With the help of Oval Insights, we look at catching kicks under duress

Pressurised kick receptions in the Premiership

Pressuring the catcher, or catching under pressure, is a vital part of modern elite rugby union. So we thought we’d look at what happened last season in the Gallagher Premiership and the initial breadcrumbs of what’s happened in three rounds of this season, to see what we could learn about the battleground.

Oval Insights have stepped in with the data on ‘pressured ball receptions’ for teams and individuals. These include contestable kicks, where a duel to catch the ball is on, as well as situations where chasing players bear down on the catcher. And all that’s in between. 

Pressurised kick receptions in season 2021-22 

On 169 occasions, kicks in attack were won back by the kicking team last season – 36.19% of all attempts to pressure the ball. 

Defensively, 64.28% of the time defenders trying to secure pressured ball won it. Remember, we’re looking at attempted catches here, not the kicks themselves. The number of times defenders have to field kicks will typically be higher than that of times attackers get anywhere near a catcher.

To put a big fat number on it, out in front last term was Sale Sharks, who won the most contestable kicks in attack with 26. Sarries, Worcester and Bath made 18, while Tigers made 15. 

If you talk about picking your battles, Irish had the highest success rate of winning back the pressured kicks they put up in attack at 58.33%… but only put up 12 such kicks all season, according to Oval’s metrics! At the same time, Sarries put up 58, Sale 56 and Tigers 54. 

Huw Jones catches under pressure from Harry Potter (Getty Images)

Ivan van Zyl kicks for Saracens (Getty Images)

Sale won back 46.43% of those but Saracens clocked in with 31.03% for winning it back, and Leicester came in at 27.78%. 

What you have to factor into your thinking here is volume. For example, Sarries won back more balls in the catch than Bristol, Gloucester, Saints, Chiefs, Tigers, Irish, Quins, Falcons and Wasps. But they also sent up a lot more than most.

Some might see that as a poor return, but if you also consider that every single kick was pressured, you must also reckon with notions of Sarries keeping the ball in-field, and if they won’t win it the runner-up prize could be forcing the opposition to take it back in their own territory as pressure builds again, or simply to make them play in an area of Sarries’ choosing. 

Good pressure doesn’t have to be at the point of the catch either. There are breakdowns to come and if you look at how the Springboks play or Leciester did last time out, they lurk, waiting to pick up turnover in the phases soon after the catch.

Of course, some data on the volume of territorial kicks or a breakdown of where pressured kicks went in could further augment this. And there are other issues that can add context (such as what the referee has been hot on each game or if a contest in the air is deemed too risky on a particular day, if they want to target one particular back-three player or if the opposition are struggling to clear lines, just to throw out a few).

Harry Potter

Harry Potter in action again (Getty Images)

The player who pressured the most kicks from his own side last season? Leicester’s Harry Potter. On 24 occasions he went up to contest for the ball hurtling towards the opposition defence, compared to second on the list, Louis Rees-Zammit, at 15. 

Arron Reed of Sale was the most successful in this regard, claiming seven attacking kicks back (from 12 chases). Potter won just four of his attempts but again, the pressure was there. And you might want to apply the same logic as with missed tackle statistics: just because a chaser doesn’t clatter the defender, they can still make a significant tactical impact by forcing the carrier to act; move into a certain lane; panic in their decision selection. 

On the defensive side, Harlequins’ Tyrone Green went for the most balls sent his way, under pressure, with 38. And interestingly, he put on pressure for zero kicks the other way. With 28 takes, Green won the most defensive takes. Tom de Glanville and Freddie Steward were joint second, with 25.

Special mention must also go to Tom Parton of Irish, who was fifth on the list for most successful defensive takes, with 16, but had an impressive success rate of 88.89%. Which may add an extra layer to why Eddie Jones would look at him in England training in the summer, alongside his blockbuster team-mate Henry Arundell.

So would you expect the above teams and figures to act the exact same way this time out? Obviously we are comparing a whole season to three matches, meaning the data sets don’t marry up, but there are some interesting factors already emerging…

Pressurised kick receptions in season 2022-23

After three rounds of the Prem so far, what stands out right away is that Bath have put up the most pressured kicks in attack, with 12 compared to Sale in second with nine and Bristol with eight. Johann van Graan has taken over the West Country side, tasked with lifting a stricken giant. If the legend of what he likes is true and organisation, systems and forcing errors is on the menu, then this might hint at what’s to come. 

At the other end of the spectrum? Sarries and Tigers have only put up two kicks to be pressurised so far, with Saints only sending up one. It’s very early doors, but you have to wonder if last season’s finalists have changed approach. Certainly the champion Tigers kicked long plenty against Exeter and Northampton.

On the side waiting to receive a kick, Bristol have been successful catching under pressure just 18.18% of the time, taking only two of the 11 coming down on them with rivals in motion. Sale have only looked after one of the five sent down their throat in traffic.

Wasps catch

Charlie Atkinson takes the ball for Wasps (Getty Images)

Some individuals have thrived so far. Wasps youngster Charlie Atkinson has been the most reliable defender eyeing a kick, taking five of the six sent his way. On the attacking side, Will Muir, Cadan Murley and Luke Morahan have hunted the most kicks sent up by their side, each doing so four times in the first three games. 

It’s still early days. We know that. So we will keep an eye on trends as the season progresses, keen to see if certain teams have changed tack from last term and who emerges as the diamonds in the crush of pressurised kick receptions. 

All data provided by Oval Insights.

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