In just two rounds of the 2023 Guinness Six Nations, our view of the status quo of international rugby has been rewritten.
Ireland have proved they are every bit the world’s top-ranked rugby nation with a comprehensive victory over reigning champions, France – who were unbeaten in 2022. Scotland have asserted themselves as contenders at the top of the table, with Wales and England searching for tangible signs of improvement from their previous regime.
As for Italy, instinct – based on two halves of impressive rugby – suggests they won’t finish the tournament empty-handed, who will be the victim of their rise in stature on the international stage?
The Smart Ball technology powered by Sage gives fans a great vantage point from which to observe the trends in the game.
A key feature of the opening two rounds has been Finn Russell’s individual brilliance. Suffocating England with continued pressure from the boot – he kicked 841 metres in Round 1 – it was his flair and emphatic skill which brought ecstasy for his team and nation against Wales. Russell produced three try assists in Round 2, a feat yet unmatched in a single game in this years’ tournament.
For Steyn’s first try, Russell’s reload time was 2.5 seconds, enough time for him to commit two Welsh defenders, get his hands through the contact, and deliver a virtuoso reverse offload to Kyle Steyn.
Providing Steyn another opportunity, Russell later delivered a 44.2 metre crossfield kick to find his winger, keeping it in the air for 3.1 seconds – ample for Steyn to claim the ball and beat the defence. Russell’s final flourish was a 12.4 metre pass for Matt Fagerson which travelled with a 98% spiral efficiency.
A break assist which was the catalyst for a try was Russell’s 25.5 metre kick – which travelled just 4.5 metres forward – for Duhan van der Merwe, who fed Blair Kinghorn to score.
Is this the season that Russell finds his consistency and fully realises his much-heralded potential? A sense of destiny looms over the maverick’s head, or is that really a halo? His skill is elucidated with unprecedented detail by Sage’s insights.
Two of Russell’s moments of magic were crossfield kicks, which seems very much in vogue in international rugby currently. We have seen, including the kick to van der Merwe which was finished by Kinghorn, five tries scored from such kicks so far in the tournament.
In Round 2 alone, nine crossfield kicks were made, with France the only team not to attempt one. Looking at those which were retained – four in number – we can see some key features in making one successful.
The length and depth of a kick depends on where players are in relation to the space, with kick distance varying from 27.5 metres to 47.8 and territory gain from 0.1 to 25.5. What is more consistent is the average required kick chase speed.
For a retained kick in round two, this was 11.3 miles per hour, so not breakneck speed for an international winger. This indicates that for a crossfield kick to be successful, the attacking player must be in a lot of space, to be able to run – but not sprint – onto the ball and make an effective catch.
The advantage of the crossfield kick, then, is efficiency of moving the ball around a narrow defence. During the build-up to England’s second try against Scotland in Round 1, the ball moved through five pairs of hands and took over 4.8 seconds to travel from one edge to the other.
In this instance, it was the handling which committed defenders in the midfield. In a scenario where there is more space on the edge, putting boot to ball can reduce the risk of handling errors and get the ball from A to B in an average of 3.3 seconds – quicker than going through the hands.
The crossfield kick can also be used to exploit mismatches. For example, Russell’s kick for Steyn’s second try took advantage of Liam Williams – Wales’ premier high-ball diffuser – being in the sin bin.
Similarly, with advantage on his side, Owen Farrell pitted 6’ 5” Freddie Steward against the diminutive Ange Cappuozzo – an uncomfortable 4.3 seconds of hang time for the Italian prodigy and a smart punt from Farrell.
This was one of several attacking kicks which Farrell made in the Italian half, along with three grubbers and one chip. None directly resulted in a try, but each left Italy with a bobbling ball to deal with on their line.
All three grubbers made less than 10 metres of territory gain but two of the three finished within five metres of the goal line, with one a ticking time-bomb placed in the in-goal area.
Whilst this may feel a counterintuitive tactic, teams are yet to develop much in the way of strategy when it comes to taking goal line dropouts. The two Italian dropouts – forced by English attacking kicks – were both kicked left and went a similar distance (28.1 and 34.9 metres). For England, these were predictable – starting from similar positions on the pitch – opportunities to counterattack with time and space in the opposition half.
The English attack which followed the first dropout led to Italy conceding a penalty, Farrell’s kick to the corner landing just 3.1 metres from the try line and Jack Willis crossing for the opening try of the match. England’s third try followed a virtually identical format.
This is a great example of Sage and the Smart Ball revealing the underlying motivations for strategies such as England’s kicks deep in the opposition half.
Kick return can provide an incredibly valuable attacking platform. Scotland – especially Duhan van der Merwe – proved that against England.
Ireland also scored directly from a goal line dropout against France in Round 2 to open their assault on Les Blues. Hitting and hoping, Romain Ntamack went for pure field position and kicked the ball long and straight, with 48.9 of the 51.8 metres travelled by the ball territory gain. This gave Ireland position on the doorstep of the French half, cleverly manipulated by an incisive Irish set-play.
Ireland later scored from another loose French kick, with Antoine Dupont sending a box kick 41.6 metres downfield which would’ve required a player to run at 24.4 miles per hour to reclaim it. The time afforded to Ireland on the ball again proved lethal.
With Ireland in poll position to continue a title, and potentially Grand Slam, challenging campaign, a special significance can be attributed to Scotland vs France fixture.
Likely competing for second place, unless Scotland can overturn a seven-match losing streak against an Ireland team in their pomp, this contest could consolidate a new world order in the Six Nations.
Critically, it will be fascinating to see if France can tighten their kicking game to constrain the Scottish counterattack, and whether the collective flair of the French backline can match that of Russell in his prime.
The insights provided by Sage via the Smart Ball are emphasising the importance of thinking one step ahead with your kicking game, but also demonstrating that rugby remains as much determined by acts of inspiration as by canny strategy.