Lions stats point to at least two obvious back row Test selections
Context is everything when understanding statistics in rugby, given the endless variables and the often small sample size of players in any given comparison. It’s very easy to over-egg more or less redundant statistics and underestimate the role of luck and less obvious variables like injuries, which are effectively unavailable to the average punter with an interest in the sport.
On this tour the back row unit has been Gatland’s biggest selection headache, the New Zealander admitting as much following victory over the Stormers. “I don’t go in with preconceived ideas. I try to let that develop and allow the players to have that opportunity to put their hands up,” said Gatland. “Sometimes it’s about looking at the players and their numbers and the stats and sometimes it’s about having a gut feeling about certain players and combinations.
“And that process will really take place, even though I’ve already started to think about it, over the next couple of days. There are going to be some tight calls with regard to the make-up of the back three. Also the loose forwards and how that mix is going to look.
“They’re probably the tightest calls that we’ve got to make in terms of getting the balance right in those positions.”
Former Lions nine Matt Dawson selected Sam Simmonds as a wildcard selection at No.8. It’s an intriguing choice, especially given that all but one of his five tour appearances have come from the bench.
“To have a back row like Sam Simmonds who is such a threat, who can step and score and pass and link as well as compete out wide gives you a completely different dimension. Gatland has given him loads of run-outs,” wrote Dawson in his BBC column. “I feel that he has wanted to give him a full examination to see if he could be his diamond in the rough.”
Simmonds is an interesting talking point, even if he is long odds for a starting Test role, but his series statistics paint a flattering image of the Exeter Chiefs star.
MINUTES PLAYED AND METRES
The Gallagher Premiership record-breaking try-scorer has been used somewhat sparingly by Gatland. As it stands coming into Test week, Simmonds has played 165 minutes, with only Tom Curry (164 minutes) and Josh Navidi (140 minutes) having clocked up less time on the pitch.
Despite this, Simmonds ball-carrying stats compare favourably against all of his back row counterparts. His 124 metres made is the second most of any loose forward, with only Jack Conan making more metres – 137 metres inside 212 minutes.
Third place goes to Tadhg Beirne making 117 metres from 251 minutes and nearly twice as many carries (20 against 11 for Simmonds), although Beirne can boast a higher gainline success rate of 62.5 per cent, compared to Simmonds’ 47.8 per cent.
The context to this of course is how Gatland is deploying Simmonds ie; later in games against tired defenders. Fellow No.8 Conan and blindside Beirne have both started three of the four matches they’ve been involved in.
Both Conan and Beirne’s volume of carrying, or carry per minute played, also differ in frequency to the more explosive Simmonds.
Josh Navidi has by some distance the lowest amount of metres made with 9 metres from 2 carries in 140 minutes. Curry has a relatively modest 78, but those metres have come from just four carries, making the Sale Shark’s metres per carry (19.5m) the highest of any loose forward, albeit from a relatively low sample size of carries.
Lawes has made 63 metres from 18 carries, for a return of 3.5 metres per carry but the comparison is a disingenuous one, as the towering 6’7 utility forward can more often than not found carrying in heavy traffic around the ruck. Likewise, whirling dervish Hamish Watson’s 46 metres have come on a tour in which the Scot has been asked to tackle bust in heavy traffic as a first receiver.
DEFENDERS BEATEN PER CARRY
Where Watson has excelled is players beaten per carry, beating on average one defender every time he’s made a carry – the highest of any Lions’ forward. Put simply, he’s not made huge metres but every time he’s carried it’s been go forward ball for the Lions, in so far as at least one defender has been left in his wake.
Simmonds is in hot pursuit on this stat too mind, beating nine defenders from 11 carries. Faletau, who many see as the incumbent at No.8, also does well in this regard, with seven defenders beaten from just nine attempts.
Curry is just behind, with three defenders beaten from four attempts, while Conan beat eight defenders from 16 carries, or one every other time. Beirne beat seven from twenties carries.
Even more so in the age of the hybrid player, it goes without saying that the modern back row is expected to tackle and carry competently at Test level. All seven Lions back rows have a tackle success rate of over 90 per cent, with many yet to miss a tackle on tour.
The volume of tackling has been strikingly similar too, although Watson (39), Faletau (37) and Conan (32) have excelled themselves. If you’re thinking those aren’t massive numbers considering the number of games played, it’s important to remember they come in the context of the Lions dominating their South African opposition in all but one match.
Simmonds has just one turnover to date on tour and he’s in good company, being joined by Watson, Lawes, Faletau and Navidi here. This is where Conan and Beirne have come into their own, with three and four turnovers respectively. Curry has two, but again, off less minutes than his peers.
While the number of passes doesn’t give you a guide as to their quality, it’s a decent indicator of how involved and comfortable a back row is linking up with his back division.
It is also the area where the Lions back rows have the most yawning gaps. By some distance Beirne is the most frequent passer of the ball with 26. Curry is in second with 19, Lawes third with 18 and Watson in fourth on 15. Simmonds has ten, two more than Faletau on eight.
TRIES AND ASSISTS
Beirne also leads the try-scoring with three. Conan has two, while Watson, Curry, Simmonds all have one try apiece, with Simmonds and Watson both having one try assists. Faletau hasn’t scored but has two assists to his name.
The statistics point in a reasonably clear direction regarding back row selection. Both Beirne and Conan are clear shoe-ins for at No.6 and No.8, statistically, with the data showing they’ve excelled in pretty much every major facet of the game.
As for Simmonds, his outstanding carrying set him apart but the all-court game of Conan make him statistically the obvious choice at No.8
Openside is statistically the tightest call. There is precious little to separate Curry and Watson from a statistical point of view, with the proviso that Watson’s 228 minutes weight some of the numbers (gross tackles for example) in his favour against Curry’s 164. The fact that Curry has made more turnovers and metres, passed more in less time might suggest he’s been more efficient but the Scot’s remarkable ability to break the first tackle and his defensive work rate might tip the balance back.
Of course the statistics are just part of the story, and likely the least part of it for Gatland and his fellow selectors this week. Injury issues, player experience or ‘credit in the bank’, a coach’s gut instinct or the role a player performs within a game plan or system are all several rungs of the ladder up.
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