Lovers of free-flowing attacking rugby look away now – but the stats don’t lie, and it turns out the teams that kick the most also happen to win the most.
Research from Bill Gerrard, a professor of business and sports analytics at Leeds University Business School, who also works for Saracens, has shown that kicking teams have a significant statistical advantage when it comes to the outcome of a rugby match.
Last years Six Nations perfectly proved this point as Ireland, with an average of 27.4 kicks, won the championship. England had the second highest (26.8) and finished the runners-up. Wales, with 25 kicks per game, were third, France (23.4) fourth, Scotland (22.0) fifth and Italy (17.4) last.
Now obviously one Six Nations tournament is not a large enough sample to draw any kind of meaningful results, however the way in which the kicks per game to final position ratio appears to be more than just a simple coincidence.
Gerrard’s research has also looked into the Premiership this season and points out that in the 77 games with a definitive result in the Premiership this season, winning teams have averaged 18.1 kicks in play whereas losing teams have averaged 15.5 kicks in play – a difference that is highly significant statistically.
As he explains: “When I joined Saracens, one of the first things I did was to show that the coaches’ intuitions about what was the most effective style of rugby was supported by the data: on the whole, teams that use a kicking game more tend to be more successful. Now that goes against the purists who want to play ball-in-hand rugby wherever they are on the pitch but the less you play in your own half and the more you play in the opposition half, the more likely you are to be successful.”
As Gerrard points out, there are two reasons. First, the more you play in your own half, the more likely you are to be turned over – and the closer that happens to your try line, the more you are likely to concede. Second, the more that you run the ball, the more energy-sapping collisions and rucks you are going to be involved in. The old adage of kick to gain territory and run to exploit it holds true.
Certainly the best sides know how vital the kicking game is. As South Africa’s kicking coach, Louis Koen, put it wryly last year: “Did you know the All Blacks kick the ball more than the Springboks do?”
Incidentally, Gerrard’s research is backed up by a study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine from 2010 which found that, in Super 12 rugby, kicking the ball away and making more tackles than the opposition were the two most influential factors in determining winning from losing teams.
Now obviously there is much more to this than simply kicking the ball aimlessly, however given rugby coaches increasing reliance on data and stats such as this in the post Moneyball-era means we’re likely to see more teams looking to kick the ball more often.
Do you think rugby is at risk of becoming too one-dimensional or are you happy to watch a tactical battle played out via the boot?