Despite sustained efforts, fantasy rugby never really caught on.
Elsewhere it’s a multi-million-pound business, in football and American sports for example. That has led to a warped view of the actual value of players which leaks into how we view the sport.
What’s wrong with picking a team based on how they score in fantasy rugby? The best players in each position will probably make a decent XV, won’t they? The problem is that fantasy sports award points to the things that are simple to measure. Things like tries, try assists, carried made and metres run are all easily quantified. However, these are what I would call symptom stats. A try is a symptom of everything else working in harmony.
A defender’s nightmare ?
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) August 1, 2023
Let’s take this example from Tom Curry. Does Curry deserve credit for this try? Of course he does, arguably more credit than all the other individual actions. But those individual actions are crucial.
The players who secured the ruck allowed the try to be scored. The previous positive carries played their part. Gus Warr, the Sale scrum-half, got to each ruck then his scooting run helped open up space. But fantasy rugby would award a miniscule number of points to the carriers and some points to Warr for the try assist. Nothing to the ruckers or the dummy runners. Our try scorers are pocketing all the points and leaving the rest of the players with nothing. It’s not a very big leap to assume that low fantasy rugby value means low actual value.
This is hardly rugby’s biggest issue, but it does lead to a distorted idea of who is a good player. That is never more obvious than in the run-up to international squad selections. We will all know the feeling of incredulity when someone who scores a lot of tries isn’t selected. In fact, a real example is the pressure applied to Eddie Jones to select Sam Simmonds and Alex Dombrandt. The latter had scored a try every two games in the two seasons before his first England cap and Simmonds scored 47 in the three seasons before his recall. Two players who had a very specific playing style.
Playing style is one of those things which is rarely spoken about in broadcasts. It’s frustrating because understanding style, how teams want players to play and why, is such an enjoyable part of picking at the thread of rugby. Number eight is a good position to illustrate this. Billy Vunipola, Simmonds, and Dombrandt are all number eights, but they play in very different ways. That is important when you are building a team, but unimportant in fantasy rugby.
Vunipola’s job is to punch holes through the middle of the pitch. You would expect him to have a high relative number of carries but a low number of metres carried. Simonds on the other hand carries predominantly out wide with lower numbers of carries but more metres per carry. It’s not just a case of swapping them around like you would with a lightbulb. Do you want Simmonds to play like Vunipola? If so, you’re picking someone who is a top performer at club level and then chucking them into a foreign role. Instead, you can let him do his club role but then you have to find someone else to pick up the slack with midfield carries.
Will Skelton plays for an incredibly high-possession team at club level, La Rochelle, but for Australia he will be expected to do the opposite as Jones’ team look to hoof the ball away. Blair Kinghorn hasn’t started an Edinburgh match at full-back for over two seasons, but that looks to be where his long-term international future lies. Paolo Garbisi will be Italy’s starting fly-half but for Montpellier he’s often moved to inside centre to make way for Louis Carbonel. These are all decisions made to get the best overall team these nations can muster.
This is the secret of team selection. It’s not a case of finding the best player in each position but rather finding the best collection of 23 players. That challenge is far more interesting than picking the individual stand-outs.
That balance extends beyond individual positions and to the whole team. Take Ireland and Tadhg Furlong. His passing skills gift Ireland more flexibility in their pack. Traditionally, we would expect the back-row to operate as the link between the forwards and backs. Not that long ago, they would basically be the only forwards who could pass the ball. Furlong’s presence means Ireland could afford to play a back-row player, perhaps a more limited passer, who offers solid defence or excellent carrying. For years, Greig Laidlaw’s kicking ability allowed Scotland to play fly-halves who weren’t so good off the tee. The same applies to Leigh Halfpenny and Wales.
But of course, none of that matters if we only see teams as 15 fantasy rugby players. Laidlaw and all his experience, game control, and kicking from hand couldn’t match up against a lesser scrum-half who scores a hatful of tries. The rucking and scrummaging skills of Dan Cole would be completely irrelevant when compared with a scrummaging liability who bags tries and busts tackles.
There is a difference between the best player and the best player for a squad. The best player might be exciting to watch but maybe has a skillset which falls way outside of what the team needs. Its why international teams don’t always pick the ‘best’ players. They’re not doing it deliberately to annoy us. Although it may sometimes feel like that.
There is plenty evidence of players who were seen by fans as must-picks but didn’t transfer that form into the international games. Players such as Marcus Smith and Dombrandt have turned into very solid performers and potentially even better than that given time. But they haven’t become the world beaters it appeared they would be, yet. There are more examples of players who didn’t even get that far despite club form that suggests they should be international stars.
Partly that’s caused by the step up to international rugby. But it’s also caused by players who are moved away from what they were really good at to fulfil a role that their international team needs. Freddie Steward and Halfpenny might not get pulses racing in attack but they thrive at international level because they don’t make many mistakes – mistakes that fellow Test teams punish.
It’s worth thinking about this when you are having one of those debates in the pub about who has to be in your nation’s XV for the World Cup. Rather than looking at them as fantasy players who you can just slot in, look at them as 1/23 of the squad. What are they adding but vitally, what is being taken away? When you see rugby like that it becomes a far more interesting game.