2018 Six Nations preview: different hemisperes, different styles?

Portrayals of Northern and Southern Hemisphere rugby are typically contrasting: the latter marked by ball movement, skill and attacking invention, and the former tightly contested and brutally physical. The pre-eminence of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa for much of the professional era often meant that this contrast of style was also framed as a contrast of quality, and that its natural consequence was the rest of the rugby world falling into step with such an approach to the game. This pre-eminence, however, has faltered for both sporting and economic reasons, and with it the notion that style is a necessary prerequisite of substantive performance in international rugby. In the wake of the 2015 World Cup, the home nations in particular have been resurgent, and their success has been a result of honing traditional strengths: ball retention, breakdown work, defence and tactical kicking. On top of these foundations, individual skill levels have improved as a result of sustained exposure to a high level of coaching and a focus on all-round player development at all levels.

These increased skill levels have undoubtedly had a positive effect on the quality of attacking play in European rugby, and at international level both Wales and Scotland in particular have expressed publicly a desire to ‘modernise’ and change the way they look to play with ball in hand. Nevertheless, an examination of the Six Nations in comparison to other competitions during this World Cup cycle – as will be seen below – suggests that such deeply entrenched stylistic differences have sustained, and that higher skill levels are being applied within a markedly difference game structure to the international game in the Southern Hemisphere. This has important implications for test match rugby in the long-term: looking further ahead into the future of the international game, the apparently inevitable movement towards Northern economic and on-field dominance will have a clear effect on the nature of the on-field product. However, this also raises interesting questions in the context of the 2018 Six Nations championship, which begins on Saturday 3rd February: in particular, whether changes to breakdown laws will negate any such attempts and push Northern Hemisphere rugby even further down its current path, or the attacking ‘philosophy’ espoused by Gregor Townsend will result in Scotland truly departing from the European model.

NB: the following graphics display ESPN data for test matches during 2016 and 2017. ‘Five Nations’ refers to all tests in the period contested between the home nations and France (i.e. including England vs. Wales in May 2016), while ‘Tri Nations’ refers all tests between New Zealand, Australia and South Africa (i.e. including the third Bledisloe Cup test in each year). ‘Six Nations’ and ‘Rugby Championship’ refer to each set of fixtures above, plus fixtures also involving Italy and Argentina respectively.  ‘June Internationals’ and ‘November Internationals’ refer to fixtures contested between these ten teams in the traditional outbound tour windows, in addition to the 2017 Lions series.

In simple terms, there is a clear difference in scoring patterns between Six Nations and Rugby Championship rugby: Rugby Championship fixtures average 1.8 more tries – and 9.8 more points – per 80 minutes than Six Nations fixtures across 2016 and 2017. This difference is even more pronounced when matches involving Italy and Argentina – the weakest team in their respective competitions – are removed from the data:

Dashboard 1-2.png

As can be seen above, ‘Tri Nations’ matches in 2016-17 average 2.9 more tries – and 12.3 more points – per 80 minutes than matches between the traditional ‘Five Nations’. It is also striking that in these ‘Five Nations’ fixtures in the period, England are the only team to have recorded a win away from home; this trend is certainly important to bear in mind when Ireland travel to Paris in Round 1 and London in Round 5, although England’s ability to succeed on the road may make a Scottish victory at Murrayfield in Round 3 less likely.

In addition to a tendency for lower-scoring matches, Six Nations fixtures – and those not involving Italy especially – show a clear difference in structure to Rugby Championship fixtures. The former are marked by a much higher number of carries per 80 minutes than the latter, while the latter see more carries for every ruck or maul formed:

Dashboard 2-2.png

As outlined above, the data appears to support a stylistic distinction between the two hemispheres. Looking ahead to this year’s Six Nations tournament, it is worth noting that matches involving Scotland under Gregor Townsend have averaged 1.32 carries for every breakdown. Five out of his six matches to date, however, have come against Southern Hemisphere opposition, and this stands as an obvious caveat to the drawing of any conclusion that he has been able to successfully impose a clear change in structure; as in other respects, his 2018 campaign will illuminate this more clearly. Moreover, this year’s tournament will be the first played under new breakdown law trials, which have had the effect of discouraging competition at the ruck by the defensive side, and this is a change which – while precipitating higher ball-in-play time and quicker ball – has generally resulted in more crowded defensive lines and may counteract attempts to implement a more transition-based approach.

A look at a number of indicators of attacking efficiency again shows clear differences between Northern and Southern Hemisphere competition. The graphs below show (i) average clean break % by competition, plotted against average offload %, and (ii) average number of passes per carry, plotted against average number of metres per carry:

Dashboard 3-2

As we would expect from the scoring patterns identified previously, Six Nations fixtures see a lower rate of clean breaks and a lower average of metres per carry; again, these figures decrease when Italy’s fixtures are removed. Rates of clean breaks by competition correlate extremely strongly with offloading rates, while there is reasonable positive correlation between average metres per carry and average passes per carry.

It is notable that the high average number of passes per carry in November fixtures appears not to fit the pattern: fixtures contested by European sides against their Southern Hemisphere counterparts in Europe see on average a higher number of passes per carry than Rugby Championship fixtures, while average metres per carry remains in line with expectation. This anomaly is largely driven by the attacking approach of Wales in November fixtures in both 2016 and 2017: they averaged 1.43 passes per carry across five matches against Tier 1 opponents (19% of the total November sample), although this resulted in only 2.9 metres per carry and a clean break rate of 7.8%. This certainly bears out the narrative around Warren Gatland’s modernising approach, in particular in this past November series where there was a clear focus on passing interplay between tight forwards off 9; however, it did not translate into increased efficiency, even against SANZAAR defences which (other than New Zealand) have been typically porous over the period.

It is also interesting that this changed focus in November 2016 (1.41 passes per carry across two matches) did not translate into a change of approach in the Six Nations: they largely reverted to type, with an average of 1.24 passes per carry in their four ‘Five Nations’ fixtures in 2017. Whether this pattern persists – or whether Gatland is able to sustain this change in focus – will be one of the most interesting trends to track as the 2018 tournament kicks off; Wales’ Round 1 clash with Scotland will be a fascinating one, as it will be an opportunity to see whether both sides will attempt to move away from the traditional European style.

An examination of one important aspect of defensive style provides some insight as to why these markers of attacking efficiency are lower across the board in European competition:

Dashboard 4-2

The graph above maps the ratio of tackles attempted to carries made against the frequency with which a carrier is denoted as having beaten a defender with ball in hand. The correlation which emerges makes intuitive sense in rugby terms: a higher number of tackle attempts for each carry made would likely result from narrower spacing of defenders, and this in turn would make it harder for a carrier to use footwork to create separation or power to break a defender’s tackle.

We would also expect this stylistic difference to have a significant effect on offloading rates, as tackles with multiple defenders wrapping up a single ball carrier make it much more difficult to create extension in contact for an effective offload. This type of interior defence can be put under pressure by effective passing by forwards before contact, as New Zealand’s dismantling of the Lions’ blitz in the first test showed; this is one area of attack in which the All Blacks are truly peerless. A player’s pre-carry alignment, running angle after the catch and ability to sell a potential pass to a support runner on his outside by carrying the ball in two hands are the keys to executing this strategy effectively, and no other international forwards currently come close to Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane and Kieran Read in this regard.

Wales clearly attempted to implement a comparable form of pre-contact passing in their November 2017 fixture against New Zealand; however, whether they sustain this approach into the Six Nations is again open to question – as noted previously. This is also an area where Scotland are not yet close to elite: they have generally averaged a low number of passes per carry (1.20) and metres per carry (3.1) over the past two seasons – with little change (1.25 and 3.2) so far under Townsend – and likely need to develop a more effective tight carrying approach to complement their wide passing game if they are to develop into one of the international game’s top attacks.

There thus appears to be clear evidence of substantial stylistic differences between Northern and Southern Hemisphere test rugby, and the changes to the breakdown laws may push the Six Nations even further along its current path. What is fascinating, however, is that there are a number of teams who are threatening to attempt to break the mould, and this year’s tournament will begin to provide evidence as to whether Gregor Townsend in particular is able to bring a more transition-based approach to bear in European rugby. In addition to Townsend’s Scotland, Wales’ glimpses of a more passing-based approach and the continued emergence of Ireland’s skilled young forwards mean that – for the first time in a number of years – it is the attacking side of the ball that is most intriguing as the 2018 championship kicks off.

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