Smart Ball insights from Round 4 of the 2023 Guinness Six Nations

Before the weekend’s rugby, underdog wins for Scotland, England, and Italy in Round 4 may not have been likely, but were certainly not out of the realms of possibility.

Before the weekend’s rugby, underdog wins for Scotland, England, and Italy in Round 4 may not have been likely, but were certainly not out of the realms of possibility.

All three were at home, Scotland have been in their best form in recent memory, and this was the prime opportunity for Italy to claim their first victory of the Championship against an out-of-form Welsh team, having beaten them a year prior.

However, the history that was written was the antipode of this narrative.

This was emphatically the case for England vs France. A record home defeat, a record Le Crunch victory for the French, the list of records goes on. As haphazard as England’s performances of late have been, this is an astonishing achievement for Les Blues.

Beating England at home – particularly during the Six Nations – is hard, let alone producing such an imposing performance. Between Round 2 of the 2012 Six Nations and Round 5 of the 2018 Six Nations, England did not lose at home… not once.

On the other side of this fixture, this was the first time since 2007 – against Namibia in the Rugby World Cup – that three French players have scored two tries, testament to their genuine potency last weekend.

Able to elucidate the brilliance of the French performance, insights provided by Sage come to the fore once more.

The French performance was punctuated by brilliance – notably their ability to identify and attack space – but was built on a strong tactical game. No team has made more kicking metres in a single match in this Six Nations than France in Round 4, when they made a total of 1,341 metres; 1,185 of these metres were territory gain.

Individually, Romain Ntamack made three kicks which made more than 50 metres of territory. France were particularly punishing when England conceded penalties, with England conceding more territory from penalty kicks to touch than any other team at the weekend (234 metres in total).

France’s third try was a great example of this territorial pressure. Two England penalties allowed France to weather an attack in their 22 and regain territory after losing a lineout.

Two Ntamack kicks – which amounted to a total of 66 metres of forward progress – allowed France to recover from these setbacks and occupy a promising position in the English half. This is precisely what is meant by a compound error from England, which France exploited to gain advantageous field position.

An ambitious 19.3 metre pass from Jack van Poortvliet was then fumbled by Alex Dombrandt, giving France the scrum which saw Aldritt – who won the original jackal penalty – feed Ollivon with a short 1.6 metre pass to score France’s third.

Kick long, pass short seems to have been the modus operandi for Les Blues against England. They registered the second-fewest passing metres of the round, moving the ball just 590 metres with their passing.

They also averaged the least distance per pass in Round 4 (6.1 metres). Not only were France selective with when they played with the ball – making fewer passes and opting for field position – they trusted the power and skill of their forwards to exploit opportunities.

This latter point seems key to the identity of the Championship’s, and the world’s, best teams: Sage has previously drawn similar conclusions about the strengths of Ireland’s performances. For example, Thibaut Flament capitalised on his team’s momentum, his brute strength, and a short 3.8 metre pass to score his first of the day.

In the 74th minute, with an astonished Twickenham under the cloud of a 38-point deficit, England again found their attack in the French half stifled by a French player pilfering the ball at the ruck.

Considering we have already identified a try which involved a steal at the breakdown, which also wasn’t among the two they scored directly from turnovers, it is clear that the dominance of Les Blues at the breakdown was also decisive in this victory.

After the penalty was awarded, Melvyn Jaminet sacrificed accuracy for distance and missed touch despite a 49.1 metre territory gain. However, Freddie Steward mitigated Jaminet’s error, kicking his clearance out on the full by just 30 centimetres. This gave France a lineout 24.8 metres into the England half which would prove to be the platform for perhaps their most impressive try of the afternoon.

The Smart Ball has shown in vivid detail in this tournament – England’s try in Round 1 for example – how impressively teams can move the ball wide. For Penaud’s second score, France moved with elegant pace and precision, demonstrating their skill level across the pitch. They moved the ball 56.2 metres, through six pairs of hands, with Jaminet providing the incisive 10.2 metre, 31.8 mph final pass for Penaud to cross over: coast to coast in just 7.3 seconds.  Yoram Moefana, who was the final pivot of this move, moved the ball through his hands in just 0.4 seconds – sharp for a player travelling at full tilt.

The quality of France’s handling was of course mirrored with the imagination behind their attacking kicks. Two memorable kicks came from Antoine Dupont and Gael Fickou. For Thibault Flament’s second try, Dupont was far from concerned about stifling his side’s momentum by putting boot to ball, rather he identified space behind the ruck and cleverly used his boot to exploit it. His kick was deliberately short (17.8 metres) and had little hang time (2.3 seconds) to allow chasing players to beat their opposition to the ball.

The ball rotated end over end at a rate of 5.8 rps, ensuring a favourable bounce for Ntamack to tap the ball 2.1 metres to Flament who again demonstrated his power to drag English bodies over the line.

Another fine example of attacking space came from Fickou. One of the two French tries that came directly from turnover ball, Fickou saw a lurking Penaud and was quicker than England to react to the turnover.

His 36.9 metre kick – which had a hang time of just 2.6 seconds – found its target effectively, with Penaud using his pace to score an electric first phase try.

Les Blues’ performance against England is the most dominant and impressive of the Six Nations so far. Their ability to steal the ball gave them both territory and immediate attacking opportunities, exploited with ruthless genius from the virtuoso talents in the French backline – talents seen in a new dimension thanks to Sage’s analysis.

Will they down another home nation in similar fashion this weekend? Can Italy cross the line against a Scotland team without Russell and Hogg? Is there any hope for England of denying an Irish grand slam?

Only time will tell, but every side needs a big performance with attention shifting ever more keenly on the Rugby World Cup.