A journey into stats: changing styles

Date published: August 7 2018

A fortnight ago, on the basis of some fairly comprehensive data from the 2016 Six Nations, we went some way to proving that teams who perform their core skills better in games generally win, with tackling particularly important.

This week, we wanted to have a look at some other data from that tournament, particularly in the light this week of Eddie Jones’ lament that it is “…not (his) job to influence how the Premiership is played and I don’t think (the Premiership clubs) would welcome it.”

We’ve poked around for some comprehensive data and are rose-faced to admit we’ve not really found it, but there’s little doubt among observers that the Premiership has become a significantly more dynamic league than it used to be, aided to some extent by refereeing styles – also something Jones was not shy of looking critically at this week.

Nor is it a secret that England have become – or attempted to become – more dynamic themselves over the past two years since that 2016 triumph.

Yet that move towards being more open, while obviously following a normal team evolutional path where the team hopes to become one which can adapt to any situation, may have been one that moves England away from their winning style.

In the 2016 Six Nations, England had the least phases of possession of all the teams over their five matches, with Ireland having 164 more – that’s nigh on 33 phases of possession more per match, a huge number.

But it was how they used it that seemed to make the difference – remember, Ireland, with their hoard of possession, finished third in 2016, with Wales second.

Here’s a table showing how the teams used their phases of possession (the number of passes is from the previous breakdown or source of possession, and kick C means contestable kicks, kick T is territorial kicks):

Interestingly, the top two teams both kicked far more contestable ball than the rest – in England’s case, more than twice most of their counterparts.

Of course, this means little without a bit of context, so here’s a rough breakdown of what possession was used where on the pitch by the teams. Zone 1 is from a team’s own tryline to its 22, zone 2 from the 22 to the half, zone 3 from the half to the 22… You get the idea.

Here’s where the teams had their possession overall:

And here’s what they did with it:

There are a couple of patterns here. England was (excepting Wales) by some distance the two teams sticking up the most high balls from positions in their own half. Interestingly though, England was also the team with the largest share of its overall possession – a shade over 25 per cent – in zone 4, or the red zone, and absolutely one of the teams most happy to give it some width when it got there but the team least likely (Scotland were a close second) to give it width anywhere else.

So what’s to deduce? A contestable kicking game, if accurate, works – or it did in 2016. It certainly ensures a good amount of possession in the right areas of the pitch, a long-held coaching mantra.

We’d be willing to bet that the possession stats from the 2018 Six Nations were not dissimilar, but that Ireland would be far more effective at turning possession into points this time, or at least playing rugby in the right areas of the pitch.

But back to the beginning of this: Jones may be lamenting the way the Premiership is going or being officiated, and it may be fair enough. If English players are evolving into running game aficionados, they could be moving away from a winning formula – why wouldn’t he be unhappy!

In a fortnight’s time, the Rugby Championship starts, and we’ll be back with a look at some of the key data from the matches. In the meantime, keep the email suggestions coming in and we’ll have a look at what we might find buried in the forthcoming season’s matches.

Journey into stats compiled by Lawrence Nolan