Whisper it quietly, but the Six Nations may have turned a creative corner.
Last year the battle for European supremacy produced 37 tries – an average of of just 2.5 per match. The International Rugby Board’s official statistical report revealed that this figure was not only the lowest average in Six Nations history but also the lowest since the game turned professional in 1995 and half the total scored in 2000. A try-fest on a memorable opening weekend had proved to be a false dawn.
The number of tries has decreased steadily since 2000 with Italy’s progression from whipping boys to worthy rivals clearly a key factor along with other factors including improved defensive structures and the decline of the scrum as a viable attacking platform.
But this year’s quest for Championship glory offers fresh hope. The opening three rounds have produced 28 tries meaning only 10 more five-pointers are required from the final six matches to stop the rot and spark jubilation across the continent.
OK, maybe not, but it would clearly be a step in the right direction in terms of serving up the entertainment that will drive attendances, viewing figures and participation. However, let’s not get too carried away as last year’s Six Nations also reached this stage with 27 tries to its name only to falter in the final two rounds.
But maybe, with the Championship finely poised with four sides currently locked on four points, the likely importance of points difference and tries scored – the two criteria that will be used to decide the title should two or more sides end on the same amount of points – could fuel their creative desire that has already produced several notable tries in recent weeks. Perhaps, even the Scots who have contributed just two tries in three games could play their part?
There is possible further evidence of change with penalties not playing as great a role as last year. The 2013 Six Nations produced an average of 6.3 successful penalties per match – according to the official stats, the highest since the Five Nations re-started after the Second World War in 1947 – but this year’s Championship has so far produced an average of 4.3 per game.
But it is impossible to ignore the value of a good and consistent goal kicker with Leigh Halfpenny’s boot going a long way to deciding last year’s Six Nations title and sure to figure strongly as this year’s Championship plays out in the coming weeks.
The world’s best kickers came under the microscope in a recent study by the New Zealand Rugby Union’s chief analyst Ken Quarrie (@KenQuarrie). A total of 6769 kicks from 582 Tests between 2002 to 2011 were scrutinised and the players then ranked with South Africa’ Morne Steyn coming out on top overall ahead of Argentina’s Federico Todeschini and New Zealand’s Dan Carter.
Arguably, the ranking does not reward the consistency of the likes of Carter, Scotland’s Chris Paterson and England’s Jonny Wilkinson but the stats do provide a fascinating insight into success in high-pressure scenarios.
When the players were re-ranked according to their ability to deliver when it matters most – with the importance of the kick, including the stage of the game at which it was taken, position on the field and its impact on the result taking precedence – it was, maybe surprisingly, Australia’s James O’Connor who came out on top – just ahead of Steyn. Interestingly, it was the England trio of Olly Barkley (5th), Charlie Hodgson (6th) and Andy Goode (7th) who were the leading lights from the Six Nations when the data was re-jigged in this way.
As relatively recent graduates to the Test stage, Halfpenny and Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton do not feature that strongly although both would no doubt lay claim to a higher ranking if more recent data was taken into account – while England’s Owen Farrell would also make the grade.
All three will be hoping to steer their side to Six Nations glory but could a ground and not a player be the decisive factor? While none of the stadiums currently used in the Six Nations make the list of ‘kicking graveyards’ revealed by the same survey – headed by the Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand – one is ranked as amongst the best for kickers – the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Wales’ home stadium produced a 77% success rate for kickers within the sample period – narrowly second to Loftus Versfeld in South Africa – with that figure likely to have increased as Halfpenny has grown into the accomplished kicker he is today.
Crucially, the Millennium Stadium will play host to one more game in this year’s Championship with Scotland set to pay a visit in the final round. But so will the Stade de France – that offered a 74% success rate in the same period – with the French set to play host to title rivals Ireland.
But perhaps it is worth remembering at this point that, as Scotland coach Scott Johnson memorably once said, “Stats are like a bikini, they show a lot but not the whole thing”.
And thankfully it is also impossible to quantify the magic that the Six Nations so often provides – let us just hope this coming weekend delivers and that Super Saturday lives up to its name.
Have you noticed a shift in the style of rugby being played in the 2014 Six Nation? What do you put it down to? Comments below…
Quarrie KL, Hopkins WG, “Evaluation of Goal Kicking Performance in International Rugby Union Matches”, Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport (2014).
International Rugby Board Statistical Analysis and Match Review, 2013 Six Nations