Smart Ball insights from Round 1 of the 2023 Guinness Six Nations

Jamie Ritchie lifts the Calcutta Cup as his teammates celebrate 4/2/2023
Anticipated to be perhaps the most competitive Six Nations to date, Round 1 certainly laid the foundation for a tightly-contested tournament.

Anticipated to be perhaps the most competitive Six Nations to date, Round 1 certainly laid the foundation for a tightly-contested tournament.

For the first time in the history of the competition, three away teams won with bonus points.

All matches bar Ireland’s decisive victory over Wales were one-score games, with Italy pushing France all the way and Scotland winning a third consecutive Calcutta Cup in a wellmatched fixture.

The insights provided by Sage and the Smart Ball make the fine margins which settled these games more tangible and accessible than ever.

Fans of five of the Six Nations would’ve been eagerly rooting for an Italian win after they went into half time just five points down to current tournament champions, France.

Inspired by the brilliance of prodigal talent Ange Cappuozzo, the Azzurri fortified their reputation after upset victories against Wales and Australia in 2022, showing early indications of the consistency which has been absent from their performances for all too long.

However, a famous victory narrowly eluded them.

A missed opportunity which the Italians will rue came in the 58th minute when France conceded one of their 18 penalties.

Tommaso Allan stepped up to punch the ball into the corner, managing a huge 32.8 metre territory gain to accelerate his team into the French 22 when Italy were behind by just one point.

The home side achieved more points per visit to the Les Blues’ red zone (2.6) in the match than vice versa (2.2), but on this occasion a knock on and subsequent Dupont clearance kick denied them the lead.

Of course, this is not to detract from the brilliance of the French; an example of which came with their third try, scored by debutant Ethan Dumortier.

Using penalty advantage as an opportunity to showcase his skill, Romain Ntamack kicked the ball 38.5 metres to incredible precision, giving the young winger 2.4 seconds of hang time to stride onto the ball.

Looking forward to their likely campaign-defining contest with Ireland this weekend, Les Blues will have to find a better balance between these potent attacks and their discipline without the ball.

However, the headline of the weekend was Scotland’s victory over England, which marked the first time that the Scots have beaten England on three consecutive occasions since 1971.

In this fixture too, Sage’s insights can identify the key trends in the match – one of which was territory conceded from penalty kicks.

Clearly a decisive factor in test rugby, England’s penalty count was a tolerable ten at the weekend, with Scotland conceding just one fewer.

However, Scotland exploited these opportunities far more effectively in terms of territory gain (the pure forward distance travelled by the ball).

They progressed 236 metres downfield as a result of penalty kicks – 91 more than their opposition.

The single largest territory gain was 41.1 metres, achieved by Finn Russell, who kicked a fixture-high 841 metres in total.

As well as disrupting England’s field position, this advantage created the platform for their first try.

Huw Jones’ try began with Russell making 35.3 metres from the boot, putting Scotland deep in the English half with just shy of 14 minutes on the clock.

Looking to take advantage of this opportunity, George Turner threw 19.2 metres over the top of the lineout – with a 96% spin efficiency – to find Jamie Ritchie and ignite a fast-paced Scottish attack which finished with the opening try of the afternoon.

Scotland repeatedly used the tactic of throwing the ball over the lineout against England, throwing four balls which travelled over 15 metres.

This approach is designed to eliminate the aerial competition in the lineout, whilst giving the oncoming player a good chance of crossing the gainline or distributing whilst the opposition forward pack is condensed on the blindside.

However, these advantages rely heavily on the skill of the hooker, which is best adjudged using the data provided by Sage and the Smart Ball.

The longest of the Scottish throws was also made by Turner: it travelled a huge 25.7 metres, necessitating a powerful 24.4 mile-per-hour throw from the hooker. Such ability yields results.

The pace and efficiency of Scotland’s attack when these opportunities arose certainly put England under pressure.

Their individual skill was also impressive, with Duhan van der Merwe’s finish epitomising all the ideals of a modern winger, and clever touches from players across the park adding a cutting edge to the Scotland attack.

One such moment came in the buildup to van der Merwe’s second – and match-winning – try.

Identifying an overlap, Scotland quickly moved the ball to the wide and found Richie Gray where one would normally expect Huw Jones. Max Malins knew the odds were against him and his side, so raced to put pressure on Gray.

Composed in the face of this, Gray executed this three-on-one with by moving the ball through his hands with a 0.2 second reload time – so fast that it was only achieved by one other player throughout the match.

Scotland’s ability to take such opportunities was the difference between the teams. However, England did hand counterattacking chances to their opposition: half of Scotland’s tries were scored from kick returns.

Duhan van der Merwe’s first try, which has seemingly already been immortalised as one of the best the Six Nations has seen, began with a Jack van Poortvliet box kick.

Van Poortvliet kicked the ball 38.7 metres with a hang time of 3.2 seconds, making the required kick chase speed to compete for the ball just over 27 miles per hour – just shy Usain Bolt’s estimated top speed when he broke the World Record for the 100 metres in 2009.

This meant that Kyle Steyn was able to catch and distribute to van der Merwe in the middle of the pitch under no pressure, also giving the giant British and Irish Lion a healthy run up to the English defensive line.

His finish was exceptional, but the initial opportunity was conceded by England. However, under new leadership, England did show signs of promise – particularly in attack – which could herald increasing competitiveness as the Six Nations progresses.

Marcus Smith was able to demonstrate his flair for Max Malins’ first try, getting 2.9 seconds of hang time on his 28.1 metre kick to allow England to cross the whitewash.

Particularly pleasing for England fans here was their team’s patience in attack: they scored in the 14th phase, creating an overlap which was then spotted by Smith.

Kyle Sinckler gave his fly-half the opportunity to put boot to ball – and produce a kick which travelled end over end with 97% efficiency, making 10.1 metres of forward progress – with a short 50 centimetre pass ‘out the back’.

Showcasing more of England’s interplay capabilities though, was Malins’ second try, when the ball passed through five pairs of hands before reaching the winger.

For context, England only strung together so many passes to score once in the whole of 2022.

Giving his team good initial width, van Poortvliet moved the ball 9.3 metres into the middle of the pitch.

Showing good awareness and soft hands, Ollie Chessum then passed to tight-five teammate Ellis Genge, who in turn found Steward.

The ball was in none of these players’ hands for more than a second, with Genge’s reload time registering just 0.6 seconds.

After receiving the ball from Steward, Lewis Ludlam patiently executed a two-on-one to release his winger, throwing the decisive 5.2 metre pass having committed the last defender.

England will hope to build on these glimmers of hope moving into their next fixture but will be wary of the burgeoning Italian threat – execution with ball in hand will be crucial for both teams, whether in terms of kicking or exploiting attacking opportunities.

Will Scotland be able to maintain their clinical edge in Round 2 against a frustrated Welsh side? These compelling narratives are of course complemented by the blockbuster quasi-final between France and Ireland, which will surely be a contest for the ages.

Through the insights that are presented by Sage, the Smart Ball is an unrivalled point of access to these tantalising clashes.