PHILADELPHIA, PA – In an ideal world, rugby teams would know, specifically, what actions during the match most affected their chances of winning and by how much. The game is wonderfully complex and fluid, with many things being dependent on many other things, so that isn’t easy. However, we can work to understand broad trends and see the value, positive or negative, of different events. One thing to look at is penalty value. The data here suggest, among other things:
- There is a consistent value to a penalty won in the attacking half.
- Teams use the quick tap less frequently than they should.
- There is a way to clearly quantify the value of a dominant scrum.
During the Americas Rugby Championship, winning a penalty inside the attacking half was worth 1.78 points. If conversions are included in the point total – (Are they a separate event from the try that is scored following a penalty, or are they part of that try? I’ve gone back and forth. It is a separate act, but the points scored in that separate act are still largely the result of the penalty.) – then the penalty is worth an even 2 points.
Looking at all of the penalties won in the attacking half, the outcomes are in the table below. In terms of goalkicking, the success rate for this tournament was relatively low (72%). This suggests that either teams were opting for unusually difficult kicks (unlikely) or that the goalkickers performed below average (more likely, and will be confirmed soon). The low success rate means that the value of the penalty goal attempt is lower than expected.
For context, at the 2015 World Cup, a penalty goal attempt was worth 2.34 points. In last summer’s Pacific Nations Cup, which featured Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Japan, Canada, and USA, a penalty was worth 1.77 points, or 1.98 points with conversions factored in.
That fact that the ARC and the PNC resulted in such similar values suggests that there might be a consistent value for a penalty won in the attacking half.
Below is a table that takes a broad view of what the individual sides did in the ARC. The second column shows how many penalty goals they attempted and made, while the third column shows how many penalties they were able to turn directly into tries. The last column is an attempt to see how many times they scored points (a try or a penalty goal) indirectly. That is, no try was scored from the possession immediately following the penalty, but the ball was never cleared and they found a way to score (try or penalty goal) shortly after the original penalty.
One thing this table shows is how aggressive Argentina were in their decision-making. The table below shows how many penalties in the attacking half each side won over the course of the tournament. Argentina won 40 and attempted 5 penalty goals. 5 penalty goals attempted over the course of 5 matches. That’s not many. That means 35 other times, Argentina kicked to touch, took a quick tap, or opted for a scrum. Those other decisions led directly to 13 tries.
There is potential overlap here: points scored indirectly from one penalty might also be direct points from another penalty. Still, this helps show how effective the different sides were in turning penalties into points.
Next is a table that shows a finer breakdown of what each side did. Opting for a scrum is a lucrative decision in part because only teams feeling confident in their scrum take it. Chile, Brazil, and USA all avoided scrummaging from penalties. This table is one way to quantify the value of a dominant scrum. Argentina won 16 penalties from scrums inside their attacking half (7 on their put in; 9 on their opponent’s). Using the value per penalty from above including conversions (2 points/penalty), that’s worth 32 points. That’s a lot. That value goes up when considering the potential points being denied to the opposition when winning a penalty on their put in.
The fact that every team scored a try by opting for a quick tap suggests that this is an under-utilized option. When a player goes quickly, it “feels” risky, but the data I’ve collected suggests it is much less risky than that feeling. Part of the under-utilization of the quick tap might be due to referees who are slow to give the mark or unnecessarily pedantic about from where the tap is taken. However, part surely is a risk aversion that seems to be misplaced.
Value per quick tap from the World Cup, not including conversions, is 1.39 – not as high as in the ARC, but not too shabby. I’ll work with the Rugby World Cup data to validate this conclusion.
If a defender commits a penalty inside the opponent’s attacking half and there is better than a 50/50 chance of the opposition scoring a try, he has definitely made the right decision (removing yellow card scenarios). However, if the chances are lower than 50/50, and they usually are, these figures are starting to show just how harmful that penalty is.
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