In partnership with Opta, by Stats Perform, Alan Dymock and Ross Hamilton take a look under the hood of some striking match data to bring you the story behind Six Nations stats. First up: ruck speed
Creating Chaos Through Ruck Speed
Talk to elite analysts about game directives today and you’ll have conversations spiked with certain phrases. Don’t be surprised to hear about introducing a little ‘chaos’, for example.
At Test level, during events like the Six Nations, the top teams have drilled their systems hard. Particularly in defence, there should be cohesion verging on telepathy, trust, and a sickening ability to repeat actions over and over again. Cracking that is tough stuff.
Generating lightning-quick ball is one of the most direct ways to instigate chaos. So we worked with Opta, by Stats Perform, to see if we could get a handle on the mayhem.
If we look at round one of the Six Nations, you can get pulled into looking at the average ruck speeds of teams involved. The measurement is from the point of there being a ‘contest’ on the floor and the ball being lifted away from the ruck – which means that looking at rucks across the whole match becomes all the more impressive when you realise how rapid some of these are.
Ireland had an average ruck speed against Wales of 2.78 seconds, with France at 2.89s. Wales were 3.47s, England 3.51s, Italy 4.34s and Scotland at 4.46s.
Of course, this is after looking at all rucks. From box-kick set-ups in your own 22, to the uncontested, to the Black Ops, in-and-out-without-being-seen breakdowns during raids in the enemy line.
It is also worth noting right out of the gate that rapid ruck speed is about creating chances – it is no guarantee of triumph, because you still have to capitalise on the opportunities you so quickly and violently created and while one aspect of your game may be flying, rugby can be like a Rubik’s Cube hurled at your face. Solving one problem doesn’t mean all is perfect and the other problems are solved too. But more on that when we get to the Scots and the English…
What is impressive is the percentage of rucks that certain teams get under 3s across the whole match. Ireland and France stand out (72% and 66% respectively), but England are not lagging so far behind either. Which talks to matches being riven with defensive disruption through many events. But what do you do with it?
We want quick ruck speed in the first place because the plan is to disorganise the well-drilled defence and eventually create holes. Converting line breaks into a score takes precision, and looking at Ireland against Wales, of the nine line breaks Ireland created, three of them ended up in a try. By comparison, Wales had very little to show for their line breaks – with a Taine Basham try making it look like one of their four at least led to a score, when in fact it was an intercept from a Tadhg Beirne pop off the floor.
France made seven line breaks and scored five tries – and although one of those was an intercept try from Anthony Jelonch, you get a sense of the efficiency in their attacking forays. Though again, you caveat that with who they faced, with Italy fighting hard to begin with but fading away.
With England, the stats can make for positive reading. They bettered Scotland in percentage of rucks at 0-3s. They had more gain-line success, making more metres beyond the gain-line, and entering the opposition 22 more often. But the stats from Opta also bear out how wasteful they were on those entries. They had one try to show for all of this, beat eight defenders to Scotland’s 17, and made fewer line breaks than the Scots.
This is where we need to be wary of being totally seduced by overall ruck speed stats.
Efficiency is vitally important. Scotland may have been playing rope-a-dope stuff, relying on their potent defence and waiting for the perfect time to counter-punch. But of their five line breaks and five forays into the 22, they had a line-break conversion of 40% to England’s 33.3%… Scotland’s red zone efficiency was 3.40, compared to England’s 1.22.
Interestingly, as analyst Ross Hamilton explains, “Scotland made four of their five line breaks on the first phase, so didn’t need a quick ruck to disorganise the defence. They could strike immediately without it. Their other line break was on the seconnd phase from the quick lineout for Ben White’s try.”
You can capitalise on loose ball too. Look at Italy’s opening try against France. With a spill on the floor, the Azzurri scramble to claim the ball in the deck. There are two rapid rucks and then a pinpoint cross-field kick from Paolo Garbisi that Tommaso Menoncello takes and squeezes in at the corner.
Scotland had by far the best red zone efficiency at the weekend, with Ireland next at 2.07. The numbers also tell us of contrasting approaches.
Ireland have all the pace and explosion in their breakdown all game, and as a unit are happy to accumulate phases. They scored three tries from multi-phase, and in their try-scoring possessions, Ireland average 3.7 rucks. Scotland, by comparison needed an average of one, with France and Italy both on two.
But what also stands out is the split of times for rucks when a try is on, and this is where we get our hair blown back. In two of Ireland’s three tries scored through multi-phase, every single one of their rucks was under 3s. For Ben White’s try in Edinburgh, Scotland had a 1.5s ruck. Both of Italy’s rucks for Menoncello were 1.6s long.
Clearly we discount the intercept for Wales and England running in their sole try, with a dart and pass directly from a driving maul. However, the rest are silly fast.
So while Scotland had a slow ruck speed throughout the game, when they got their chance, the pace went through the roof. They averaged 4.46 seconds overall but for try-scoring possessions that dropped by just over two seconds per ruck to 2.45s. Two seconds at international level makes a huge difference – even fractions of a second can ensure you are exploiting the chaos. For Ireland, they maintain pace throughout a game, even when the phases rack up on the way to a try.
Again, Hamilton adds: “Of the eight tries scored from multi-phase at the weekend, the average phases accumulated was 3.3 – meaning the average rucks needed were 2.3. The average speed of all rucks within try-scoring possessions was 2.53 seconds. And crucially, while there were a total of 21 rucks within try-scoring possessions, 15 of them were less than 3 seconds (71.4%).”
If you want another illustration of just how rapid Test rugby is, then how about this. The slowest ruck on the way to a try, all weekend, was from France as they went for their bonus-point score. It was 5s. Hardly the stuff of slugs, even if it is a one-off.
Related: Momentum in the Six Nations – is it real?
By this point, Ireland have won nine Test matches in a row. And if we delve into the autumn, you can see that things have been trending well as they stack up phases. If you look at how all of the Six Nations sides did in their November Tests, Ireland made the most gain-line carries (90.7), most metres made (881), most red zone entries (15.3), and most tries (6.3) and points scored (47.3).
Of course, every Six Nations side faced what you would call Tier Two opposition in that window, but it is notable that Scotland were still the most efficient in the red zone then (3.06 point per entry), compared to Six Nations rivals, while England were third and France fourth.
That was with England fifth in terms of ruck speed and carries over the gain-line in November. For any top teams there are other ways of getting into the opposition 22 without hitting all those rucks, as we well know. And if you shoulder your way over the line with plenty of heft from short distances, don’t be surprised if ruck speed plummets. But that might not exactly be what we call chaos.
As the Six Nations rolls on, it will be interesting to track teams going through the gears as they accelerate into try-scoring opportunities. Who will take their chances? And as we consider this for round two, perhaps it might be best to watch France-Ireland from behind the couch.
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