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Stat attack: How Sam Warburton is more effective...

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Stat attack: How Sam Warburton is more effective than Louis Picamoles

Effective carrying metres show us who the real best ball-carriers of the Six Nations are, writes Lee Calvert.

There are almost as many statistics around in rugby as there are reasons to dislike Austin Healey. However, this volume of statistics also means it’s very hard to see the useful ones among the bevvy of numbers being relentlessly thrown at us on social media.

One example from the weekend, during England’s surgical dismembering of Scotland, came when the RFU Twitter account told us that Maro Itoje had just carried the ball for his 100th metre in an England shirt. Other than the fact that this is a nice round number what is this telling us?  Nothing of any relevance or insight, that’s what.

This useless Itoje stat reminds me of a quote that is often trotted out about statistics: that they are too often used like a drunk uses a lamppost: more for support than enlightenment. The overuse of carrying statistics and figures in the raw format is the perfect example of this.

For example, based on the raw figures alone, England fullback and winner of Europe’s Angriest Man, Mike Brown, is the leading ball carrier in the 2017 Six Nations with 370 metres.  This is a statistic Mike’s defenders will use when anyone questions his place in the England team – “yes, alright, he might have all the attacking guile of a boiled carrot, look like a shaved Kray twin and pass like his hands are on the wrong way round, but he carries for 92.5 metres per game on average”. Fair point you might think, but you’d be wrong.

Total carry metres at the end of a match are dominated usually by the fullback and wingers.  The reason for this is obvious: they field balls from long kicks and usually have some open pasture to run into before they have to worry about being tackled.  Effectively, they are given a number of metres for free, so simply adding up the metres the likes of Mike Brown run is a statistic of questionable value.

Instead, I asked Accenture, RBS Six Nations official technology partner, to do an analysis of effective carrying metres. That is, of the total metres a player has carried for, what percentage of those metres are accrued over the gain line. The player with the highest percentage score, therefore, is carrying the most metres beyond the tackle after busting the line. These are the real players doing the damage.

(Just in case you’re wondering, Mike Brown has a 25% effective carry score; in other words, three-quarters of his runs stop at or before the gain line. Compared to other fullbacks, that is worse than both Stuart Hogg (33%)  and Rob Kearney (29%).)

Using the qualifying criteria that the player has carried the ball more than fifty metres in total across the first four rounds of Six Nations competition some interesting patterns start to present themselves. Five of the places in the top ten most effective carriers are scrum-halves, which is perhaps no surprise as given they pick up the ball on the gain line any carry forward, however small, is an effective one.

Louis Picamoles is considered by all to be a carrying colossus and indeed his 302 metre total across the tournament puts him second behind Brown on the raw score, ahead of the likes of Vakatawa, Liam Williams and other backs.  However, his 54% effective carry score is just behind Sam Warburton’s 55%. The difference is that Sam has half the number of carries and an overall total of 61 metres. In other words, King Louis carries more often – which is to be expected for a Number 8 – and his bullocking runs may be more eye-catching, but Sam is just as effective when it comes to getting beyond the gain line.

Looking at all the data, a good effective carry score for a forward is 40-45%. Anything above 50% is exceptional.

So who is the player (who meets the minimum 50 metres carried criteria) with the highest effective carry score? Actually, there are two players, both on 67%: England centre Jonathan Joseph (from 167m total) and Scotland wing Tim Visser (from 101m total). And who is at the bottom of the heap? Scotland’s loosie, Ryan Wilson, who has carried for 61 metres with only 17% being over the gain line.

Perhaps the most eye-catching stat of all is this: of the 172 players that have had some field time in the 2017 tournament, only 41 have an effective carry score greater than 49%.

To put it another way, when carrying the ball, nearly three-quarters of players fail to get over the gain line more than half the time they have a run.

If we didn’t know already, Six Nations defences are difficult to get behind. The stats have now confirmed it.

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Stat attack: How Sam Warburton is more effective than Louis Picamoles