Co-host of performance analysis podcast Running the Numbers, Sam Larner, has dived into the Matchstats powered by AWS, to give his analysis of Round 4 of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations.
England Let Loose
You might well think that controlling the ball is a pre-requisite to winning a game of rugby. Surely the team who possess the ball longest creates the most chances and scores the most points? This theory doesn’t play out in reality, however. In 2020, the teams finishing first and second in the standings, England and France, had the 5th and 6th most minutes in possession. In 2021, the only two teams who can win the Championship, Wales and France, are ranked 3rd and 6th in minutes per possession. Not having the ball has become very fashionable.
England are bucking the trend. They have won two games and lost two games so far. The two they have won have come against France and Italy. In both those victories, England have had more than 20 minutes of possession, made fewer than 100 tackles, and carried for more than 850m. In the two losses, England have had less than 16 minutes of possession and made more than 110 tackles. In 2020 England thrived without the ball, this year they need the ball to succeed.
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Although England were successful last year using the tactic, playing without the ball starves their best players of opportunities. In their Championship opener against Scotland, Jonny May and Anthony Watson combined for just nine carries and 42m. Against Wales the numbers were only slightly better, 13 carries for 99m. That is a poor return for two of the most exciting players in the entire tournament.
When England embraced possession they also gave May and Watson opportunities. Against Italy and France the pair have combined for 39 carries and 458m, with four tries. When England let loose and play their higher risk game good things have happened this Championship. The problem will be ensuring they can do that against Ireland. Only Scotland have hogged possession more than Ireland. When England played Scotland their backline was virtually silent, can they stop that happening again against Ireland?
France’s defeat by England on Saturday knocked them down to fourth in the World Rugby rankings. Despite that loss that is still some climb for a team who were ranked eighth this time two years ago. France are rightly lauded for their exceptional skill level and vast young talent, but they had a flaw last year and that same flaw has raised its head again this year. The fourth quarter.
In 2020 France scored the second fewest points in the fourth quarter, behind Italy, and conceded the second most in the same time period, after the fourth quarter. In 2021 they score the fewest fourth quarter points and concede the third most, after England and Italy. Only France and Italy have a negative fourth quarter points difference in this year’s Championship.
Poor fourth quarter performance is usually related to fitness. The end of the first half and the end of the second half are when teams are most fatigued. The paradox for France is that they are exceptional in the 20 minutes before half time. They have a points difference of +31, more than double the performance of the next best team, Ireland.
That suggests France’s issues are less to do with fitness and perhaps more to do with focus. Whatever the problem, it needs fixing fast. No team scores more fourth quarter, or second half, points than France’s fifth round opponent’s Wales. On the other hand, only Italy concede more second quarter points than Wales. It will be a fascinating battle.
Moving the ball accurately and swiftly is one of the keys to being successful in the modern game of rugby. That requirement extends to forwards. You may have noticed for the first time this tournament the variety of different roles forwards fulfill. Some are there for their powerful carries, some for their stout defence, and some pop up in unusual positions looking more like outside backs.
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That final category tend to operate as a link between the forwards and the backs. We can call them the distributors. We can look at the number of passes and offloads made by the forward in each team with the most and that will give us a glimpse about how they play.
The results are surprising. Number one is not surprising, Justin Tipuric has represented Wales in Sevens and is occasionally muted as a possible backline starter. Tipuric leads the way in both the number of passes and offloads and the percentage of his team’s total passes. France’s Gregory Alldritt is in second place, helping to link his team’s explosive forwards with their electric backs. At the bottom though are Scotland. Jonny Gray and Matt Fagerson have just nine passes each. As a player, looking at these numbers, you would be fairly confident that once a Scottish forward has their hands on the ball, they will carry it. That level of predictability can have negative consequences.
Each week we will call out one player whose value might not have been clear when looking at the traditional stats. This week the AWS advanced stats led us to pick Italian centre Juan Ignacio Brex. Brex made 12 tackles, third most for Italy and third most among backs this round behind only Finn Russell and Gael Fickou. Brex also hit 15 attacking rucks, third most for Italy and second most for a back this round behind Owen Farrell.