612 kicks in play, 126 restarts, 3,398 passes. The 2023 Guinness Six Nations is over. Ireland are Grand Slam champions.
An ever-present companion through the trials and tribulations of the Championship, the insights drawn from the Smart Ball by Sage fully animate Ireland’s quality. Reigning World Rugby Player of the Year, Josh van der Flier, is an archetypal example of the Irish forward: dynamic and skilful.
Van der Flier made as many passes as any other forward during the Championship, a total of 30. Many of these were the openside distributing from a lineout. A regular ploy used by the men in emerald was to set a dummy maul and then have coiled-spring Van der Flier break and move the ball.
In the final match of the tournament – a Dublin, St. Patrick’s weekend fairytale for the home side – this tac, used at four of Ireland’s 13 lineouts, unlocked a resilient English defence to accelerate Ireland’s series-defining victory and put them in the lead. Peeling from the maul, van der Flier made a deft 1.2 metre pass back on the inside to unleash Sheehan – another player blessed with back-like pace and guile.
Against England, van der Flier’s passes in this scenario varied between 1.2 and 7.5 metres, 8.7 and 24.4 mph, a mixture of spiral and end-over-end passes. His range of passes is enviable and has allowed him to make sharp decisions on the gainline to advance the Irish attack. Seven of Ireland’s 20 tries in the tournament originated from the lineout – van der Flier has been a crucial cog in this machine.
Whilst van der Flier is exceptional on the international scene, he is in good company in the Irish squad in terms of his handling ability; lest us forget Caelan Doris’ 30mph, 11.1 metre try assist in Round 2.
The Irish squad is blessed with barnstorming ball-playing talents in the pack, which proved superior to all comers this season.
In terms of mercurial talents in the Six Nations, though, Finn Russell – virtually synonymous with this tag – stands out from the crowd. Where Ireland were methodical and accurate, Scotland were ambitious and creative in this year’s Six Nations.
The Scots averaged the most passing distance in the Championship (1,064 metres per match), the highest average pass distance (7.5 metres), and the fastest average pass speed (22.2 mph) – an attacking identity based on getting the ball wide, fast.
Russell has cemented himself as the bedrock of this attack. Individually, he finished the tournament with the highest average passing distance of a fly half (9.1 metres) and 1,008 passing metres in total – more than double that of any other Six Nations 10. However, only more specific metrics provided by Sage can indicate the brilliance of some of Russell’s touches.
Perhaps Russell’s finest match in a Scotland jersey came against Wales in Round 3 [insert link to Round 3 article]. The maverick playmaker was instrumental in four Scottish tries, producing a crossfield dink – which travelled 25.5 metres in the air, 4.5 metres forward – and an offload delivered after 2.5 seconds of manipulating the opposition defence [insert link]. A true triple threat, Russell also finished the tournament as the fly-half who has made the most carries and metres with ball in hand.
Russell also renewed his symbiosis with centre Huw Jones, who acted as a prominent second distributor for Scotland and scored more tries than any other centre in the Championship (three). Jones’ average spin efficiency was 91.2% – the highest of a Six Nations midfielder – and his average passing distance was 9.9 metres.
This axis was the spine of the Scottish attack, giving them the width to unleash their talents out wide. One suspects the future success of this team will be heavily correlated to the form of these key players.
A player whose form has been reliably excellent in his international career is the indomitable Antoine Dupont. Able to influence the game from scrum-half in often unorthodox ways, he captained France to their largest ever victory over England – the crown jewel of their impressive campaign.
Dupont is all action, but also an astute tactical player, the engine of France’s territorial kicking. His average territory gain of 39.9 metres per kick was second only to Rhys Webb in the tournament. He alone accounted for 33.5% of Les Blues total territory gain.
However, alongside this pragmatism, he can also be the spark that lights the touch paper for the French attack. Another fine example of this was the pearl of a pass that Dupont delivered to the prodigious Damian Penaud to score France’s first try of the match. In the air for two seconds, Dupont’s wonder pass travelled 20.5 metres at 24 mph to sail into the winger’s breadbasket.
This is hardly the first instance of Dupont exploiting space unreachable to his peers. Will his dominance on the global stage continue to grow? The explosiveness of the French backline was made abundantly clear throughout the tournament. Can anybody stop France in England-demolishing form?
For the Six Nations, focus now shifts decidedly towards the Rugby World Cup. With the two premier teams in the world calling this Championship home, Sage’s analysis could unveil the key to the fortunes of these teams on the game’s biggest stage.