Category: Statistical analysis

What to expect from Super Rugby Aotearoa

What to expect from Super Rugby Aotearoa

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The sun rises in spite of everything. After weeks of deprivation and uncertainty, hope has appeared on the horizon – or, at least, to those European rugby fans willing to set their alarms early on coming weekend mornings.

Whether you’re a Super Rugby regular who has risen ritualistically for years to watch the likes of Larkham, Carter and du Preez or a casual fan of the sport, the advent of Super Rugby Aotearoa is a heady prospect. The ten-week double-round-robin competition featuring the five New Zealand franchises – the Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes – kicks off next Saturday at 6:05am (UK time), with a number of interesting rule variations.

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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?

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Going forward

Only a few months have passed since the end of the World Cup, but at the outset of the 2020 Super Rugby season – with some of the most familiar names of the last decade absent from the field of play, and without the long shadow cast by Steve Hansen as international head coach – there has already been significant change in the New Zealand rugby landscape.

After placing the national team’s performance over the last four years in its context, it is necessary to look in more detail at the specifics of their 2019 World Cup campaign and at lower levels of the game in the country. Where do the All Blacks go from here?

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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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Statistical analysis: New Zealand’s selection decisions in the back row

With Kieran Read yet to recover from back surgery, New Zealand face the prospect of starting the 2018 season as they began and ended 2017: without their talismanic captain and number 8. Ardie Savea was his replacement in last June’s opening test against Samoa, while Luke Whitelock was given the start in the final match of the year at the Millenium Stadium; the Highlanders forward appears to be an early front-runner for the jersey in 2018 along with the uncapped Akira Ioane, who made clear strides as part of the All Blacks’ touring squad last November and has brought an improved level of performance in Super Rugby so far this season.

Whitelock and Ioane will face off directly in Friday’s clash between the Blues and Highlanders at Eden Park, and the contrast between their respective styles of play will be evident. Examining the role that Read has fulfilled for New Zealand in the current World Cup cycle – and how this role has changed over the course of his international career – provides an insight into what may expected of his replacement, and may give an indication as to which back row combination Steve Hansen and his selectors will opt for in June.

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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.

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Halfway to the 2019 Rugby World Cup

The analysis of international rugby is laden with danger. Fixtures are infrequent (on average, Tier 1 nations have played fewer than 12 games per season across 2016 and 2017), yet the traditional depiction of test matches – imbued with a deep emotional resonance – lends itself to the inference of significant meaning from single data points. A loss by New Zealand in a test match is attributed with significance that a loss by Saracens in a Premiership game is not, because of the sparsely populated environment in which it stands. For another data point on a club or franchise, it may only be necessary to wait another seven days; months can pass between internationals. The degree of light which a single game can shed on the underlying abilities of the respective teams is the same in each scenario, but the difference in the first case is that an additional data point to confirm or deny a suspected trend is usually not far away; analysis can be measured and sceptical, knowing that in a short time a little more information will become available, rather than conclusive and emphatic.

Two years into a World Cup cycle there is sufficient information available to review the performance of each team, with Tier 1 nations having played between 20 and 29 test matches each. What follows is an attempt to establish not only which teams have been successful, but also the tactical approach which they have employed in order to be successful.

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