If England are reverting to defensive type for this weekend's huge clash against Wales, it may be down to the statistics. Either way, England daren't lose...
By Adam Hathaway
Stuart Lancaster says he is not obsessed by statistics but you could hardly blame a former schoolteacher if he was a bit of a number-cruncher on the sly.
Most modern coaches who use the maths wouldn’t dare admit to relying on them.
I don’t know how much he really pores over the figures but a small improvement in some of the digits could help England beat Wales on Saturday. They also give a clue as to why it seems he is, according to reports, going to pick the ‘defence-is-key’ backline he is.
If he has had a look at the stats from the Fiji game, one jumps out as below par, and that is the tackle count.
Then there’s the three lost scrums out of nine, but Graham Rowntree has been on the case trying to fix that this week.
The rest of the stats don’t look too bad, compared to what England did in the Six Nations and are hardly the massive dip that will foreshadow a huge beating at Twickenham this weekend.
All these numbers come from the same source so, hopefully, they are roughly in the same ball park as the one that Lancaster uses – because England have copped from flak over some of them.
In the Fiji match, England, according to our man with the abacus and the anorak, conceded 16 turnovers and missed 16 tackles out of 96 for a success rate of 83 per cent. They also gave away 12 penalties, two more than Clive Woodward’s magic maximum of 10 per game, and lost 16 turnovers.
Put that lot in the magic mixer and it spits out a 35-11 win described by most observers as stuttering. They might not have got away with them against other sides but hey ho.
Or they might have.
In the last game of the Six Nations, the madness against France, England missed 25 out of 186 tackles, for a success rate of 86 per cent, gave away 12 penalties and were turned over 16 times. They won that one 55-35.
In the 25-13 win over Scotland at Twickenham in March, Lancaster’s team missed 16 out of 137 tackles – up to 88 per cent – and gave away 10 penalties and 17 turnovers.
The one day when there stats were better was that wretched evening in Paris last month when England lost 25-20 and never looked like winning the game. Apart from a couple of late tries, on the evidence of the eyes, they were given an utter pasting.
But they made 90 per cent of their tackles, gave away 12 penalties and were turned over just 12 times. Lies, damn lies, and statistics.
There were other factors at work that night and losing four line-outs did not help their cause.
In losing to Ireland, in the Six Nations in Dublin, the figures were 87 per cent tackles, 13 penalties and a massive 23 turnovers. That led to a 19-9 defeat and a game that England were never in, just like Paris.
But all this maths does give us a clue to why Lancaster has supposedly picked the team he has for Saturday’s game against Wales.
The win in Cardiff in February, when England came through 21-16 was built on the back of a 91 per cent tackle rate, concession of just nine penalties and 14 turnovers against a team with Sam Warburton starting and Justin Tipuric coming off the bench.
The Brad Barritt-Sam Burgess centre pairing, which is not going to miss many tackles might have been picked even if Jonathan Joseph had been fit. Chuck in another tough tackler at number 10, in Owen Farrell, and maybe Lancaster has been looking at the stats on the defensive front.
The odd percentage point can make a difference so maybe Lancaster is looking to nudge the tackle percentage figures closer to the ones from Cardiff.
But come 10pm on Saturday the only one that will matter to his future employment prospects will be the ones on the scoreboard.