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Stats and Awards Posted about 5 years ago

‘There are three kinds of lies,’ we are told, ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’. The often-used phrase is commonly used to cast doubt over the value of certain figures hailed as significant by others. But you will struggle to convince any modern rugby coach that they have no worth.

It can be difficult to spot a leading coach in the stands these days for the laptops laid out in front of them offering real-time updates on countless aspects of a side’s performance and those of individual players. The Rugby Football Union boast a team of performance analysts working across all the national sides while The British & Irish Lions had three staff dedicated to such analysis on their most recent tour to Australia.

Then there is the increasing influence of statistics on how the sport is presented in the media. Stats oil the wheels of TV coverage with viewers peppered with information before, during and after games, while some pundits gleefully use them to pick apart performances.

Stats may not yet be driving debate in the clubs and pubs, except maybe for headline-grabbing displays like Saracens’ recent six-try haul against Clermont Auvergne on just 32% of possession and flanker Jacques Burger’s epic 27-tackle shift, but perhaps they should?

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The sport’s love affair with statistics intensified this week with Premiership Rugby’s announcement of a new end-of-season honour that will reward the best forward in English rugby’s top division based on some key metrics. Premiership Rugby’s stats partner Opta are the driving force behind the award that will take into account tackles made, performance at the breakdown, penalties conceded, line outs won and metres gained with a 12-match minimum ensuring consistency rather than a one-off performance is rewarded.

Some big names made the shortlist – Saracens’ Schalk Brits, Quins’ Nick Easter, Gloucester’s Sione Kalamafoni, Northampton’s Samu Manoa, Sale’s Michael Paterson and Leicester’s Tom Youngs.

Interestingly, Saints powerhouse Manoa is the only member of this group who is also in the running for the Premiership’s top honour – the Player of the Year. The other two forwards in the shortlisted for that award – Sale’s Daniel Braid and Burger – both fail to make the grade here despite having easily exceeded the 12-game minimum.

However, it must be noted that while the Player of the Year honour uses the Premiership as a key indicator, it also takes into account European, international and even Anglo-Welsh Cup performances. Although it appears that broad scope would only benefit one nominee – England fullback Brown.
The award is ultimately decided by a panel of media representatives who may or may not be fans of stats – and it appears we will soon find out. Premiership Rugby issued a timely press release this week highlighting the outstanding contribution of Worcester fullback Chris Pennell to the Warriors’ otherwise disappointing league campaign.

They may be propping up the table but Pennell, one of six players in the running for the Player of the Year honour, alongside Burger, Manoa, Braid, Brown and Leicester wing Niki Goneva, leads the league in carries (253), metres gained (1527m) and is second in defenders beaten (54).

Time will tell how the Premiership Rugby judging panel, including the Sunday Times’ Stephen Jones, the Daily Telegraph’s Mick Cleary and BT Sport commentator Nick Mullins, view those stats and the standard of the Premiership in general as opposed to the Heineken Cup and international rugby. Given Ben Kay and Austin Healey’s fondness for the stats we can also expect that they will also influence the make-up of the BT Sport Dream Team that will also be announced later this month.

This column has previously suggested giving coaches a greater say in such awards given their tendency to immerse themselves in stats, but should those figures themselves carry more weight when it comes to deciding these awards?

The Six Nations appears to share this belief having already incorporated technical stats, along with supporter opinion, in the criteria for deciding the shortlist for their Player of the Championship with the eventual winner decided by a public vote. Should Premiership Rugby and other competitions follow their lead and give stats a greater say in proceedings?

My own choice for the Premiership Player of the Year award is Saracens’ Jacques Burger thanks in large part to his endeavour on the field this season but just as much for some other crucial stats that do not fall into any existing category. The Sarries flanker managed just three league games last season having endured two years of injury woe. During that time he underwent six operations on his right knee and flirted with the most dreaded of personal stats – a retirement date.

But he has returned to his destructive and game-changing best this season and is a key driving force behind his side’s push for both Premiership and Heineken Cup glory. His story is a prime example of why these awards should acknowledge and incorporate key performance indicators but also retain a decisive, human element.

Should stats be given importance in deciding player award short lists or do you think coach, panel or public opinion is important? How do you use stats in your coaching and game plans?

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Graham Jenkins is a freelance sports journalist who has been reporting around the rugby globe for over 20 years. A former editor of the leading rugby union website Scrum.com, he is a veteran of five World Cups and cites England’s 2003 triumph as the most memorable moment of his professional career - closely followed by a night out with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal.

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