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FEATURE Using data to debunk commonly held Six Nations myths

Using data to debunk commonly held Six Nations myths
1 year ago

Rugby is full of cliches. Some hold up to scrutiny, others don’t. For this article I used Twitter to source some of the most common examples of accepted wisdom surrounding the Six Nations and set to work Mythbusting them using the data. We’ll find out what’s true and what can be consigned to the bin.

This is a theory as old as rugby itself. One week the French team will play silky, stunning, effective rugby. The next week they will look like they’ve never touched a rugby ball before. Is it true though?

I believe the best way to look into this, is to look at a team’s finishing position each year. What would France’s finishing position look like if we truly didn’t know which team would turn-up? Well, one year they might finish 1st, the next 4th, the next 6th, the next 1st etc. That lack of consistency would chime with the claim. I’ve collected data for the finishing position for each team since 2013. We can calculate their variability by measuring the total difference in position for each year. If a team finished 6th, 1st, 6th, 1st for example they would have 15 changes in finishing position. A team who finished 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st would have just three.

TeamTotal Position Changes

It’s about time we change the saying to, “we never know which Welsh team will turn up”. Over the ten years we investigated, Wales saw 22 changes to their finishing position compared to just nine for France. That is partly fuelled by the last four tournaments where Wales finished 1st, 5th, 1st, and then 5th again.

The French haven’t experienced the same turmoil, largely because they had two distinct periods. Between 2013 and 2019 they finished better than 4th only once. Then from 2020 onwards they haven’t finished worse than 3rd. They haven’t swung back and forth, they were bad and then they were good.

Verdict: Disproven 

Since ruck speed was first tracked, there has been an obsession with increasing it. The faster the ruck speed becomes, the better – or so the thinking goes. But is that actually true? The Six Nations has published this data for the last three years so we can see whether increased ruck speed really does correlate with scoring more tries.

TeamNumber of <3sec Rucks (2021)Total Points Scored (2021)Number of <3sec Rucks (2022)Total Points Scored (2022)Number of <3sec Rucks (2023)Total Points Scored (2023)

We can then pull the same table but this time we can put the team’s finishing position by each year and each category.

TeamNumber of <3sec Rucks (2021)Total Points Scored (2021)Number of <3sec Rucks (2022)Total Points Scored (2022)Number of <3sec Rucks (2023)Total Points Scored (2023)

It’s not looking great. Sure, Ireland have finished 1st in both categories over the last two years. But, the second place team, Italy in 2023 and Scotland in 2022, have finished 5th and 4th respectively. However, we can’t conclude anything quite yet. Here we are looking at the total number of <3 second rucks rather than the percentage of <3 second rucks. Maybe Ireland just have a lot of <3 second rucks because they have a lot of rucks in total?

Across the three years, six teams have finished with a <3 second ruck speed percentage of greater than 60%. By points for, those teams have finished 1st, 6th, 4th, 6th, 1st, 5th by points scored. Ireland appear three times with Italy appearing twice and Wales once.

Meanwhile, five teams have fewer than 52% or fewer of their rucks under three seconds. Those teams have finished 5th, 6th, 2nd, 3rd, 1st. Wales and Scotland appear twice with Italy the final team.

What can we conclude from this? Basically, getting quick ruck ball isn’t a guarantee that you will score points. You have to know what to do once you get the quick ball. Ireland are good at this – their quick ruck ball has led to them scoring the most points in the last two seasons. But other teams are less successful. Italy have ranked 2nd twice, but haven’t finished higher than 5th in points scored.

The same is true in the other direction. In 2021 Wales won the Six Nations despite having the lowest >3 ruck speed percentage recorded in the three tournaments. Scotland sit tied for 1st in the tournament this year but their ruck speed is the 3rd slowest out of the 18 we’ve tracked.

Verdict: It’s complicated 

This is an interesting one. The amount of lineouts your opponent gets is something teams have control over, to a certain extent. You get lineouts either because the opposition kicks to touch or because you kick to touch after a penalty. The first of those is easier to control. As we saw in the last Lion’s tour, when playing against a heavier pack you can choose to almost ever kick to touch, starving the opposition of that attacking platform.

It is harder to control how many penalties you give away, but you can still choose how much you go for turnover balls at the breakdown. Against a team with a weaker lineout, you might choose to go hard at the rucks safe in the knowledge that even if they do get a lineout, there’s not much they can do with it.

We can work this one out by calculating how many lineouts Wales had in the last three years as a starter. Then we can remove all lineouts where Wales kicked the ball out after a penalty to give us just the lineouts caused by the opposition kicking to touch in open play.


Across the last three years, Wales actually have the fewest lineout attacking platforms. Ireland have the second fewest, in part because they have so much ball that their opponents don’t have time to kick to touch. Italy have the most lineouts. 2023 is the first year where they have an effective lineout % of greater than 90 so we might see this change as the tournament progresses.


When we remove penalties kicked to touch, the picture changes a little bit. Ireland still have the fewest, followed by Wales. But France have now replaced Italy at the top of the table. France finished second and first in 2021 and 2022 respectively. Teams aren’t kicking to touch because they think the French lineout is bad. They are doing it because they fear the lineout less than they fear open play against that set of French backs.

To answer the original question however, teams are happy to keep the ball on the pitch against Wales, especially in the last two years. In 2022 and 2023 they had the fewest lineout opportunities caused by their opponents.

Verdict: Disproven


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