Statistical analysis: why have the Sharks been successful in New Zealand?

Statistical analysis: why have the Sharks been successful in New Zealand?

This morning’s win over the Highlanders in Dunedin was the Sharks’ 5th – to go with 1 draw – in their last 10 Super Rugby matches against Kiwi opponents (spanning the 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons); 2 of those wins (and the single draw) have come away from home.

The Durban side have consistently matched up well with New Zealand franchises over the last few years: their average points margin in games on NZ soil over that period is +1.7 per 80 mins, with other overseas teams averaging -11.6 points per game across 2018-20. (They have also been significantly better than average at home against Kiwi teams. Their average margin in those games is +9.0; against all other touring franchises in Durban, it is +1.8.)

How have they achieved this success?

Today’s win was an outlier in that the Sharks scored more tries than their opposition (5 to 3): in their 6 games on NZ soil in the last 3 seasons, they have been outscored by 4.2 tries to 3.0 on average.  (This try difference of -1.2 per game reverses in Durban, where they have outscored Kiwis by 3.5 tries to 2.3 on average.)

To achieve their average points margin of +1.7 in these games, they have relied on outscoring NZ opponents with the boot: the Durban franchise have averaged 18.0 points per game directly from kicks at goal – despite fewer conversion attempts – compared to 10.5 points kicked by their opponents. (This held in this morning’s game, where they outkicked the Highlanders by 17 points to 5; however, they had 5 conversion opportunities to their opponent’s 3.) Their win over the Blues at Eden Park in 2018 is the clearest example of this: both teams scored 6 tries each, but the Sharks ran out 40-63 winners, and Robert du Preez recorded the highest individual points total in a single game by any player since Super Rugby expanded beyond a 14-team tournament.

Frequent kicking from hand in open play has also been a major factor in their successful away performances: in those 3 wins or draws, they kicked from hand once every 2.6 carries. In contrast, this frequency falls to once every 6.1 carries in their 3 losses on NZ soil over this period.

From a tactical perspective, the Durban franchise are clearly happy to give the ball away: as a consequence of this high frequency of kicking, they contributed only 35.7% of all of the carries made across the Blues win in 2018, their 2019 draw in Christchurch and this morning’s win in Dunedin. (Today, they kicked once every 1.9 carries and made 40.5% of the game’s total carries.)

When they have had the ball in these games, they have kept their attack narrow. While in their 3 losses against Kiwi opponents since the 2018 season they completed 1.18 passes for every carry, in their wins and draw they have averaged 1.01. They have nevertheless been more efficient in their progression upfield with ball in hand in their positive results, making clean breaks on 12.0% of their carries (11.0% in losses) and averaging 4.6 metres per carry (3.6m).

Their ball-in-hand attack was even more effective against the Highlanders today: while only making 0.89 passes per carry, they achieved a clean-break rate of 16.1% and carried for 5.9m on each carry on average.

What left the Highlanders exposed – and led to them being outscored in terms of tries as well as points – was the rate at which they conceded turnovers: this happened once every 12.2 touches in Round 2 of 2020, compared to 1 every 17.6 on average during 2019 season (i.e., they turned the ball over more than 1.4x as often as last year).

They turned up at Forsyth Barr and tried to play – putting width on the ball with an average of 1.33 passes per carry – but made most of their errors in space (14 of their 20 turnovers were conceded by their starting backline) and got punished by the Sharks’ lethal outside backs:

Aphelele Fassi, Madosh Tambwe and Makazole Mapimpi had 4 tries and 2 try assists between them; they also contributed 7 of the team’s 10 clean breaks, and 51.6% of the team’s total metres made (on 32.3% of the team’s total carries).

This Sharks performance – and the others like it in recent seasons – was similar in certain aspects to the Springboks’ World Cup final performance last year: a focus on regular contestable kicking, comfort without the ball and opportunities taken in transition by skilled and athletic back three players. By minimising risk and adapting tactics to the strengths of their player group, they are helping South African rugby establish a clear blueprint for success.

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