PHILADELPHIA, PA – The headlines following Stuart Lancaster’s lineup for the opening match of the 2015 Six Nations were mostly about two players on the bench: Danny Cipriani and Nick Easter.
Prior to the injury to Owen Farrell, one might have expected a lot of the chatter to be about whether Farrell or George Ford would start at fly half. Now, though, the chatter has moved to who has pushed up to provide cover for Ford.
Before the squad was announced, Dean Ryan wrote:
“Selection is as much about instinct and experience as statistics and, especially at Test level, should be about long-term gain rather than the here and now and a short-term fix.
I mention this now because some time in the six years since Danny Cipriani’s last international Test start, it appears that England told the fly-half that there were doubts about his defence and that his kicking stats weren’t up to snuff either. Well he’s gone away and worked on both, so why, given the current set of circumstances, wouldn’t Stuart Lancaster want to select him now?
It’s about trust.”
Cipriani is more mature now, but still with many years on the pitch ahead of him. Okay. The off-the-field Cipriani seems to be doing well, but Ryan offers no evidence in support of the claim that his kicking and defense have improved. Ryan later writes:
“In the current set of circumstances, and selecting a matchday 23 rather than just a starting XV, I’d argue that it has to be Cipriani. His kicking stats are not measurably worse than Myler’s and there are plenty who would argue that his defence is considerably better, even if it will never be in the teeth-loosening class of Wilkinson.”
Knowing that Ryan has seen a lot more rugby than I, I respectfully submit that he has missed the mark here. The claim that Cipriani and Myler are equivalent goal kickers, certainly within the Aviva Premiership season, is wrong. If part of Ryan’s thinking is that all statistics need to be understood in context and with thought, he is entirely right. If he and others think that Cipriani doesn’t hurt England as a goal kicker, that is wrong.
Frustrated by all that a goal kicker’s simple percentage doesn’t show, there is a growing push to switch to better measurements. For the 2014-2015 Aviva Premiership season, I am working with Goalkickers and tracking the location of every kick at goal taken.
Through the first 13 rounds of the Aviva Premiership, the best goal kicker has been Owen Williams of Leicester. The table below shows that his percentage of 78.3% kicks made is only tenth best in the league. However, when considering the difficult of the kicks and the value he has provided the Tigers, he has been the best. (Click to enlarge.)
Looking at these figures, the case for Cipriani is hard to make. Gareth Steenson has the best percentage, 87.8%, but he takes kicks that are, on average, considerably easier than the kicks of Williams or Charlie Hodgson. Even with Henry Slade taking the long range shots for Exeter, Steenson has still gained the Chiefs 18 points over what is expected from the average (professional) goal kicker. Cipriani, meanwhile, has cost Sale 12 points this season.
Having a better understanding of which kickers are adding the most value to their teams allows us to further understand trends of the season. For instance, many things have been involved in Leicester’s recent good form, but certainly one of the most important has been Williams taking the shots at goal instead of Freddie Burns. Through the first four rounds of the competition, Burns had taken most of Leicester’s kicks and was costing his team expected points.
The chart below shows how Burns was hurting the Tigers while Williams is helping:
Looking at the graph which shows which kickers have gained and lost the most points for their clubs, Juan Socino is clearly a drag on Newcastle’s hopes of moving up the league table. Newcastle has moved on from the dreary performances of the last few years and is playing some exciting rugby. Still, the game against Saracens in Round 11 was a sharp display of the Falcon’s need for a better kicker. Socino missed his last three kicks–one penalty and two conversions, none of which was further out than 23 meters–in a game Saracens won by two points. So far this season, the Falcons have been outscored by 29 points. Socino, by himself, has cost Newcastle 18 points. Not everything falls on the kicker, but this is a side that has scored 32 tries while conceding 31.
Here is a graph with more kickers included (click to enlarge):
This data also suggests that Northampton are indeed the most complete team in the competition. Stephen Myler does not need to be the best from the tee, or even close to the best, for the Saints to win.
Most fun of all, perhaps, is how simple this data make it to answer the question of whether or not George Ford kicks well enough to start at 10 for England. The answer is yes.
If we look at another direct measurement, George Ford is even more obviously the first choice. The Rugby Net is keeping tabs on in form players, and in their list of fly halves, Ford is the top in England. Steenson is second with Cipriani third. These ratings take into account a variety of statistical measures, including points scored, but not kicking accuracy. Looking at their list and the list of most valuable kickers, starting Ford seems like a simple decision for Stuart Lancaster. Cipriani should only be in the conversation if it is already established another goal kicker will be on the field. However, the non-fly halves who are kicking well are not options for England. That makes the inclusion of Cipriani a relatively risky move since part of what he offers seems to be the touch of magic he can offer but can be tough to rely on.
Paul Sackey took the stance that Cipriani should start:
“I’m a massive Cipriani fan,’ Sackey told Sportsmail. ‘Attacking-wise I don’t think there is anyone better than him in England. It would be good for him to get a chance to show what he can do and reignite his career again.
‘He looks back to his best with a good team around him and it’s paying dividends. Sale are doing so well now and that’s paying massive dividends.”
No doubt, the chance to start for England would be a great thing for Cipriani. He is playing well, but Sackey’s quote suggests that Cipriani is leading Sale into the top 4 in the Aviva Premiership, or even the top 6. Sale have won 7, lost 6, and sit even with Harlequins, seventh in the competition.
Cipriani is not the man for the England job.
The process of collecting this data has left me itching for even more data that allow us to better understand what is happening on the field. More data exploration is on the way.
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.