Thanks to data from Rugby Analytics, we look at the Boks' kick rates since the British & Irish Lions tour, all the way up to the most recent loss to Wales
A look at the Springboks kick to pass ratio
Kicking in rugby. It’s talked about a lot. But perception of it is so important.
For example, last year’s British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa was held up as a nadir for ceaselessly hoisting the ball in the air – but as The Telegraph’s Charlie Morgan pointed out on a recent episode of the Rugby Coach Weekly round-up podcast, there were 40 more kicks out of hand in the recent Gallagher Premiership final than there were in the most kick-heavy Boks-Lions Test of 2021. According to ESPN Scrum, there were 105 kicks in the Premiership final between Leicester Tigers and Saracens, and 65 in the first Lions Test.
Done right, kicking can be a superpower. Especially if the kicks are on the money enough to be contested or won back.
However, recent data given to us by Rugby Analytics highlights some particularly interesting elements of the Springboks’ kick to pass ratio. It tells of balance with the ball – and excludes all exit kicks or passes for exit kicks, so you get a truer sense of a team’s attacking philosophy. The lower the kick to pass ratio, the more a team kicks the ball.
As you can see from the table above, in the last two Test matches the Springboks have put out their highest kick to pass ratios in the last two years. Effectively running more.
So in the first Test against Wales this summer, in Pretoria, the Boks had a ratio of 1:4.7 (one kick for every 4.7 passes). This was a full-blooded Test match which was decided with the clock in the red and the scores level at 29-all, as Damian Willemse stepped up to slot the decisive penalty.
In the second Test against Wales – the visitors’ first ever win on South African soil, at 13-12 – South Africa put out their highest ratio, at 1:4.9 (one kick for every 4.9 passes).
In their second loss against Australia in the 2021 Rugby Championship, the Springboks had their third-highest ratio of this period, with one kick for every 4.5 passes.
This is interesting because before their double headers of losses against Australia last year, Springboks assistant Mzwandile Stick said of criticism of the Boks’ playing style: “We know our strengths, we know our DNA, we know what works for us – so we are not going to try to listen too much to other voices out there as long as we keep on winning as a team, as long as we keep on getting better in the things we want to achieve as a team.”
The above isn’t an advertisement for contestable kicks equating to wins – according to the Rugby Analytics data, 88% of the Boks’ kicks against New Zealand in September last year were contestable, and they still lost 19-17. But it was razor close, coming down to a Jordie Barrett penalty two minutes from time to win it.
In fact, of all the losses in the above table, only one was by more than a converted try. It came in the second loss to Australia, when South Africa’s kick to pass ratio was 1:4.5.
Looking at another approach with the ball for a second, you can look at the attack maps Rugby Analytics have drawn up for the second-Test loss to Wales. With it the ‘average attack width’ (the average distance away from the ruck the ball carry is) was 8m wide, when South Africa were carrying around 10m from the Welsh try-line.
This metric tends to tell you how direct a team is playing or if they want to get the ball much further away from the breakdown. For many teams this width tends to narrow as you get closer to the try-line.
So an average of 10m or wider is considered more expansive. Narrower than 5m from the ruck and you can say that is a direct team. The All Blacks, for example, will whip it wider than most with Aaron Smith’s rocket pass. Across a game they average around 9m for one-out carries off nine, because they want to hit wider channels.
That Boks number of 8m within ten of the try-line isn’t far off that, is it? The ability to switch to a wider carrying profile and fewer kicks would be a new dimension to what we think of as the typical Springboks game, provided they have the time to turn it into a success. So are we seeing South Africa try to move away from their “DNA” as Stick called it last year?
In the meantime, ahead of Test three against Wales, there will be some asserting that the more Springboks put up contestable kicks, the greater the chance of winning the game is.
Data provided by Rugby Analytics. Find them at rugbypass.com/rugby-analytics/
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