Here’s a question: Did the Springboks play expansively against Argentina or not? When they ran the ball did they play a wider game than Springbok teams before them? Were they more adventurous? More circumspect?
Us pencil jockeys in sports data often get a bad rap because what we do is so far removed from the sweat and blood on the field. We’re told that rugby is a game played on grass, not paper. But while it may be true that a match report is only as good as the person who’s reading it, and that numbers without context are meaningless, data is data and there’s no escaping what it tells you when you look at it in the right light.
Years ago the father of sports performance analysis Professor Mike Hughes showed that even elite coaches are mislead by their subjective reading of games. One study showed that experienced soccer managers were only able to recall 58% of the big, critical events that happened in one half of a game. This myopia – which is naturally even worse in fans – leads to a phenomenon called “highlighting” where one’s perception of performance is distorted by those events you can remember. The bigger moments define the memory.
So back to the Springboks. What was your impression of the match against Argentina and how would you describe the way the Springboks played? It’s telling that there have generally been two answers to this question: Some people felt that the Springboks showed more adventure than in the past, while others felt – quite ludicrously – that there was no evidence of a gameplan. Luckily Rugby Analytics has some data that can help throw some light on the issue.
The graph above shows all the Springbok carries in the game and in which channel they occurred. The numbers speak for themselves. 62% of all the Springbok carries happened in the 9-10 channel. A further 10% of carries were mauls. So in other words 72% of the Boks’ total carries in the match against Argentina can be classified as “narrow”. The Springboks played close to the rucks and rarely strayed far from home.
We’re not necessarily passing judgement. Test match rugby is tight rugby and its unrealistic to think that you can play a wide game and not risk being punished for it – even the All Blacks keep it relatively tight until their opponents start to show holes. But this data does give the lie to the idea that the Springboks are more laissez-faire under Allister Coetzee. Early in the game the Boks played a bit wider and moved the ball through the hands to score and at the end of the match they dotted down again after some well-worked interplay between the forwards and backs, but these are the things that stick in our minds and they colour our perception of what actually happened. The Boks did have a gameplan, and that gameplan was a safe, attritional assault on the Argentinian inside lines.
So if that was the approach, how did it pan out? What’s interesting to us is that the Springboks didn’t necessarily pick a juggernaut pack to get the most out of that tighter focus. Sure, Etzebeth and company are no powder-puffs, but with loose forwards like Warren Whitely and Teboho Mohoje trying to smash men at the gainline the Boks weren’t necessarily geared for this kind of confrontational style. Again, this isn’t a criticism of those selections, it’s just a comment on the synergy between the personnel on the field and the game they were asked to play. In the graphic below, Rugby Analytics notes that of the Boks’ 58 carries in the game, only 53% resulted in gainline success. That’s not too bad, but it’s not the 60% benchmark one generally looks for. *
And here’s another interesting thing: these narrow carries played into the hands of a team who like to slow you at the ruck. As a succession of Springbok carriers struck at close quarters, the hungry Pumas were there to contest and slow down the ball. The Springboks’ breakdown woes in this match – which have been well documented – had as much to do with where they were attacking Argentina as with anything else. An exacerbating factor was the fact that the Boks often changed the direction of their play at the wrong times, playing back into a defence that might have been lagging if the ball had been shifted away from them.
So let’s revisit the two “highlights” we spoke about – the early try and the late try. Both came from slightly wider forays by the Boks, and while they influenced many people’s perceptions of the game they’re also instructive about what might work better against Argentina next time.
For one, shifting their targets away from the inside channel might better suit those Springbok forwards who thrive in space, and secondly by playing away from the bulk of the Argentinian pack the Boks might be pestered less at the breakdown and end up getting quicker ball.
It’s wrong to say that either approach is definitively wrong or right. What’s non-negotiable is that you need to be able to play both ways if the need arises. In most test matches the defence don’t give you much outside so you have to win the arm wrestle inside first. But it’s also true that if you’re being matched inside then you have to consider doing something else, like kicking, or shifting your point of attack.
Either way, the Springboks are still finding their identity and we must remember that they’ve chosen the most difficult path of all – evolution. We’re lucky that our South African D.N.A. is rooted in abrasive, physical rugby, which is invariably what test matches come down to. The challenge now is to add a more attacking dimension to that combative framework.
*A note on the Gain Line Success stat – it covers all successful carries, from the forwards to the backs, and as such it has limited use when seen in isolation. For instance players operating in tight, crowded spaces, and who get used in different roles, would naturally have “worse” stats than players who operate with more room to move.