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What really wins rugby matches?

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Roar Rookie
23rd August, 2019
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3034 Reads

To win rugby games, some swear by playing error-free footy. Others by having a strong set piece. I have heard Rod Kafer talk of the importance of getting over the advantage line.

I had a look through the team stats for the Super Rugby season to see what areas lined up with how the teams finished on the table i.e. would having the most run metres give you a better chance of finishing near the top of the table?

I used a statistical technique called ‘Spearman’s Rank Correlation Coefficient’. Using the technique, the areas are scored from -1 to 1. With closer to one being a positive correlation, closer to 0 being random, and closer to -1 being a negative correlation.

The results are plotted on a graph to see if the results are significant enough not to be down to chance. Out of all the factors, only the top three showed a significant correlation (at a 95 per cent level).

That means there is a 95 per cent chance that these three factors show a strong correlation with how the teams finished on the table. The other factors did not make the cut off and aren’t statistically significant.

But enough of the nerdy stuff, here are the results:

Significant
0.75 – No. of tries scored
0.69 – Total number of kicks
0.63 – No. of pilfers and ruck and maul penalties won

Not significant
0.55 – Kick metres
0.46 – Line Breaks
0.43 – Run metres
0.33 – Tackle per cent
0.16 – No. of 7+ phases
0.09 – Penalties goals kicked
0.08 – Set piece win per cent
-0.16 – Advantage line success
-0.29 – Handling errors
-0.29 – Penalties Conceded

At first glance the results are puzzling. But if you take a look closer, the results make sense.

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Tries scored seems like an obvious one doesn’t it? Four of the top five teams (Crusaders, Brumbies, Hurricanes, and Jaguares) were in the top four of tries scored. The Bulls (the fifth ranked team) deciding to get their points from kicking lots of penalties (they were ranked first in penalty goals kicked).

Henry Speight runs the ball for the Brumbies.

Henry Speight heads in for a try. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Interestingly, the more teams kicked the better their chances of finishing on top of the table. The Jaguares, Hurricanes, Crusaders and the Bulls put in the most kicks. The key point is that it wasn’t all kicking for distance but short kicks too.

The Crusaders had the lowest average metres per kick which showed that they kicked short to regather often. It makes sense that teams that kick often gain territory and have a more varied style of attack.

With several pilfers and forced ruck and maul penalties it is the same story. The Jaguares, Hurricanes, Bulls and the Crusaders all were in the top four. If you pressure the ruck, you win penalties, slow down opposition ball and get precious opportunities for counterattack.

There have been countless articles on here about the importance of ruck dominance so I won’t harp on anymore.

Rudy Paige of the Vodacom Bulls during the Super Rugby match between Cell C Sharks and Vodacom Bulls at Growthpoint Kings Park on June 30, 2017 in Durban, South Africa.

Rudy Paige of the Bulls takes the ball from the ruck. (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images).

One interesting anomaly is the Brumbies. They were the only team in the top five that didn’t kick the ball often (ranked 12th) or win much ball at the ruck (eighth). Yet they scored a lot of tries (ranked second).

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I think this all comes down to their brilliant rolling mall. Never have I seen a team so dominant in one aspect of rugby. I’m not sure about the exact figures but at one point late in the season I remember Greg Clarke saying they had scored around 15 tries from the rolling maul and second place was the Highlanders on only 6!

They kicked the least penalties (only four all season) of all teams. They instead kicked to the corner and worked the maul. As the season was so close, if the Brumbies had lost two more games, they would have finished middle of the table. It would be fair to say that the rolling maul might have won them two games for the season. Why haven’t the Wallabies tried to incorporate this?

Allan Alaalatoa of the Brumbies is tackled by Rosko Specman of the Bulls

Allan Alaalatoa of the Brumbies is tackled by Rosko Specman of the Bulls. (AAP Image/Rohan Thomson)

Let’s look at the other end of the scale. I will use the Blues as an example. They have a lot of talent in their team; Ma’a Nonu, Rieko and Akira Ioane, Sonny Bill Williams, Patrick Tuipulotu and Melani Nanai. However, they finished 13th overall.

I felt from the matches I watched they seemed to play quite well and were a bit unlucky to finish that low. If you look at some of their overall numbers they were ranked:

third in metres gained
fourth in line breaks
first for getting over the advantage line
first in number of 7+ phases
first in tackle completion per cent

This seems like a great team. They hold the ball, make metres and breaks, and make their tackles. Yet with all those ‘good’ stats and all that talent they finished only 12th in overall tries scored. Here is where else they fell down:

15th Pilfers/Ruck and Maul Penalties won
15th Metres gained from kicks
15th Total number of kicks

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Yep, they had the worst kicking game and defensive ruck game. As a result, they had few opportunities for counterattack from ruck turnovers (the most efficient situation to score tries). Once the opposition got the ball instead of forcing turnovers they just tackled and tackled and were reliant on a mistake to get it back.

Harry Plummer

Harry Plummer of the Blues (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

They also rarely kicked for territory. Hence, whenever they made all those line breaks they were most likely far from the try line and the line breaks were rarely converted into tries. They also liked to hold onto the ball and did not put in attacking kicks so their attack was more predictable.

Sadly, it looks like the Wallabies have a very similar game plan to the Blues:
1. Possession orientated
2. Large emphasis on getting over the advantage line
3. Few kicks (even less attacking kicks)
4. Little attempts at rucks to force turnovers

Over the course of a season the Blues had some great games but a possession strategy relies on almost perfect execution (just like the Wallabies did in Perth). Unfortunately, this strategy does not provide results in the long run because no one team can sustain that level week in, week out (especially when it is bucketing down rain).

The 2019 Super Rugby season has shown teams that score tries, kick often (both attacking and for territory) and are aggressive at the ruck have had the best chance of finishing top of the table.