In the blink of an eye, we are over halfway through the 2023 Six Nations.
At this stage, teams have demonstrated their playing identities to opponents and fans alike, all that remains to be seen is who puts their best foot forward in the final two rounds of the Championship.
Can anybody stop Ireland? Who will win the three-horse race for second? Will Italy overcome Wales in consecutive Six Nations?
As ever, the Smart Ball insights provided by Sage can cast a probing eye on each nations’ progress in the championship so far.
Ireland have been dominant in the early exchanges of the tournament, with their play characterized by fast rucks and clinical attack. Ireland have averaged the shortest average pass distance in the Championship so far – just 6.4 metres.
This is because they commit few numbers to the ruck – meaning more attackers on their feet – and have forwards as well as backs with great handling skills.
Bundee Aki’s try against Italy was a perfect illustration of the exceptional skill level of the Irish forwards.
Starting from a ruck in the middle of the pitch, Craig Casey fired a 21.9 mph hour pass to James Ryan.
Getting the call from his fly half, Ryan then delivered a 1.5 metre pass after just 0.4 seconds of reload time to Ross Byrne.
This pull-back pass – often used by Ireland to go wide – travelled a full metre backwards to find the second line of attackers.
Byrne in fact used a similar pass to Stuart McCloskey immediately afterwards, making full use of Ireland’s layers in attack.
McCloskey then passed to Josh van der Flier – the third pass in this move to travel fewer than three metres – who took the ball to the line and released James Lowe on the outside after 1.7 seconds of reload time. Lowe then passed back inside to Aki to finish.
The ball reached the edge in 4.1 seconds, passing through five pairs of hands, two of which were forwards.
The individual skill level involved in, and organisation of, Ireland’s attack stands them out from the crowd.
Scotland have entertained in the tournament so far, showing impressive displays of flair. Their modus operandi in this tournament has been moving the ball wide regularly and effectively.
In fact, they are the only team in the Championship, who have made more than 1,000 passing metres in the last two rounds (1,074 and 1,087 respectively).
Finn Russell, whose abilities have been illuminated by Sage and the Smart Ball extensively, is the heartbeat of this Scottish offensive.
He has the longest average passing distance (9.6 metres) and the fastest average pass speed (22.3 mph) of any Six Nations fly half.
His mercurial talent has been just as evident from the boot.
For example, trying to give Scotland a platform to stage a comeback against France in Round 3, Russell plunged three penalty kicks to touch to within five metres of the opposition tryline: 4.2, 4.3, and 4.7 metres from the corner flag; no other player managed to get closer in the round.
The longer Russell’s flurry of form lasts, the better Scotland’s chances in the remainder of the tournament.
The Six Nations so far has been a period of transition for England.
However, they are still trying to apply a pressure game on their opposition. They have averaged more kicking metres per match than any other team (1,024) and more territory gain (908).
To exploit this territorial advantage, the English set-piece has markedly improved. A Championship-high 69% of England’s lineouts have been thrown to the front so far.
However, they have won all but one of these 29 lineouts for a success rate of 97%.England have relied on a variety of playmakers in the backline so far in the Six Nations.
Impressive under the high ball against Wales in particular, Freddie Steward’s boot has also been a valuable asset.
Of the top six territory gains from kicks so far, Steward is responsible for three, which pushed England 54.6, 54, and 52.6 metres downfield at various stages of their campaign.
Jack van Poortvliet has also been important in implementing England’s territorial strategy, having made 715 metres of territory from the boot.
However, this side is developing its attack, indicated by the selection of Alex Mitchell who gives England good width as an alternative to van Poortvliet’s more boot-centric game: his average passing distance of 8.9 metres is 60 centimetres longer than his teammate and the highest of any scrum-half in the competition.
How will this England team fare against the stern tests of France and Ireland?
So far in this tournament, France have relied on moments of brilliance from their superstars to drive their attack and a more collective and gritty approach to defence. In terms of the latter, the benefits of France’s discipline without the ball have certainly showed in terms of territory.
On average, France have conceded the least territory from penalty kicks in the Six Nations so far, just 89 metres per match.
As for individual brilliance, what better example than Antoine Dupont. Against Scotland in Round 3, the precision and vision of his passing directly contributed to two French tries.
For their first try – finished by Romain Ntamack – Dupont fired a zippy 8.5 metre, 23.5 mph pass which rotated through the air 5.5 times per second.
The speed and precision of this pass exploited the French overlap and got them on the scoreboard. Just a few minutes later, Dupont initiated an edge-to-edge attack with a huge – only teammate Damien Penaud has thrown a pass as far – 24.9 metre pass which cut out virtually the entire Scottish defence.
This pass travelled at 32 mph, cutting through the space with a 97% spin efficiency and rotating at an incisive 500 rpm – getting the ball wide quickly and efficiently.
Moving fluidly on the ball, three more French passes put Ethan Dumortier in the corner once more.
When Les Blues find their rhythm, they are explosive.
Italy came into the 2023 Six Nations with an insatiable appetite to play. Blessed with a variety of young attacking talents, the Azzurri have backed their skill and chosen to keep the ball in hand wherever possible.
So much so, they have thrown more passes per match than any other team (138) and averaged the least territory gain (583 metres).
In Round 3, Italy welcomed the return of Paolo Garbisi, who reminded onlookers of his innate playmaking abilities. These were on show early in Italy’s match against Ireland, when Garbisi span an 11.4 metre, 24.6 mph pass to beat the Irish defence on the outside and assist a break which led to a try.
He also slotted all his kicks at goal – even managing a 99% spin efficiency with one – and showed sharp decision making in the face of the oncoming defence, with an average reload time of 0.61 seconds on his passes.
Another feather in his cap was his work at the restart. The average hang time of Garbisi’s restarts was 3.8 seconds in Round 3, second only to Stuart Hogg (four seconds) in the tournament so far.
Two of his restarts even clocked the longest recorded hang times of the competition (4.5 and 4.2 seconds).
Sage and the Smart Ball were certainly impressed by the prodigy’s return, is he the man to steer Italy to famous victories in the remainder of the tournament?
Wales are sat at the bottom of the Six Nations table, but after an improved performance against England in Round 3, will be targeting Italy in Round 4 as an opportunity to get back to winning ways. Key to this will be the control their halfbacks can exert on the game.
Wales have made the fewest metres per kick in the Championship so far, averaging 18.9 metres per kick.
However, they are placed third in the table for average kicking distance per match (880), demonstrating that they are kicking often but kicking short.
For instance, Tomos Williams made as many box kicks as any other player in Round 3 (14, = Jack van Poortvliet), but Wales still struggled to manufacture the field position to score a try – barring Louis Rees-Zammit’s interception which rewarded the Welsh defence.
Their discipline has also meant that they have conceded a joint-championship high 190 metres from penalty kicks, only matched by Italy.
An adjustment in their kicking game may be necessary to give them a more promising attacking platforms in advantageous areas of the pitch.
However, a positive for Wales and Williams personally was the tempo which they created in attack at times against England.
The Welsh ground reload time – the time taken to deliver the ball from the base of the ruck – was an average of 0.91 seconds, the fastest of the round.
Williams alone made four passes with a ground reload time of 0.2 seconds, giving Wales a more realistic chance of converting their opportunities.
A huge onus then falls on the incumbent Welsh 9 to prioritise territory gain and keep of the game high in attack.
Metrics such as these provided by Sage are truly demonstrative of how the Smart Ball can help advise teams on how to improve their performances.