Author: The Chase

Stepping back

Saturday’s epic World Cup semi-final between England and New Zealand did not want for defining moments, but the tackle of Sam Underhill on Kieran Read – technically superlative, physically dominant – which sent the All Blacks’ captain into reverse in the 56th minute felt particularly symbolic. It is easy to construct a compelling narrative around such a moment: the world champions set up in the attacking shape which had given them so much success with ball in hand in the tournament to date, but their talisman was floored by his younger counterpart in the blink of an eye.

In many ways, it seems a fitting end to this entire World Cup cycle for New Zealand, with its emotionally salient moments to this point – at least to observers and advocates of Northern Hemisphere rugby – being a 2016 loss to Ireland in Chicago, a drawn series against the Lions in 2017 and a 2018 loss to Ireland in Dublin. All are new experiences for the Kiwi side in the professional era, and all contribute to a framing of this as a period in which “the chasing pack has reeled them in“.

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2019 Rugby World Cup preview: New Zealand

2019 Rugby World Cup preview: New Zealand

We all know who the favourites are for the Rugby World Cup, and it’s not us.

After Ireland’s 19-10 victory over Wales at the Aviva Stadium in their final warm-up before heading to Japan vaulted them to the top of the World Rugby rankings for the first time, head coach Joe Schmidt was quick to disavow their significance. However, in view of the clear narrative shift that has taken hold in the world of rugby over the last twelve months, it is undoubtedly appropriate that the 2019 Rugby World Cup will begin with New Zealand – who remain the best-performing team across the entirety of the four-year cycle – in a position other than number 1 in the world.

In an excellent post after Wales briefly took top spot at the end of August, Dave Thomas studied the historical value of pre-tournament rankings – and, significantly, of teams’ ranking points – in predicting the outcomes of head-to-head tournament match-ups. While other prediction models continue to back New Zealand as World Cup winners over the field, in light of Thomas’ research it is difficult to interpret the outcome of a tournament in which the top three teams by ranking are separated by 1.34 ranking points (and the top five by 2.15 points) as anything other than an open question.

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Grounding the Beauden Barrett debate in context

The debate around Beauden Barrett’s hold on the All Blacks’ fly-half shirt – and the challenges by Damian McKenzie and Richie Mo’unga – is undoubtedly a valid one, with McKenzie having torn the French defence to pieces in their last test and Mo’unga putting together an exceptional string of postseason performances in Super Rugby.

However, two important factors are rarely noted in discussion of Barrett’s performance: the overall decline in performance of the Hurricanes in Super Rugby (particularly in defence), and the clear improvement in the areas of the fly-half’s game which were weakest when he assumed the starting jersey in 2016.

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Statistical analysis: New Zealand’s balanced attack

While there have been several hints that the All Blacks are planning an evolution of their attacking strategy as they begin their 2018 season, the underlying principles which have made their ball progression with ball in hand the most effective in international rugby during the current RWC cycle are unlikely to change. By examining data from New Zealand’s fixtures against Tier 1 opposition between 2016 and 2018 – and comparing it to the same data for the two other top teams in this period, England and Ireland – a picture emerges of the feature which sets the All Blacks apart when they attack with the ball.

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Statistical analysis: Leinster’s path to the Champions Cup final

Leinster head into Saturday’s European Rugby Champions Cup final with an unbeaten tournament record, and comfortably the best per-game points difference (+14.5) and try difference (+2.0) of all teams in the competition. This average margin of victory dwarfs that of their opponents Racing 92 – who have averaged +4.9 points and +0.8 tries per 80 mins on their way to a 6-2 record – and was achieved despite drawing three very strong opponents in the pool stage. Exeter, Glasgow and Montpellier each top their respective domestic league tables at the end of the 2017-18 regular season, but were defeated home and away by the Irish province; only one of Leinster’s six pool victories (Round 4 at home to Exeter) came by fewer than 7 points.

Saracens and Scarlets – defending Champions Cup and Pro12 champions respectively – were no more successful in their visits to Dublin, and after 11- and 14-point victories at the quarter- and semi-final stages only Racing stand in the way of a perfect season for Leinster in Europe’s premier club competition.

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