Rugby World Cup report affords insight into changing game

Hard data from tournament reveals Tier Two countries are closing gap on elite sides

New Zealand’s flanker and captain Richie McCaw holds the Webb Ellis Cup aloft as he celebrates with teammates. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

New Zealand’s flanker and captain Richie McCaw holds the Webb Ellis Cup aloft as he celebrates with teammates. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

For many, a 96-page report dropping onto the desk a week before Christmas would be a poor state of affairs. A move befitting Scrooge, knowing full well Bob Cratchitt was expected home to Tiny Tim. In this parish such a document was cause for celebration. It was the Rugby World Cup 2015 Statistical Report.

World Rugby’s Game Analysis Unit puts together these little gifts. Compiled and published after each major international tournament – including the Women’s World Cup and the Junior World Championship – the reports are a numerical review of the competition gone by.

The various headings remain broadly similar from tournament to tournament, year to year: a commentary; scoring; shape of the game; scrum; lineout; discipline. Some go into more detail; some offer historical comparison of a statistic to add context (more of this, please). Some reports are purely text and tables while others in the past have read more like a glossy magazine.

One can forget about these things, but that World Cup final was a cracker. Where finals are so often crucibles of tightness and tension – from 1987 to 2011 there had been just seven World Cup final tries – New Zealand and Australia crossed the whitewash five times in this year’s decider. And we’ll always have Japan.

General dominance

Apart from the joy of tries and the general dominance of the Rugby Championship sides, the performance of the Tier Two nations in RWC2015 is also ballyhooed. Perhaps a little too much ballyhooed.

Tier Two nations did not score 30 per cent more tries against Tier One opponents than in the 2011 tournament, as was written. “Thanks for letting us know about this headline” said the men from World Rugby HQ. “We have looked at it again and it should read ‘Thirty per cent more points were scored…” No harm; it is the season of goodwill.

But whether looking at points or tries the improvement from 2011 continues a general tightening of points and try margins in Tier Two vs current Tier One RWC contests since 2003, the first World Cup with Italy in the Six Nations.

An average margin of 31 points in such matches is a vast improvement on the 46 points in 2003, with the most encouraging aspect again being the lack of particularly silly defeats.

We haven’t seen a century posted in a World Cup since 2007. This is a good thing.

The shape of rugby football continues to change; fewer scrums and lineouts with a corresponding increase in the ruck and maul, nightmares to officiate while being key parts of the modern game. The year 2015 saw a huge increase in yellow cards, as many as the 2011 and 2007 World Cups combined.

There are a few factors in play here. The game is being refereed differently with new interpretations and guidelines in play. But there was also a significant change to the remit of the television match official.

Referees have in many ways become onfield citing officers.

They can have video reviewed, with Hawkeye, even while the ball is still in play. The introduction of a TMO referral for foul play helped increase total TMO referrals to 132 from 2011’s 58 (57 in 2007). In response to a question from the Irish Times, World Rugby’s head of technical services, Mark Harrington, said 20 of the 55 foul play TMO referrals resulted in yellow cards.

An aside – the length of time taken by the TMO was a great bugbear for many. The final numbers? Foul Play TMO referrals averaged 55 seconds (54 seconds in the pool stages; 57 seconds in the knockouts); TMO try referrals averaged 80 seconds (82 in the pool stages; 59 in the knockouts).

What happens after that yellow card is shown is not as bad as many think. Lose a man and commentator, fan, or scribe might refer to teams averaging seven points conceded over those 10 minutes.

Common misconception

In the 2015 Rugby World Cup “the overall average points benefit to the team with 15 players was just over three points”.

World Rugby say this is nothing new; their stats tell them the net value of a sin-bin is usually around the three-point mark.

Harrington said “we started looking at this in 2005 and the data has always been similar”.

It would be nice to get more of this data. It’s valuable. The effort that goes into compiling and analysing it all across multiple tournaments should be celebrated by publishing it all in a more accessible format, not just a PDF. Let the rugby nerds of the world in there. See what happens.

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