Wallabies: Tight five, possession, and Michael Hooper

Scott Allen Columnist

By Scott Allen, Scott Allen is a Roar Expert

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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
    Scott Allen

    Scott has been a rugby contributor with The Roar since 2013. After taking some time out to pursue other roles in the game, including coaching Premier Grade with University of Queensland and the Wallaroos at the recent World Cup, he's returned to give us his insights. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottA_ to hear more from him.

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    The Crowd Says (193)

    • August 29th 2013 @ 7:04am
      ron burgundy said | August 29th 2013 @ 7:04am | ! Report

      its amazing how people try and wiggle out of stats…

      well done Scott for pointing out how much we miss pocock!!!!!!!!!

      fantastic stuff!!!!!!!

      • August 29th 2013 @ 9:38am
        Tissot Time said | August 29th 2013 @ 9:38am | ! Report

        Yes agree Ron but then I remember its Bernard’s Ground Hog Thursday. Interpret the stats how you want but Hoopers work rate falls way below Richie’s decade long benchmark. Imagine how much more impact he would have if he were more involved.

    • August 29th 2013 @ 7:41am
      Kane said | August 29th 2013 @ 7:41am | ! Report

      Hooper reminds me of Sir Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, amazing to watch but in reality he didn’t do alot in that film.

      • Roar Guru

        August 29th 2013 @ 1:03pm
        Who Needs Melon said | August 29th 2013 @ 1:03pm | ! Report

        And todays prize for the most left-field analogy goes to… Kane! 🙂

        • Roar Guru

          August 29th 2013 @ 7:56pm
          Kane said | August 29th 2013 @ 7:56pm | ! Report

          Gets an Oscar for best lead actor despite only being on screen for 14% of the film. I think thats a fair comparison 🙂

    • August 29th 2013 @ 8:13am
      flying hori said | August 29th 2013 @ 8:13am | ! Report

      Sounds like Mania has a Man crush on young Hooper!

      • August 29th 2013 @ 8:24am
        Sofathefelloffthesofa said | August 29th 2013 @ 8:24am | ! Report

        Ritchies still his true love….

      • August 29th 2013 @ 8:30am
        mania said | August 29th 2013 @ 8:30am | ! Report

        yeah hori, as Sofathefelloffthesofa states i save my man crushes for the mccaws and cullens of the rugby world.
        i just cant believe that hooper, who imo has evolved his game successfully, yet ppl are still over looking it and saying that he was a passenger. when i watch the game again its not hooper that is screwing up.

        • Roar Guru

          August 29th 2013 @ 1:13pm
          Wal said | August 29th 2013 @ 1:13pm | ! Report

          Can I just say I miss Cullen 🙁

          • August 29th 2013 @ 1:25pm
            DR said | August 29th 2013 @ 1:25pm | ! Report

            Me too. 🙁

        • August 29th 2013 @ 1:23pm
          Rebel said | August 29th 2013 @ 1:23pm | ! Report

          Mania, it’s all about quality and quantity. Each on their own is good, to produce both puts him to that next level.

    • August 29th 2013 @ 8:25am
      Gavin Melville said | August 29th 2013 @ 8:25am | ! Report

      It’s a tough job picking a back row.
      What was clear from the B&I Lions tour, was that it wasn’t about picking a 6,7 & 8. It was about the blend between them.
      Here’s what Gatland had to try to meld together, in terms of players and qualities:
      Warburton – leadership, jackalling, clearout, gets turnovers, carries well
      Tipuric- very fast to breakdowns
      Falatau – great catcher, agile in tight spaces, soft hands
      O’Brien – muscular ball-carrier, makes hard yards, tackles well
      Lydiate – makes tackles, counter-rucks
      Tom Croft – jumps lineouts, fast, seagulls
      etc

      I’m not saying this to pump up the Lions loose.
      Just pointing out that the back row have to get it all done between them – make the breakdowns, run the carries, hit the tackles, support, jump in the lineouts.
      If Hooper is only marking McCaw on half of what McCaw does, then somebody else has to be picking up the other half of the work.
      His effectiveness is married to the effectiveness of the whole loose forward set.

    • Columnist

      August 29th 2013 @ 8:25am
      Scott Allen said | August 29th 2013 @ 8:25am | ! Report

      Thanks for the feedback everyone. A few comments as a general reply.

      Effectiveness is a huge component in measuring the performance of a player. When I’m looking at an issue I do rate player’s effectiveness but that is purely subjective as everyone has a different opinion on what is effective and more valuable. No matter who prepares those statistics there will be debates about whether they’re correct and indeed bias. If you want my opinion on Hooper’s effectiveness, he was very good in the first match but average in the second match. I agree with the view that over both matches he’s been effective.

      The work rate of a player is not subjective – you count the number of times a player did something and come up with a total. I don’t agree with those that claim that Hooper has an incredible work rate because it’s not factual.

      However, just as work rate does not give you the full picture, statistics also don’t give you the full picture. They never have and never will. In my opinion that doesn’t mean you ignore them either when looking at the full picture.

      Yes, I value work over the ball more than attacking potential in a number seven. That’s how I select teams I’m coaching so in that view I am biased towards a number seven like Pocock. What I really like in a number seven is what McCaw or Smith offer – work over the ball and attacking potential but alas George is no longer available for the Wallabies.

      But let me clear on one point – based on the performances in the first two matches in the TRC, Hooper will be and should be the Wallabies number seven at the moment.

      That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for improvement from him (or any other player) as let’s face it we have a lot of improving to do and the one area he needs to improve is his work rate.

      • Roar Guru

        August 29th 2013 @ 9:38am
        Jiggles said | August 29th 2013 @ 9:38am | ! Report

        Scott from your small sample size it shows Pocock is a better attacking player anyway…

        • Columnist

          August 29th 2013 @ 9:53am
          Scott Allen said | August 29th 2013 @ 9:53am | ! Report

          Jiggles, there’s the stats v non-stats argument summed up nicely.

          What those stats show is that Pocock carried the ball “more” in that match than Hooper has over the last two matches.

          Those particular stats don’t say Pocock was “better” as they don’t show how many metres each made, whether they were carries to set up a try or involved beating defenders etc.

          It may well be that Pocock was “better” but you’d need to look at a wider range of stats and then look at the clips for each carry to confirm.

          So, stats alone don’t give you the full picture but they are one of the ways to get the full picture.

          • Roar Guru

            August 29th 2013 @ 10:01am
            Jiggles said | August 29th 2013 @ 10:01am | ! Report

            Very true. To be honest besides 2 steals at the start of the first match and a few runs I don’t really notice Hooper. Pocock makes me sit up much more when he’s playing. For example his work in the Welsh series last year was sublime and he was the reason I believe that Australia was in a strong position to win Tests 2 & 3.

            If Hooper was a bit taller and heavier he’d be a great 8, as RK says, however he doesn’t play the way I like my 7s to play and I don’t think the current backrow with him in it provides much balance.

            As a side note, I went out to watch Liam Gill’s (and my old) 1st XV play on Saturday. Despite terrace eventually losing they were in the match due to the exceptional work of their 7, whose name escapes me. This boy was making turnovers at will and apparently has been on fire all year. Hopefully he follows Croft and Gill’s path!

            • August 29th 2013 @ 5:51pm
              Henry Applebee said | August 29th 2013 @ 5:51pm | ! Report

              I think most people are missing the point of this 7 argument. What Australia needs is clean and confident ball. they want to run the ball with the confidence of being able to retain it. A 7 like McCaw and Pocock delivers this with their work rate (their number one objective is to secure the ball at every opportunity) While Hooper’s objective is partly to run like a back. and this is where australia fell apart by not delivering secure ball with dominance in the ruck.

              I would rather have secure ball from a solid 7 (this will allow the backs to do their job) than a running 7. Hooper is very good at running but i believe the backs are probable a little better than him at that. He should do what a 7 should do and secure clean ball with dominate rucks and allow the backs to do their jobs.

      • August 29th 2013 @ 9:43am
        Tissot Time said | August 29th 2013 @ 9:43am | ! Report

        Excellent come back Scott. Keep up the good work. Thank you

    • August 29th 2013 @ 8:36am
      Alex F said | August 29th 2013 @ 8:36am | ! Report

      Really like the analysis Scott. It seems safe to say that typical sports analysis is heavily impacted by heuristics. A player having one or two memorable moments (good or bad) causes opinion to be unduly influenced.

      Your work reminds me of the whole “perception vs stats” revolution in baseball. Also football in Europe seems to use stats analysis a lot more now (tracking moves, passes, positioning, etc).

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