Tries are being scored at an unprecedented rate in Super Rugby history, but what if I told you that high-volume attack is, as a tactic, the least efficient it has been in five years.
Now might be a good time to stop reading if, 1) you don’t want anything to challenge what you know about the game or, 2) you don’t have at least 10 minutes to concentrate, like a hungry bear poking a twig into a swarming beehive for honey.
I see that you have chosen wisely!
Over the past five seasons, I’ve tracked Super Rugby results based on what tactical preferences, or “trends”, are used by winning teams. The method has been to log the tactical decision-making of the winning team, in every league match during each of the Super Rugby seasons spanning 2013-2017.
The “decision-making” bit is important to remember. I have not measured the quality of the winning teams’ execution; I’ve measured whether they’ve chosen to Kick, Run or Tackle, while Penalties Conceded reflects just how disciplined and/or aggressive they’ve been in applying the combination of those tactics.
So, in each match, I tracked whether the winning team recorded a number of Kicks, Tackles, Carries and Penalties Conceded that was equal to, or more, than their opponents. The answer to that question is either Yes or No (Y or N) in each of the four categories.
At the end of each season, that collated data reveals the percentage of league matches that were won by the team that, for example, kicked more than their rivals. There were 120 league matches in 2014 – if 80 of those were won by the team that kicked more in each of those matches, Kicking would have a success rate of 66%.
The same calculation delivers a result for each of the remaining three categories.
Next, I tracked the combination of those trends in each match. Let’s say the Stormers beat the Bulls 25-17 and put up the following stats line:
In the above example, the Stormers are the winning team. They Kicked more, Tackled more, Carried less and conceded more Penalties than the Bulls. They would therefore register a collated “trend” for that match that reads as follows: YYNY
Obviously, contingent on variable match stats, there are 16 possible combinations of those four categories in matches that don’t end in a draw – such as YNYN, NNNN, YYYY.
Congrats on making it this far, soldier – you must really love your rugby!
At the end of each season, the total number of matches credited to each of the trends delivers a Win Rate for that trend. In 2014, 14 of 120 league matches were won by a team that adopted YNYN tactics (that’s Kick more, Tackle less, Run more, fewer Penalties Conceded) for a 12% Win Rate.
The purpose of this exercise was to identify which combination of tactical decisions is the most successful and, along the way, it showed how the expansion and dilution of Super Rugby in 2016 has created a tactical mirage.
Let’s start in 2013.
There were three draws in 2013 and, of the remaining 117 league matches, 88 were won by the team that kicked more (or at least as much) as their opponents.
That’s a 73% win rate (88/117), which made ‘Kicking More’ a bigger determiner of success than playing at home – 2013 homefield advantage: 67%.
Kicking More was also more effective, on its own, than Tackling More (56%), Running More (44%) and More Penalties Conceded (54%).
But how did Kicking More feature when viewed as part of a winning trend? Very well.
The shortest route to victory in 2013 was YYNY, or Kick More, Tackle More, Run Less, Concede More Penalties.
That trend accounted for 34 victories (highlighted in green), or 28% of all wins – twice as efficient as the next-best trend, YNYN (in yellow).
In other words, a team was twice as likely to win by Kicking More, Tackling More, Running Less and More Penalties Conceded, than by Kicking More, Tackling Less, Running More, Fewer Penalties Conceded.
The Kick and Tackle More combination remained dominant until this season:
As you can see below, while YYNY has remained the most successful trend over the past five years, it is this season at its lowest percentile (21%).
Conversely, the trend that Johnny Pundit prescribes as the way to go, namely Kick Less, Tackle Less, Run More, Fewer Penalties Conceded (or NNYN), is peaking in 2017:
This would seem to indicate that the experts who have been declaring that “the game has changed” are correct. Attack has overtaken defence and winning is now all about who is most committed to “playing ball-in-hand rugby”.
Here’s the kicker, if you’ll excuse the pun: as a tactical decision, Running More in 2017 is the weakest indicator of success it has been over the past five seasons.
As the SuperBru guys, and betting agencies will attest to, the results of Super Rugby matches are more predictable now than ever before. In my opinion, that’s mostly down to the expansion teams, added to the Super 12 since 2006, not having the quality player stocks to be taken seriously.
It’s relevant to this report because the gap in quality between the competition’s best and worst teams has grown rapidly over the past five seasons.
Let’s use an extreme example to showcase the gap in quality between a team like the Sunwolves and a New Zealand heavyweight, such as the Crusaders.
If the Stormers played the Gold Cup champions Rustenburg Impala, they would get away with playing any kind of rugby they like, such is the variance in quality. Even if the Stormers didn’t kick the ball once in 80 minutes, they would beat the club side almost without exception.
To negate this dilution effect on the statistics, I filtered the match data to exclude that which is attributed to contests between teams of equal quality. The best way to do this was to only factor in the trends from league matches between the teams that went on to reach the playoffs – for 2017, I’ve included the top eight teams (on log points) after Round 14.
In 2014, six teams made the playoffs: the Waratahs, Crusaders, Sharks, Brumbies, Chiefs, Highlanders. During the league phase, combinations of those teams met 18 times with the following results:
In those strength-versus-strength matches, Kick More hit 83% success rate (winning 15 of 18 matches), Tackle More won two thirds of those matches (66%), Run More won half of the time (50%), and More Penalties Conceded won 56% of matches.
Now let’s compare the unfiltered data with the strength-versus-strength numbers:
With the exception of 2013, the effectiveness of Tackle More increased significantly when the data was filtered for Strength-versus-Strength.
This year, Tackling More increased in effectiveness by 12% after the filter, from 46% to 58%. Meanwhile, Running More dropped 11% from 53% to 42%.
At 42% in 2017, Running More (against a team of equal ability) is the least efficient tactical decision it has been in five seasons. This flies in the face of the common belief that rugby has “evolved”, and that possession-hungry teams are rewarded while high-volume defence is an old-fashioned idea that doesn’t win games.
The trends data also rubbishes popular opinion. In strength-versus-strength matches, YYNY (Kick More, Tackle More, Run Less, More Penalties Conceded) jumps from 21% effectiveness to 32%.
Meanwhile, Johnny Pundit’s version of how the game should be played drops from 14% effectiveness – when teams like the Sunwolves and Cheetahs are in play – to 5% when it’s strength-versus-strength.
The conclusion is that, while teams are constantly finding new ways to kick, run and tackle, pro rugby matches are won, in the most part, by teams that limit their exposure to risk and capitalise on poor risk management by their rivals. This includes prioritising territory above possession, and defensive imperatives above attacking imperatives.
The increasing popularity of amateur rugby ideals in recent years, especially in Australia and South Africa, has only ramped up the rewards for those who are savvy enough not to play to the media, but to play to win.