Crunching the numbers always a dangerous game

Joe Schmidt’s side have carried the ball and passed more than any other team in the championship

Wales lost seven of 18 lineouts in the first two matches, coughing up four against England and three to the Scots. They didn’t lose a single lineout against France the last day, winning all 10 throws.

Wales lost seven of 18 lineouts in the first two matches, coughing up four against England and three to the Scots. They didn’t lose a single lineout against France the last day, winning all 10 throws.

 

Mark Twain’s assertion that ‘facts are stubborn things but statistics are pliable’, is a pretty good description of how the same set of numbers can be occasionally used to define opposing sides in an argument.

Take for example the official Accenture statistics for the first three rounds of the Six Nations Championship. The consensus based on general observation is that Ireland, the only unbeaten team, have subscribed to largely kicking-oriented, attacking patterns, yet Joe Schmidt’s side have carried the ball more often (386 times) and passed more (464) than any other team in the championship.

But while Ireland run more and pass more based on bald numbers they also kick more. The percentage of possession kicked against Italy was a modest 20 per cent but that rose to 37 per cent against France and 33 per cent against England.

Accumulatively the overall tally for Wales would be lower, yet at 39 per cent, they kicked more ball against the English, than Ireland did.

Wales lost to England but won their subsequent matches, both away, where they emphasised a different game plan in beating Scotland (22 per cent possession kicked) and France (24 per cent), a trend of kicking less, that they may look to maintain at the Millennium stadium on Saturday. No figure can be viewed in isolation unless accompanied by context.

To illustrate, Wales lost seven of 18 lineouts in the first two matches, coughing up four against England and three to the Scots. They didn’t lose a single lineout against France the last day, winning all 10 throws.

Second Captains

Warren Gatland’s decision to change his hooker and drop Richard Hibbard to the bench and start the Ospreys’ Scott Baldwin in a Six Nations match for the first time would appear to be vindicated by the numbers. It should be noted though that along with introducing Baldwin for the French game Gatland also restored the 6ft9 secondrow Luke Charteris to the starting team.

The context in evaluating Wales’ lineout statistics was provided by the additional information in terms of the change of hooker and secondrow. In a brief aside it’s interesting to note that Baldwin confirms the opinion of those who have faced Ireland hooker Rory Best at scrum time. The Welshman pointed out: “I’ve played against Rory a few times and he’s a top player.

“For a man his size I was surprised how good a scrummager he is. But I won’t be taking him lightly; he’s been great for them for years.” Best was exceptional against England the last day, and aside from his yellow card aberration against France, has been a key Irish performer.

The lineout, under the auspices of assistant coach Simon Easterby and Paul O’Connell, with Ireland winning 31 of 35 is one area he shines in but it is in another facet, the breakdown, that Best has been prominent in slowing down or stealing opposition ball.

Ireland have won more turnovers than their opponents in each of the three matches while Wales have lost more rucks (17) than any other team in the tournament. The Irish have conceded less penalties, 26, than the Welsh, 37, but Gatland’s men are head on line-breaks, making 12 to date in the championship to Ireland’s eight.

There is one particular trend that’s striking after three rounds of matches and that is the respective tackle completion percentages.

Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards will be pleased to note that graph is on a steady upward spiral with figure of 87 per cent (England), 88 per cent (Scotland) and 92 per cent (France) while the curve for Les Kiss and Ireland is heading in a different direction with figures of 91 per cent (Italy), 86 per cent (France) and 82 per cent (England); the latter figure is unusually low, as the Irish team missed 27 out of 120 tackles the last day. England and Ireland have the most missed tackles in the tournament to date at 63.

Wales lead Ireland on offloads, 19-12 and also on line-breaks 12-8 but as if to reinforce the opening assertion of the pliable nature of statistics, Ireland scrumhalf Conor Murray has kicked the ball from hand (35) more often than any other player in the tournament while at the same time has passed more (269 times) than anyone in the championship.

It’s all about context.

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