm
            Jereme Lane said | July 4th 2013 @ 8:17pm | ! Report

            No definitely don’t think hooper has won by any stretch I’ve just found gill to be equally ineffectual. One line out steal, the so called Justin Harrison moment from gill doesn’t put him above hooper. Hoopers meters ran have been very impressive so far while gill has almost no running game which you need in this day and age as a back rower. Also I’m a massive fan of the pick and drive and it infuriates me that deans refuses to use it.

            • July 4th 2013 @ 9:18pm
              Nick Turnbull said | July 4th 2013 @ 9:18pm | ! Report

              Mate you need the ball before you can run with it. How many meters did he run at 12 not 7? Gill has had little game time, given opportunity with more game time who knows? I’d back him over Hooper on the deck any day.

              • July 5th 2013 @ 12:29am
                Jereme Lane said | July 5th 2013 @ 12:29am | ! Report

                mate we might have to call this a reds fan and a tahs fan agreeing to disagree. some food for thought though. hooper was way better over the ball last year at the brumbies than he has been this year but i suspect thats more to do with the position cheika has him defending. for example he has defended in the centres from the lineouts and is making way more tackles than gill but gill is getting more steals (about 11 from 15 games from memory) so maybe we can say that gill is better at arriving as the first man still on his feet. one thing i firmly believe though as someone said below, the rules have changed and there aren’t as many turnovers at the breakdown as there was 3+ years ago as shown by gill’s comp-leading stats (although there are more in tests without a doubt and interestingly second on that list is Rene Ranger with 8).

                the responsibilities are shared more evenly among the forwards now and you need to be more than just a fetcher. think about david pocock when he first hit the scene (and George Smith too for that matter) he was a fetcher and brilliant at it but then he filled out a bit more and sorted his leg drive and body height and built himself into a strong ballrunner and thats when people started really talking about him. the one thing that hooper has that the others dont is blistering pace.

                people say hooper is small (i dont, ive seen him and he’s not small but i think he has a ‘boyish’ physique which makes people think he looks small. he’s listed on wikipedia as 97 to gill’s 94 but i dont think that sounds right) but you can substitute size for explosive pace and when hooper fills out a bit and works out how to use his pace in the other areas of his game he will be even better. gill on the other hand is a fetcher and when that style of ref and game comes about he is awesome but those games aren’t every game. just looking at Gill’s stats for game 1 and maybe there’s a bit of proof for what i’m saying here. with that sort of refereeing, ie not much of a contest, gill’s stats were awful.

                33mins, 1 tackle, 1 offload, 2 runs (8m) and 1 ruck hit

              • July 5th 2013 @ 4:12am
                Reginald Munday said | July 5th 2013 @ 4:12am | ! Report

                Interesting that you mentioned Reds v Tahs. Nobody else did…

    • July 4th 2013 @ 1:43pm
      Rob G said | July 4th 2013 @ 1:43pm | ! Report

      Great article. Agree with it all. Hooper has his flaws I know but he is the better pick that gill. Especially for a bench spot. Gill may well work his way into the backup for pocock in the future. But his time isn’t now.

    • Roar Guru

      July 4th 2013 @ 1:59pm
      PeterK said | July 4th 2013 @ 1:59pm | ! Report

      We must have a genuine pilferer in the team. Obviously Smith to start. However since he has a barely healed knee I would have Gill on the bench since Smith may be off after 20 mins.

      Pocock is even better, the ideal would be Pocock start Smith bench.

      • July 4th 2013 @ 3:45pm
        Normal duodenum said | July 4th 2013 @ 3:45pm | ! Report

        This may sound strange, however, when Pocock was fit in recent times , I think his impact was much less than it was initially due to the change in the breakdown laws( releasing the player before pilfering etc ). I also think he is much slower than he used to be( probably too muscled up) and just lacking the pace of his former years. What about the concept of him being morphed into a prop or hooker in the future- he is cetainly strong enough. I don’t think this is so outlandish- although he might!!

        • July 4th 2013 @ 4:05pm
          LS said | July 4th 2013 @ 4:05pm | ! Report

          Strange as it might sound to you – I’ve been saying this myself. I feel Pocock is now all hype, and hasn’t actually played as well as he once did.

          • July 4th 2013 @ 4:27pm
            Normal duodenum said | July 4th 2013 @ 4:27pm | ! Report

            So it’s settled; Pocock to the frontrow when he’s fit, that allows all our gun backrowers to play together- get me robbie on the phone!

        • July 4th 2013 @ 4:51pm
          flying hori said | July 4th 2013 @ 4:51pm | ! Report

          I beleive Pocock will make a very good future hooker

        • Roar Guru

          July 4th 2013 @ 5:24pm
          PeterK said | July 4th 2013 @ 5:24pm | ! Report

          last year Pocock was the difference against Wales not Barnes, his pilfers on the line turned them back.

          This year in super rugby before his injury he still had the best stats for pilfers.

          So IMO he is still the force that he was and the best 7 for the Wallabies.

    • July 4th 2013 @ 2:15pm
      Mudfish said | July 4th 2013 @ 2:15pm | ! Report

      Yeah good article, George is wily enough to nullify Sean O’Brien, who a lot of Lions fan rate higher than Warburton, Hooper to come on after 50 mins when the Lions are tiring, Palu needs a big game, Mowen’s been immense last two games, I can’t wait for the backrow battle.

      • Roar Guru

        July 4th 2013 @ 2:21pm
        PeterK said | July 4th 2013 @ 2:21pm | ! Report

        statswise Palu has exceeded Mowen, you must be a brumby supporter

        • Roar Guru

          July 4th 2013 @ 2:31pm
          Nick Turnbull said | July 4th 2013 @ 2:31pm | ! Report


          Palu has been very good – and I am a Reds supporter.

        • July 4th 2013 @ 2:42pm
          jimmyjam said | July 4th 2013 @ 2:42pm | ! Report

          Pretty obvious that those who don’t rate Palu may watch a lot of rugby, but don’t recognise the value he brings to the team. Probably ex-backs or Qld fans. No point arguing the point with them, they just don’t get it.

          Agree 100% on the article. Gill is a great young talent but is a fair way from being regular test class, Hooper, Pocock and Smith all a fair way ahead of him.

          Smith probably the most dominant Australian player in any position over the last 20 yrs, and in my humble opinion you could argue in the top 5 all time for this country.

          He would be the last player the Lions would want to see run out Saturday!! Wobbs by 10pts!

          • July 4th 2013 @ 9:30pm
            RPollock said | July 4th 2013 @ 9:30pm | ! Report

            Geo Smith & Richie Mc are the standout No 7 of the last decade or so. Imagine if McGaw was available for selection and missed out for the All Blacks, there would be a riot in N Z.
            Thank God sense has prevailed and hopefully Geo gets the chocolates in what will almost certainly be his final game for Aust.
            He deserves it.

        • July 4th 2013 @ 5:41pm
          Mudfish said | July 4th 2013 @ 5:41pm | ! Report

          Reds fan mate, I haven’t seen the stats, maybe Mowen’s been doing the stuff that gets noticed by the TV/armchair-beer-in-hand-coach like me?

      • July 4th 2013 @ 10:47pm
        Minz said | July 4th 2013 @ 10:47pm | ! Report

        Funny, I thought Palu was terrific in the first game, not so much in the second. Mowen’s been everywhere in both. But I haven’t seen the stats 🙂

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