Statistics can shed light on, or obscure, the truth. Here are a few insights from the Rugby World Cup pool games that I have derived for you, all of which may clarify the quarter-final match-ups.
A word of caution: these observations are based on woefully inadequate samples, are at best highly approximated team traits, and can be dependent on the quality and order of pool opponents.
Nevertheless, I found these team behaviours interesting.
1. Beating your man
Rugby Championship teams are beating defenders at a higher rate than Six Nations teams.
On a whopping 26 per cent of their carries, the Pumas are beating a defender (the highest rate in the competition, now that the island teams have been eliminated). In fact all of the Rugby Championship teams are at least beating a defender on 20 per cent of their carries (Australia 24 per cent, South Africa 21.3 per cent, and New Zealand 20 per cent).
None of the Six Nations quarter-finalists are at 20 per cent in defender-beaten per carry (DB/C). The worst is Scotland (16.4 per cent), while the best is France (19.5 per cent). This may explain why the Six Nations teams kick more, while the only Rugby Championship quarter-finalist in the top five of kicks-from-hand is South Africa. It should cause the Springboks to keep the ball in hand more, however.
2. Poor handling in context
New Zealand (44 knock-ons) and South Africa (22 knock-ons) occupy the high and low of the butterfinger table, but it has not seemed to make much of a difference in try-scoring.
Again, the Rugby Championship teams are the top four try-scoring teams in the Rugby World Cup (New Zealand 25, South Africa and Argentina 22, Australia 17). But what about knock-ons per pass? The All Blacks throw more passes than any other quarter-finalist, so perhaps a knock-on per pass ratio (KO/P) will be instructive?
(Caveat: obviously, a knock-on can occur without a pass, but still, over hundreds of passes, and dozens of knock-ons, a correlation might be discernible.)
The best KO/P team is South Africa (the Boks knock-on 3.2 per cent of the time they pass), while the worst is France (6.8 per cent of passes are knocked on). This is where Ireland looks good, they are second on the ‘sure-handed’ KO/P index, followed by Scotland (who rarely throw a pass, and should do so much more) and Argentina.
3. Dominant tackles lead to turnovers
Scotland and France have been tacklers. Their style of play has forced them to make the most tackles (Scotland has completed 585 tackles, missing only 69).
But what about dominant tackles?
I cannot find a stat that delineates between a dominant tackle and ‘just a tackle’. But perhaps this index could be useful: turnovers won per tackle (TOW/T). Again, this is an intuitive stat, useful only as a suggestion.
The best TOW/T team is New Zealand. In an amazing nine per cent of tackles, the All Blacks have won turnovers. This is one reason it is so difficult to build momentum against them if it takes more than a couple of phases. Wales, 8.4 per cent, and Ireland, 7.6 per cent, are also high on the TOW/T chart. The least productive in TOW/T? Scotland (3.9 per cent).
The rest are virtually the same. So, Scotland have been futile at turning over the opposition in the tackle, while New Zealand, Wales, and Ireland have been attacking the breakdown very well.
4. Breaking through defence
Metres run has always seemed an illusory stat – five metres on five carries (but all across the gain-line) might help the team a lot more than 50 metres leading to an isolated turnover or opposition lineout.
But what about breaks per metre run (B/M)? It’s an odd way to think of running with the ball, but it goes to efficiency. Once again, New Zealand leads the competition (2.4 per cent), while Ireland is the least efficient (1.4 per cent), and France and Wales are only a wee bit better. Noteworthy is that Scotland are the only Six Nations team in the top five.
5. Missed tackles
Nobody likes missed tackles, but cover defence and maniacal scrambling (and let’s be honest, clever infringements) can prevent points. Here’s another made up stat: points allowed per missed tackle (PA/MT).
Argentina misses a lot more tackles than the other quarter-finalists (105 in the pool matches, compared to less than 50 for New Zealand, Ireland, and South Africa). But Argentina’s PA/MT is 67 per cent (two-thirds of the time that Argentina misses a tackle, they concede a point).
The Pumas are scrambling well, and only Australia are surviving missed tackles better. The worst team on PA/MT is Scotland.
6. Tries per break (T/B)
And here, Wales’ problems comes to sharp focus. The Welsh are only finishing 33 per cent of their breaks over the opposition try-line. Compare that with the Springboks’ 50 per cent and Warren Gatland’s task looks bigger.
All of the four favourites (New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Ireland) finished 45 per cent or more of their breaks in the pool games with a try. Argentina have created a lot of breaks, but won’t be able to in the knock-out rounds. Thus, their T/B inefficiency will be a challenge.
Plugging these odd stats into the quarter-final match-ups
Argentina can upset Ireland, but to do that, the Pumas cannot miss tackles because Ireland is the most efficient at finishing their breaks with tries.
Argentina won’t have as many scrums to win against Ireland, because the Irish seldom knock on. The key for Argentina on attack will be to make their final passes on clean breaks, which the Pumas create often, but rarely complete. This match should go the distance, an upset in the making.
Scotland cannot trouble Australia with the style they are using, they make and miss too many tackles. Against a Wallabies team that turns breaks into points at a high rate, and beats individual defenders with ease, that’s a concern. All of the match-up stats point to an Aussie romp; it should all be over with 30 minutes to go.
The French are actually a decent match-up for the All Blacks. They are one of the few teams that can beat defenders at a Kiwi rate, and both teams are mishandling the ball. The big issue for France is how quickly and efficiently New Zealand turn tackles into turnovers and turnovers into points. This is a leaky vintage of French rugby, look for Steve Hansen’s men to pile on the points in the second half.
South Africa is not a good opponent for Wales. The Welsh have not shown the ability to create or finish breaks, and that is precisely what the Boks have shown they can do. Wales’ best chance is to play very negative rugby, turn the Boks over, and force young Handre Pollard to play a tactical kicking chess match. Look for South Africa to win by about 15 over a spent, battered Wales.