Risky Business: Rugby Stats Influencing Strategy?

Reason to look glum.
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She knows how to manage risk...
She knows how to manage risk…

PHILADELPHIA, PA – So, Saracens pummeled Harlequins (overseas, they don’t use the article “the”) on the scoreboard last weekend in the Aviva Premiership. Certainly, 39-0 is a crunching win for Saracens. Not a good performance by the Quins…

Or was it?

If you look solely at specific statistics, Quins didn’t look half bad. Meanwhile, at Sandy Park, Leicester beat Exeter 24-20 and sure, Exeter looked competitive in a losing cause – but not as good – in the stats -as Quins did in their loss. Two games with very different scorelines, but both with the losing team looking pretty solid on the stat sheet.

Harlequins were thumped because they didn’t manage risk well. Exeter were close because they managed risk better and their risky decisions led to 7 points. Quins’ risk led to 0 points.

Reason to look glum.
Reason to look glum.

Yet this isn’t all about Joe Marler, who is captain and officially calling the shots. His selection as captain with Chris Robshaw still there, by the way, was a surprise. Anyway, the decision-making from the captain and others was so consistent, it must be part of a coaching plan. Danny Care, for instance, took a quick tap from the center of the field 40 meters out. A kick from there, according to Goalkickers, has an 80% chance of going over. The result Quins got? Knock on. Later, the Quins win a penalty 15 meters out and on the 15 meter hash. A kick taken from there has an 86% chance of going over. Instead they go for the lineout… and lose the lineout.

All of these individual actions are justifiable when taken only as individual events. And, of course, execution matters. If Harlequins score a try from one of those chances in the first half, it might be a different game. Looking at patterns, though, we can see that kicking for the corner is a risk that, so far in the Aviva Premiership season, does not pay off enough to justify the aggressive decision-making of the Harlequins.

Intuitively, we know that going for the lineout or scrum contains risk. The reward -a try – is a beautiful thing and can lift the entire team in ways that matter beyond the scoreboard. If risk, however, is just for the sake of risk, a team is hurting itself. If value is seen as things that help a team win, there is almost no value in making an aggressive decision that is highly likely to fail when the safe option is highly likely to result in points.

Leicester Lineout
Rugby Stats Changing the Game?

Let’s look at three games from Round 2:
Leicester v Exeter
Saracens v Harlequins
Wasps v Northampton

Look out, numbers galore ahead! In those three games, there were 49 penalties awarded in the attacking half. Of those, 22 became shots at goal. 27 times, though, teams awarded penalties in the opposition half decided to do something other than kick for points -24 times – the decision was to go for the lineout. 22 shots at goal became an actual 51 points. Thanks to the work of Jurie Nel at *Goalkickers, we know that from the 27 chances, probability suggests 60 points scored out of a possible 81.  Instead of scoring 60 points, the teams scored 19.  Ouch.  All of that kicking for the corner didn’t work out.

Not surprisingly, most of the points left out there were left by the losing sides. This is not about who has the better goal kicker; this is about who is making the better decisions. Saracens were penalized, for instance, 12 times in their defensive half. That means that Quins had 12 reasonable chances to go for 3 points. They took two of those twelve.

k5313521There are many things that complicate evaluating the risk of going for the lineout. For example: teams that are already losing by a wide margin are less likely to score tries and more likely to opt for the lineout.

Even with all we don’t know, there are things that can be measured and some decisions are simply better than others. Harlequins will likely keep being aggressive, and when they play London Welsh, they will look awesome. But captains, especially Joe Marler, need to be allowed to give their teams the best chance to win even if that means making the safe call.

That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@:RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.

*Note: The Goalkickers data – which is where the probabilities for the kicks comes from – does not yet contain information from Aviva Premiership matches. The site is comparing professional goal kickers to professional goal kickers from the competitions covered so far. I have tracked most of the kicks from this English season and will soon be feeding him data to add to his calculations.

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About Jake Frechette 125 Articles
Jake Frechette lives outside of Philly, where he is engrossed enough in rugby that he sometimes forgets that when he talks about the Eagles, most people assume he means the NFL flock. He once played both tight head and inside center in the same game, which shows that he is strong, handsome and has nice hair. One of the things he finds most enjoyable in the rugby world is that Andrew Hore is a Hooker and he can't wait until his sons are old enough to giggle at that one with him.