This year’s Rugby Championship finished largely as expected. New Zealand were comfortable winners, Argentina continue to struggle with the same squad of players being with each other ad nauseam, while South Africa and Australia battled it out for finishing order in the middle of the pack.
But while the destination may have been well known in advance, there were a few interesting by-ways on the journey that are worth a mention.
Building depth to the Rugby World Cup
At the start of the tournament, there were less than 20 remaining games before the pool games of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Experimentation, rotation and introduction of new players could have been the order of the day, but the results across the teams varied.
The All Blacks used the most players, at 36, and also utilised the most reserve minutes, at 1161, an average of 24 minutes per reserve per game.
Argentina used 31 players and 965 reserve minutes at an average of 20 minutes.
There is quite a gap in bench usage back to South Africa and Australia.
South Africa used 31 players, with total reserve minutes of 793 at an average of 17 minutes per reserve, while the Wallabies’ numbers were 30 players, with 849 reserve minutes at an average of 18.
We constantly hear about modern rugby being a 23-man game and that the finishers – I hate that expression – are key. Well, it appears they are, but not always in the games when it really matters.
The match that wins this year’s ‘I don’t trust my bench’ award goes to the Australia-South Africa 23-23 all draw in Perth.
Total reserve minutes were the season’s lowest, at 185, with an average of 11 minutes per reserve. As this was probably the most important game in terms of determining the final order of the table, it is an interesting reflection of both coaches’ mindset.
Execution, exectution, execution
Many were the handfuls of Kiwi follicles flying during the Lions series, as the ball went to ground again and again. Sadly, during the Rugby Championship things did not improve.
The All Blacks coughed up a massive 219 handling errors across the six games, which is a horrendous 67 more than the second-worst side, which was Argentina.
South Africa and Australia tied for the most offloads thrown, with 71, and combined this with a relatively low handling error rate compared to the New Zealand. Encouraging signs for both.
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The only positive statistic that Argentina won, with 13 successful from 17 attempts, however herein lies a message: in this comp, you have to kick for the line, guys. Tries are needed for wins in the Rugby Championship, and maybe this is the difference between Argentina being close with 20 to go, to potentially being in front with 20 to go.
For completeness, South Africa kicked 11 from 17, Australia ten from 15, New Zealand five from seven.
The tackling percentage spread from best to worst was only three per cent, with New Zealand at 87 and Argentina at 84.
Tackling completion percentages are a reasonable stat to look at for a single game, but it the actual number of tackles missed that is likely to better reflect outcomes.
Turnover and the breakdown
Curiouser and Curiouser noted Lewis Carroll, and this applies to Australian rugby fans’ continued obsession with the role of the openside at the breakdown.
Australia both conceded the fewest turnovers and won the fewest, but I would argue this means little in isolation.
New Zealand, a side who does not play an outright fetcher, finished top of the turnover tables with 32, nine more than Argentina and ten more than South Africa.
How does a side that has played an almost zero ruck numbers commitment strategy come out top?
(Note, New Zealand were bottom for turnovers last year, with 30, so almost no change in the absolute number.)
Having an outright pilferer is not going to be a requirement under the news laws, but in fact it hasn’t been a requirement since before the last Rugby World Cup.
England have dominated the Six Nations and put together a world-record-equaling 18 games without one, and New Zealand have continued on their merry winning way without one.
For the record, and to keep the Luddites informed, Michael Hooper topped the turnover stats for Australia, with five, and he was also the leading openside flanker in the comp for this stat.
There a few more outliers worth noting:
While the final destination was the same again this year, the journey itself continues to evolve.