“They weren’t interested in playing” exclaimed South African head coach Allister Coetzee in the aftermath of the Springboks’ embarrassing loss at the hands of 14-men Ireland.
This was in June. Sour grapes some may say, but it does embody the perceived idea of northern hemisphere rugby. It has long been believed that there is a cultural divide between the two hemispheres: the southern nations are awash with expansive, creative rugby, offloads and tries, while the northern territories are laden with gritty behemoths who love scrums, collisions and kicking. The southern triumvirate of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia have traditionally dominated the rugby landscape, but following England’s series win down under, as well as a strong showing from Ireland in South Africa, can the North claim the gap is finally closing?
The legacy of the recent Rugby World Cup was much discussed in the build up to the competition last year. Many in the RFU hoped that a successful English outing would help grow the sport in this country, attracting new fans and players alike. However, for the first time in Rugby World Cup history not a single northern hemisphere side was able to claim a place in the final four – an embarrassing statistic for the north’s top nations. The success by attrition approach that characterises the Six Nations appears to have directly contributed to the failure of these countries on the world stage. At the World Cup, it was clear that the northern sides could not live with the width and pace with which the southerners play their rugby. The June internationals this summer will have been a soothing balm for supporters seeking to put the autumn debacle firmly in their rear view.
MORE TRIES PLEASE
To understand this perceived gap between the hemispheres, the annual international competitions in both regions have been analysed and recent trends are encouraging for those north of the equator. This year’s Six Nations produced an average of 4.7 tries per game (TPG). While this doesn’t quite match the 5.5 scored in last year’s Rugby Championship (made up of New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and South Africa), it is an improvement on previous years. In the last three seasons, the northern hemisphere’s premier competition has been able to overturn what was a gradual decline in the amount of times we witnessed the ball being grounded beyond the whitewash.
Europe’s top sides can take hope from the increasing number of tries scored, although the stats are certainly helped by the scintillating rugby played on the final day of the 2015 championship. On that day, widely recognised as the most thrilling in the competition’s history, the shackles were cast off and conservatism was thrown out the window in pursuit of a favourable points difference. With Wales, Ireland and England all still in the hunt for the title, rugby fans were treated to a fairy tale finale. If we were to adjust the TPG figure to eliminate the effect of this anomaly, and instead take the average tries scored over the previous four rounds, it brings the figure to a bleak 2.7 tries per game. Additionally, the decline of the Italians in the last three years could also be inflating the try count. The initial and gradual improvement of the Italians since their admission to the party in 2000 appears to have been reversed in recent years. 29 of the 71 (41%) tries scored in the 2016 Six Nations were scored against the Italians.
The initial reduction in 5-pointers over the first 14 years of the Six Nations is likely to be due to the increased professionalism of rugby. Better analysis and more organised and structured defences would appear to have sent the try count plummeting.
The rising popularity of the aerial tactic, with offences electing to launch the ball skyward, sacrificing possession for territory, may also have contributed to a reduction in the try tally. Many teams now prefer to trust in their defensive systems, allowing oppositions to have possession deep in their own half. There is a school of thought that you are safer without the ball; in allowing other teams to make the mistakes, you can capitalise by pouncing on coughed up possession or converting kickable penalties. When two teams employ this tactic, the resulting aerial tennis can exasperate spectators. But as mentioned before, it is the lack of creativity that this tactic breeds which is most damaging. When teams are more focussed on their kicking game and defence, basic handling skills can be neglected. And then of course there is always the lovely British and Irish weather. Champagne rugby is not always feasible when the Dublin rain is greeting you in horizontal sheets.
Defensive brilliance and sheer willpower are what gave Ireland their maiden victory on South African soil this June. Having played 57 minutes of the first test with just 14 men (and even 10 minutes with 13, following Henshaw’s sin binning), the historic Irish win was a true testament to the industry of both the newly appointed defence coach Andy Farrell and the departed Les Kiss. Ireland are well known for their defensive prowess, but this general bias has been prevalent amongst all of the North’s top teams to the apparent detriment of their attacking ability. Tries conceded in the inaugural Six Nations Championship and those conceded during last year’s edition are compared in the chart below. Wales and Ireland in particular have significantly reduced their concession rate, contributing to an overall drop in tries scored despite Italy’s apparent regression in defence.
As is probably expected, the eventual champions of both of these tournaments, England, conceded the least tries. In 2015 and 2014, tournament winners Ireland had their defences breached a mere three and four times respectively in each campaign. Consider the three tries conceded by 2013 winners Wales and these statistics consolidate the belief that defence wins championships. Interestingly though, the eventual Six Nations champion is not always the top try scorer. England ranked third in tries scored this year, and Ireland ranked joint fourth with Italy in 2015. However, ignoring offensive skills completely can have its cost.
IT’S DIFFERENT DOWN UNDER
Between the last two World Cups (2011-2015), the average number of tries scored per game in the Six Nations Championship was 3.1, 2.5, 4.1 and 4.1 respectively. Compare this with our southern hemisphere counterparts where the TPG figure in The Rugby Championship was higher than the Six Nations every year. Last year, we saw an average of 5.5 tries per game, over a full try more than in the Six Nations. This comparison includes the tries scored on that exceptional last day witnessed in the 2015 Six Nations, when the whitewash was crossed a staggering 27 times, more than in any round of Six Nations rugby, ever. You have to go back two full world cup cycles to 2007 to find the next most prolific weekend of Six Nations rugby. What is telling is that the 2007 weekend was also the last round of the championship, with four nations all in the hunt for the title. When just winning is not enough and one must finish the day with a superior points difference there is an incentive for teams to play more free flowing, attractive rugby. Scoring points is the order of the day and tries are the most effective way to achieve this.
This is why the current trend is so encouraging. With the 4.7 TPG figure in this year’s Six Nations we are beginning to see some improvement. However, the stats don’t necessarily show the full story. What they don’t reveal is how a try was scored.
England’s first test victory against Australia this summer was a microcosm of the perceived difference in approach between the north and south. Australia outscored their northern guests by four tries to three, but lost due to 24 points from the outstanding boot of Owen Farrell. This English victory down under was built on a bedrock of set-piece dominance and manic aggression. The Wallaby tries were all a product of brilliant attacking rugby and they were unlucky to have a fifth try disallowed after a debatable obstruction call. England were unable to live with the pace and width of the Aussies in the opening exchanges in particular.
By contrast, England’s first try came from defensive pressure which resulted in Jonathan Joseph hacking at a dropped pass and chasing through to touchdown. Their second came off the back of a rolling maul.
It is the last try that will have been most pleasing for English fans. Quick and clever thinking from Danny Care and George Forde gave England a third at the death, when in all reality they only needed to hold on to the ball to kill the clock. This attacking intent is not always evident on our side of the equator; there was even small encouragement to be taken from Wales’ desolate New Zealand expedition. Tries like Taulupe Faletau’s opener in the first test showed an expansive approach not often employed by Warren Gatland’s men.
The southern hemisphere’s penchant for 5-pointers also means there is less of a reliance on kicking penalties. Analysis of the scoring data for both competitions’ eventual champions over the last five years clearly evidences a difference in approach to winning tournaments. By calculating the try-to-penalty ratio, we reveal a heavy dependency on place-kicking north of the equator, with the notable exception of Ireland in 2014.
The southern hemisphere champions have averaged more tries per game than penalties in the last three consecutive tournaments (the 2016 Rugby Championship has not yet taken place). This is in direct contrast to the Six Nations champions where the reverse is true for four of the last five years, with two-time winning coaches Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland in particular coming under intense scrutiny for their more direct style of play.
Reviewing this data, it is clear that the southern nations’ formula for success is predicated on scoring tries. The message is simple: try-scoring constitutes winning rugby. While the recent upturn in tries scored in the Six Nations is welcomed, more must be done to ensure this improves, both to expand the reach of rugby union as a spectators’ sport and for the future success of the northern teams when it comes to the World Cup. There is much to be said for the introduction of a bonus points system in the Six Nations as they have done in The Rugby Championship, where teams are rewarded for scoring tries. However, this idea may come under scrutiny from the traditionalists who fear it will undermine the elusive grand slam. Under such a system it is mathematically possible for a team who has won all their games to lose out on the championship due to bonus points – this does need to be addressed. Nevertheless, the Six Nations teams must be incentivised to continue scoring tries if they want to overtake the southern hemisphere as world rugby’s top dogs. The jury is still out as to whether the recent statistical trend will signify a change in the tide, but the proverbial sunny days of summer are certainly a welcome distraction for those who remember the bleak autumn.