Rugby stats: First try no guarantee of success but it helps

In last 32 Champions Cup semi-finals first team to cross whitewash won two-thirds of time

Those who like a punt on rugby are obliged by a myriad of markets and among the most popular are backing on the handicap, the first try-scorer and the half-time/full-time result. So with an eye on the Champions Cup semi-finals this weekend, this column thought it appropriate to try to establish if there is any relationship between the first scorer in a semi-final and the outcome.

The research will also look into the team that kicks the first penalty of the match, as well as the team that scores the first try. The specific period goes from the 2000-2001 season of the Heineken Cup to last season's Champions Cup, won for the first time in their history by Saracens. That equates to 32 semi-finals over 16 campaigns.

As the graphic below, a team that kicks the first penalty in a European Cup semi-final has prevailed in 19 (59 per cent) matches but it is far from a guarantee of success as 13 teams (41 per cent) have discovered. In the first couple of seasons of European competition, Gloucester (Simon Mannix), Castres (Romain Teulet) and Llanelli (Stephen Jones) all kicked the first penalty of a semi-final but finished on the losing side.

During that sequence only Stade Francais' Argentinian-born Italian outhalf Diego Dominguez kicked the first penalty and ended up on the winning side, when the French club beat Munster 16-15.



There is a stronger relationship between the team that scores the first try in a semi-final and the outcome of the game. Put simply, teams that score the first try have a better chance of winning, with first-try teams registering 20 wins (63 per cent) as against 10 defeats (31 per cent).

There have been a couple of semi-finals where there were no tries. The first was in the 2005-2006 season when Biarritz Olympique beat Bath 18-9; the second was in the 2012-2013, when Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson kicked his team to a 24-12 win over Saracens, the English club's points coming from the boot of Owen Farrell.

In the first six semi-finals of the period under scrutiny, Leinster suffered an unwanted tag of being the only club to score the first try in a match and go on to lose the game. That was in the 2002-2003 season when they were beaten 21-14 by Perpignan at Lansdowne Road. Irish Times columnist Gordon D'Arcy was the try-scorer.

Indeed that match marked one of the rare occasions when a team that kicked the first penalty of the match (Brian O'Meara) and scored the first try went on to lose a semi-final. There is only one player in the 32 matches that scored the first penalty and try in a game, yet finished on the losing side – Northampton's Bruce Reihana.

Unusual circumstances

Two matches in that sequence finished in unusual circumstances. In 2009, the Cardiff Blues and Leicester Tigers played out a draw and then couldn't be separated after extra time, so the match went to a penalty shootout. Tigers number eight Jordan Crane, a former teenage goalkeeper in the West Bromich Albion academy, kicked the winning penalty.

The other unusual finish involved Leinster when they lost 25-20 to Toulon a couple of years ago. The game was tied 12-12 at full-time but the French club prevailed after extra time; incidentally the two tries scored in that match, by Bryan Habana (Toulon) and Seán O’Brien (Leinster), were in extra time, the only occasion that has happened.

Incidentally, Munster have twice been beaten in a semi-final in which their opponents failed to score a try. Dimitri Yachvili kicked six penalties in Biarritz's 18-7 win in 2010, while Jonny Wilkinson landed six penalties and a drop goal – and Delon Armitage posted a penalty – in Toulon's 24-16 win in 2014. In each of those matches the Irish province managed the only try of the game, through Keith Earls (2010) and Simon Zebo (2014).

So Munster and Leinster supporters can feel reasonably optimistic if their team scores the first try this weekend.