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FEATURE The analysts reveal the stats that matter for Super Saturday

The analysts reveal the stats that matter for Super Saturday
1 year ago

Super Saturday is nearly here, Christmas Day for rugby fans. All spots on the table remain up for grabs and all three matches look like they might be competitive. To celebrate, I’ve spoken to six analysts, one from each of the countries represented, to get their views on the one statistic which has defined their teams during this tournament. Some of these great minds are going to be heavily involved come this weekend so we’ve kept them anonymous.

Italy – Key number: 3.71

Italy have shown promise in the 2023 Six Nations, just as they showed in the 2022 Six Nations, and arguably the 2021 Six Nations. However, they’ve yet to win and face Scotland, in Edinburgh, a place they haven’t won at since 2015. Italy’s performances are undoubtably trending upwards, but their results, if they fail to win on Saturday, are not.

The reason? Well Michele Lamaro says it here – execution.

Italy have managed 26 line breaks this tournament, the third most behind pack leaders Ireland and France. They’ve scored just seven non-penalty tries though, the second lowest amount ahead of Wales. That ratio of 3.71 line breaks per try is, by a significant margin, the worst in the Six Nations. Wales are the next worst placed team with 2.5 line breaks per non-penalty try. Italy have 11 more line breaks than Wales but just a single additional try. England have 11 fewer line breaks than Wales but four more tries.

It is hugely encouraging that Italy are creating so many chances. However, you have to question how a team who make defences look so porous for 78m of the pitch are so limp when they get into the opposition 22. It’s not an easy fix either.

Wales – Key number: 7.86

In 2021 Wales scored 20 tries and conceded 11, in 2022 they scored 8 tries and conceded 8, so far in 2023 they have scored 7 and conceded 14. In those three tournaments, Wales have gone from leaders in each category to off the pace in both.

In 2021, Wales carried the joint least of any team in the Six Nations, tied with England. But, they were very effective with those carries, they had just five fewer line breaks than Scotland who carried almost 200 times more. This year, they also carry infrequently, the second lowest amount in the tournament after France. But, they are incredibly ineffective when they carry. They break a tackle once per 7.86 carries. Ireland are the second lowest with 6.68, but they carry a huge amount more than Wales. If you are a Premiership watcher, you can see Ireland as Exeter. They aren’t very effective on each carry but they overwhelm you with the sheer number of carries you have to defend each match. Wales are the opposite; ineffective per carry and not that many carries.

There were glimpses of progress on the weekend, but Wales are still an underwhelming attacking force. Shaun Edwards’ French defence won’t give them time or space to try and find their feet.

England – Key number: 14

Between 2015 and 2022 England never conceded as many as the 14 tries they have conceded so far this tournament. Of course, seven of those came in the 80 minutes against France, but overall England’s defence has been unimpressive.

England’s tackle success rate of 83.4% is the joint worst in the Six Nations, alongside Wales. Much is made of England’s limp attack, and it is pretty uninspiring, but if they score two tries against Ireland, they will equal their highest number of tries scored since 2020. The attack could be better, but it’s effective enough for them to compete for Six Nations titles. The challenge is that their defence is leaving them with too big a task.

A note of optimism though, when Shaun Edwards joined France, their defence was the second leakiest in the 2020 Six Nations. When the former rugby league legend and proven union defence coach, was given more time he elevated the French defence to be either the best or second best in every subsequent Six Nations. England fans will hope that rugby league legend and proven union defence coach, Kevin Sinfield, will have the same upward trajectory.

Scotland – Key number: 91% 

By tackle success, Scotland have the best defence in the Six Nations. Welshman Steve Tandy has worked his magic since arriving in 2020. Although honourary Welshman, Shaun Edwards, receives a huge amount of praise and focus, Tandy has matched Edwards’ finishing position by tries conceded in the last four Six Nations. Both Tandy and Edwards finish, on average, 2.5th in the tries conceded table. Few would disagree that Edwards has more talent to work with.

Scotland are undoubtedly improving, and their performances are being matched by results. They blew away Wales, had relatively few concerns against England, and should beat Italy on Saturday despite injury concerns. However, there still remains a gulf between them, France and Ireland. Scottish fans who remember the 2010s will find it ridiculous that a 3rd place finish in the table is cause for disappointment, but it shows how far Scottish rugby has come.

However, the matches against Ireland and France have exposed significant weaknesses in the Scottish team. Against France, Scotland found themselves 19-0 down and out of the game. Against Ireland, they failed to score in the second half and lost it 12-0. These periods where Scotland went missing expose a significant flaw which will keep biting them against the best teams. Giving yourself a 19pt deficit against France and pulling it back to lose by just 11pts is exciting but isn’t a great tactic for long term success.

France – Key number: 3.5

Here’s a question, which team has the highest carry per kick ratio in the Six Nations? You might say Ireland or maybe France. The answer, it’s Italy. They carry 5.9 times per kick. Last in the pack? France, carrying just 3.5 times per kick. One of the most baffling cliches in rugby is the idea that France are this swashbuckling, ball in hand, carry carry and carry some more attack. It’s completely untrue, France’s attack is built on an almost unfairly good kicking game.

It’s what makes matches between Ireland and France so absorbing. One team desires the ball more than anything else, the other can take or leave it. That doesn’t mean that France aren’t exciting when they do have the ball, it’s just that they only play with it when they’re sure they’ll get a good outcome.

Shaun Edwards’ defence is a key character in this game plan. They either turnover possession, or slow it down, once for every 5.3 ruck entries. That is the second-best rate in the Six Nations. If they don’t think they can influence the opponent’s ruck, they stay out and keep men on their feet. As they showed against England though, when they are on their game, they can completely shut-off any attacking opportunities.

The lone blemish was their loss to Ireland. A game where they led 13-7 after 18 minutes and then lost the remaining 62, 25-6. That will be a massive concern, this French team aren’t as flaky as their predecessors but they still have the potential to go missing for sections of the match.

Ireland – Key number: +11

 Ireland have scored 31 more tries than their opponents over the last two Six Nations, 11 more so far this season. The next best is France with a positive differential of 16 tries. Ireland have transformed over the last few years from a team who have superstars in some positions and can be victorious if those stars fire, to a squad with seemingly limitless depth. To continue their tradition of failing to reach the semi-finals in France this year would be scandalous.

It’s not breathtaking analysis I know, but Ireland’s success is built on a European leading attack and defence. Simon Easterby (Defence) and Mike Catt (Attack) are the puppeteers controlling both these world class groups. Catt’s attacking philosophy is a fairly simple one, beloved of many of the most vocal supporters you hear at match, ‘you can’t score if you don’t have the ball’. Ireland have carried 48 times more than the next highest team, Italy. They have the second lowest kick to carry ratio in the Six Nations. Those carries aren’t all barnstormers, but it’s the sheer weight of numbers which makes them successful.

Meanwhile, Easterby has less of the game to impart his vision on. His job is simple, stop tries and the ball back to the attack as quickly as possible. Despite having the ball for so long, Ireland also lead the competition in total turnovers, with 18. A key figure is the percentage of turnovers which are made by backs, 44% in Ireland’s case. The next highest percentage is Wales’ 29%. Even when you run away from the Irish forwards, you’re only slightly less likely to retain possession. Turn the ball over against Ireland and you can look forward to another long spell of defence and pressure.


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