In the NFL there are stats galore on pressuring the passer – but how does rugby compare?


Measuring pressure on playmakers in rugby

The question suddenly came rushing up like a corner blitz in the NFL. In the US sport, chat of ‘pressuring the passer’ is part of their lexicon. It’s not just about sacks but forcing quarterbacks out of the pocket, throwing the ball away, shuttling out of their comfort zone and seeing a picture they didn’t expect. The QBs who excel at this are national icons and the top hunters are feared.

So does rugby look at pressuring playmakers in anything like the same way?

Every Saturday, in Deep Heat-doused dressing rooms around the world, teams of all levels shout at each other in the huddle about getting to the half-backs. But analysis of this aspect isn’t exactly plastered on our TV screens during big pro matches. Nor is it broken down for us so we can chat away in statistical detail about which fly-halves find themselves pressured the most and which nines scramble out of tough spots with greater frequency.

Shouldn’t we have more than anecdote-based assumptions about which teams most consistently get at the key players in the opposition attack? 

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According to one source from the burgeoning sports data sector, rugby could be missing out here purely because we do not have league-wide, one-company numbers to crunch on where the attackers and the defenders are on the pitch at any given moment in time, or how fast they are moving, for example. And no matter how often television production houses may ask for access to more info, player data is not something teams are wont to toss around.

While the NFL has their Next Gen Stats, where they can pore over the data from every side, in rugby, teams use their own tracking chips and have no access to their opposition’s. At home we are privy to so little of this live GPS data. 

Which makes sense. We don’t have a divine right as an audience to see everyone’s hand at all times. But what this has meant is that so many sides evolved in their own microclimates, like Galapagos giant turtles (but ones who want to be viscous predators in defence). 

It might be a stretch to call this rugby’s hidden arms race. But even trying to pin down which elements of ‘pressure’ different teams find worthy of coding is fascinating. 

Leinster kick defence

Leinster pressure a Connacht kick (Getty Images)

“Forcing the first receiver to pass early is something we put a lot of emphasis on,” says Leinster’s kicking coach and head analyst Emmet Farrell. “Because it gives the outside defenders more read time, to make better decisions, and ultimately the deeper they (the opposition) play the harder it is for the opposition runners to win the gainline.  

“However, Leinster prefer our system (line speed) to put pressure on (the first receiver) as opposed to sending an individual to flush him out, as good tens will play runners into the seams of any dog leg that an individual rushing will create. The stat that we use to monitor this is ‘gain-line won in defence’ – mainly because we don’t want to encourage shooting defenders.  

“There have been cases versus individual players where we have nominated a shooter to lead the line, but not very often. In fact, we will shoot at nine more often than the first receiver. 

“The main scenario which we do stat up is pressure on a first receiver. Especially on – considering the way the game has developed over the last two seasons – ‘kick pressure’.  So that’s how often we force the opposition to rush a kick, or not make an effective kick, or not kick the kick he wants to etc.

“The knock-on effect is that we get easier kicks to deal with for our backfield, reduces the risk of 50:22s and more. We stat this every week and it’s shown to both forwards and backs. We even have a kick pressure captain to drive the message in game.”

One Gallagher Premiership defence coach tells us of measuring “inside pressure and edge D”. They are reticent to give away any insights on their methodology but do go as far as to say that they do get measurable feedback on all their games. It is safe to assume, they add, that each team would approach this side of things differently. 

Marrying everything to your team’s playing style is an important consideration.

Measuring pressure on playmakers in rugby

Bristol close in on Worcester’s Fin Smith (Getty Images)

According to Bristol Bears performance analyst Ben Duffield: In rugby now most teams are adopting a line speed-based defence so it’s a given that the first receiver is given the least amount of time as possible. I guess the context prevents us from collecting any meaningful data here as sometimes the first defender may have to drift, rather than rush up. 

“We currently don’t collect any data regarding pressurising, as it would probably be picked up by the coaches (in analysis anyway) if the team haven’t been quick off the line, but I guess you could code the number of times first receivers are pressured. But you’d have issues with when the timing starts, whether the receiver is a pivot etc.”

Rugby is a game of many moving parts. Of nuance and tactical contexts – would a first receiver always stand the same distance from the breakdown for an exit from the 22 as they would with penalty advantage in the middle of the park? How many phases in are we? Have their been any cards? Is playing off nine bearing more fruit in this fixture? 

Should there be a way of finding a system to grade different pressures, maybe there is a key there. That’s why Benetton defence coach Paul Gustard started statting ‘pressure’ on half-backs ten years ago. 

As the former director of rugby at Harlequins explains, the primary role of a defence is to take away time and space from the opposition. The next thing to think about is, how do you also reduce the influence of key individuals? 

It’s why he can look at how teams like Leinster and Edinburgh have incredibly high numbers of rucks, and zero in on the fact a nine like Ben Vellacott will have his hands on the ball around 80 times a game. Getting to a player like that more consistently could topple a lot more dominoes.  

Measuring pressure on playmakers in rugby

Benetton’s defence closes in on the Sharks (Getty Images)

“We had a thing called the Pressure Index,” the ex-England assistant says of the system he and a few analysts developed. “We started scoring how much pressure we put nine, ten and 15 under. Then also pressure through our kicking game. So it was a holistic view of pressure. 

“Then we had individual things around nines and tens. For example, how many times the nines or tens get hit in possession, because that means that next ruck they’re not involved. Therefore the next play is likely to be slower. If we use our reference point of around 100 rucks a game and 80 times a nine is touching it… Well, if he’s only making 65 or 67 rucks, that is influencing the game. So you’re doing something to manipulate what the opposition attack can do.

“If they’ve got a serving ten – a passing ten – and he’s the key pressure guy, and you’re trying to go more for the ten or out the back of ten, you want to force ten back inside. So how you get there is slightly different.

“So you could go for Edinburgh who have Darcy Graham and Blair Kinghorn, two fantastic runners of the ball. Like you would look at Piutau and Radradra at Bristol. Your kicking game is going to alter because of the threat of these two guys in the backfield. So you might try something different. It’s the same for nines and tens. 

“If you are playing Marcus Smith, you have a plan around reducing his impact on the game. And I think that’s where people have started looking at different areas. They might not have statted it, but it just depends around your frame of mind around feedback to players and what’s important in your system.”

Rugby at this level demands honest appraisals of what works. If we know that around 50% of tries comes from a lineout and 30% from turnovers or kick returns, then you gotta get real good in those areas. You also know you want to be in the opposition’s third as much as possible. Which is why pressure inside your rivals’ 22 is so important, Gustard adds.

How you get into their third is your tactical choice, but keep them pinned in their territory, force a sliced kick or get a charge down, and you are nudging the odds in your favour. Pressure pays off. 

Racing 92 don’t stat up ‘pressure’ in this manner right now, but according to backs coach Mike Prendergast (who also focuses on breakdowns) it’s food for thought. What he has noticed from analysis is that players like Antoine Dupont and Rhys Webb have been real standouts as what they would term ‘snipers’ – just as Farrell nodded as ‘shooters’, these are the players who go off on solo defensive raids to get to half-back. Particularly off defensive lineouts. 

Marcus Smith attack

Marcus Smith breaks away from pressure (Getty Images)

You have to be seriously fit to perform the role, according to Prendergast, and Gustard agrees. What was traditionally seen as a seven’s role, berserking after the opposition playmaker, makes more sense for a quicker player to do. And as any NFL fan will tell you, it’s not always about sacking the playmaker, but destabilising them, getting them shifting into an area they’d rather not be.

It’s also likely more sensible to try in opposition territory because the risk is lesser than if you sent a sniper in your own 22. If they go from playing off ten to playing off nine and it’s pick-and-go time anyway, no one is thinking of flying out of your defensive structure. This is a team effort, buddy. And so many teams prefer the team line speed option anyway, as Farrell suggests above.

However, would knowing that your half-backs come under a lot of pressure lately mean you get them to drastically alter their process? Would it mean drowning in data? According to Prendergast, he’d never tell Finn Russell to scrap his approach to an attacking scenario and you must be wary of swamping athletes with data, but: “If it’s something new and it’s tangible, then I think players will buy into that. I think it could be a good tool. And everyone’s looking for something different at times.

“Especially when you’re in this kind of block of games like we have in the Top 14, and if you throw in something like that – if you’re going to be playing against a nine who snipes or whatever it is – absolutely, I think it is quite a refreshing one.

“We’ve got Perpignan at the weekend and a video analyst comes to me and says ‘I’ve looked at their games and their nine snipes an awful lot of times, it’s big pressure,’ that’s a good one.

“Now saying something like ‘the nine pressurises’, you might as well just show throw that up in the air. There has to be something tangible there as well. Obviously, it’s something people will be aware of. But if you can throw out a stat or if you can show images of it, that’s the most important thing.”

Prendergast says he intends to bounce some ideas off of defence coach Dimitri Szarzewski. For Gustard, he uses some elements of his Pressure Index at Benetton but for now he is still bedding in one defensive system before moving onto phase two. He doesn’t want to overcomplicate things yet.

For us at home, it would be amazing to be able say by the next Six Nations that player X is the scariest stalker in defence or that Y player gets caught on the hop most often or that half-back Z has a surprisingly low heart-rate while under pressure. Sure, we can read the tealeaves amongst other stats to piece some of this together, and there’s always the good old eye test, but we want to go to the next gen. We just need a universal set of definitions and benchmarks for what pressure means.

Of course, we might then take away the mystique of what rugby’s boffins are working on in their own time, with their own number crunchers. Maybe we should just enjoy the chaotic end product.

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