Tries, effective counter-attacking and unprecedented comebacks made this year’s Guinness Six Nations one which will live a long time in the memory. Now four-time Grand Slam winners (since 2000), Wales built their success on astonishing defence and efficient scoring.
The other story is of how Italy continued to show improvement, even if it didn’t result in a victory.
Try scoring continues to rise
When Darcy Graham touched down Scotland’s second try in the 47th minute against England he not only broke the game open but also confirmed a rising try scoring trend in the Championship.
Graham’s try was the 79th, which itself would have set a new try scoring record for the Championship. Incredibly, five more were added in the last 33 minutes of England v Scotland for a final total of 84.
That is an increase of 127% on the total of 37 tries just six years ago, in 2013.
Counter attacks and turnovers replace lineouts as attacking platforms
Lineouts had become the most important attacking platform in recent years with the proportion of tries starting from that particular set-piece rising from 42% in 2016 to 46% a year later to almost 50% in 2018.
This year, tries from lineouts dropped to just 39%, lower than counter attacks and turnovers combined. Tries from those sources accounted for 40% of tries this year, up from 30% a year ago and 27% in 2016 and 2017.
The effectiveness of quick counter attacking is summed up well in Jack Nowell’s try for England against Scotland.
A box kick from Ali Price is caught by Billy Vunipola around 36 metres out near the left touchline. After the only ruck of the move, the ball is immediately played through the hands out wide to the right hand side before England score. Eleven of England’s 24 tries this year (46%) originated with turnover ball or counter attacks, up from just two (14%) in 2018.
Patience in the build-up also leads to success
Another notable difference in 2019 has been the number of tries scored after more than 10 phases of play. In 2018, just 7 of the 78 tries (9%) scored were from these longer multi-phase moves. In 2019, 14 of the 84 tries (17%) were scored from patient build-up, a near doubling compared to last year.
Every team scored at least one try after at least 10 phases of play. Cory Hill’s 35-phase try to give Wales the lead against England was probably the key moment of the Championship.
Italy were the team who scored the most tries from patient build-up. Tito Tebaldi’s try against France on the final day was the team’s fourth of the championship from 11 or more phases. It marked their 10th try in total, only the third time the Italians have ever reached that particular milestone.
Italy also conceded their lowest points since 2013 while the points difference with their opponents was down by 23 points on last year.
Italy’s excellent lineout was the foundation of these improved results as the Azzurri won 57 of the 61 lineouts on their own throw and stole 13 of their opposition lineouts. Both of these figures were the best in the Championship and marked big improvements on last year.
Defence wins championships
NFL coach Paul “Bear” Bryant is generally credited with the quote “defence wins championships” and this year, Wales proved the old adage to be true.
Warren Gatland’s side conceded just seven tries – two of which took place in the first 23 minutes of the opening match in Paris. Of the other five, only England’s first-half score in Cardiff to go 10-3 up also put Wales under any pressure.
What was perhaps remarkable was that Wales did this while ceding possession to the opposition. Runners-up England also allowed the opposition to have more of the ball. After five matches Wales and England had the least possession of the six competing teams. Wales were successful because they soaked up opposition pressure and took their own opportunities.
The final match against Ireland illustrated this very well as Wales scored an early try – only the second Wales try in the first 20 minutes – and then absorbed Ireland pressure while scoring three points every time they were awarded a penalty.
With the game in injury time, the score was 25-0 to Wales despite the Welsh team having two fewer visits to the opposition 22 than their opponents.
Never give up
Until relatively recently, teams rarely recovered from 10 points down to win. Former England coach Brian Ashton once said that a team should never lose from 13 points up and this was the Six Nations Championship record before this year.
In a year of comebacks it was appropriate that the Championship should be book-ended with the two most spectacular recoveries in the competition’s 136-year history.
Scotland came close to burying their 36-year history of not beating England at Twickenham on the final day of competition. Having recovered from 31-0 down after 29 minutes to be 38-31 up in injury time, Scotland were also on the verge of what would have been the greatest comeback in international rugby history, beating the 24-point recovery by Australia against Argentina in October 2018.
England had the final word though, pulling out a final 11+ phase move – the 14th of the competition – to score under the posts after 13 phases, reducing the comeback to the greatest ever to draw.
A fitting end to an exciting Championship given that the Grand Slam itself would never have been won by Wales without the competition record comeback from 16-0 down against France in Paris at half-time on day one.
After that instilled belief, it is certainly true to say that Gatland’s team never looked back.
Simon Gleave has been a sports data analyst for nearly 20 years – you can follow him here on Twitter.