About four or five months ago, The Mole became interested in finding a way to analyse and attribute value to the work done by each player at ruck and breakdown.
Lies, Damn Lies, And Enormous Yawns
The phrase ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’ is worn out. Just like the phrase ‘a tired old saw’, it’s a tired old saw. Ooh, meta. It was probably funny for about twenty years – that’s a pretty good run for a joke – but Benjamin Disraeli is said to have coined it, and he died in 1881.
In paper-bound rugby reportage – less in internet rugger lip-flapping – the use of statistics is still in its infancy. It’s an age of relative innocence. Sabermetrics long ago evolved beyond baseball, and for fans of other codes of football, there are some very hard-working wonks out there [like Football Outsiders, a top notch American Football analysis site] who put a hell of a lot of thought into how to convert accurate baseline data – e.g. the amount of yards run by a tailback – into context in terms of both the sixty minute game itself and the entire league season. Kudos to those lads. The gridiron lends itself to that kind of analysis, with yard markings on the pitch and a typical play lasting about four seconds.
Rugby may or may not be a more complicated game [adherents of the two codes could make a feasible argument either way] but it certainly seems more difficult to quantify, as an effective tackle doesn’t end play. So here at Mole Towers, we look at ‘statistics’ in rugby in a simpler light, as a collection of THINGS THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED.
They’re not things that you want to have happened, or things that you forecasted before the match would happen, or things that – for the more deluded amongst us – you imagined to have happened. They’re things that actually happened.Älä Poika, Opeta Isääs Naimaan.
Most people who read this blog will be familiar with the stats provided by ESPN Scrum.com. Personally speaking, I find them a hugely valuable resource, and while some of our fellow internet rugby guff-talkers make valid complaints about their failings – and there definitely are failings, such as the lack of a basic explanation for what constitutes each heading – there’s an awful lot of accurate information provided free of charge. So thank you, Scrum.com!
On the other hand, there’s no shortage of really important actions on the pitch that aren’t covered at all by these headings. Concentrating on the Scrum.com numbers as though they represent the most important actions of the game for all players – and because they’re available, that’s what a lot of fans who participate in online discussions do – can lead to a very badly skewed understanding of the game and a whopping army of strawmen arguments presented with a reserve corps of independently assessed [and thus in theory unimpeachable] statistics about what happened over the 80 mins.
‘The Unseen Work’
Ever the pithy bunch of pricks, we’ve long held that there’s no such thing as ‘unseen work’ if you’ve recorded the match and you’re reasonably knowledgable about rugby.
If you’re at a game in person, it’s a different story. There’s an awful lot of stuff happening on the field. There are thirty people out there trying to make an impact and you’ve only got one point of view – literally. It’s a lot of information to take in, and everybody misses actions that happen on the pitch. Beyond the information overload, typically if you’re going to a game you’re actively supporting one of the teams, so it’s not as though you go there as a disinterested observer of sporting minutiae. You’re there with an agenda.
‘The unseen work’ is a phrase that has been used in recent times as some sort of bastard hybrid of a catch-all and a shibboleth. The shibboleth element is to infer that there’s a range of work constantly going on around the pitch that the uninitiated mightn’t appreciate [which is true], while the catch-all seems to imply [at least to The Mole] that anything done without direct interaction with the ball is of the same value.
There’s an implicit laziness in categorising so many actions on the pitch as ‘unseen work’ and making very little attempt – and generally none whatsoever – to enlighten readers as to what they should be looking out for. The more you understand about a game, the more you enjoy it, after all.
So readers are told that certain players ‘got through a mountain of unseen work’ [although the fashionable cover-phrase du jour is ‘typically combative’] and it’s left at that … or if they’re handing out marks as numerals, you’ll get a 6. It’s so codified that the phrase ‘got through a mountain of unseen work’ should just be replaced with a number six, even in the body of the report: “As ever, such-and-such toiled manfully at the coalface and 6.”
Ascribing values to different outcomes that aren’t scores is a tricky business. Scoring systems themselves are a tricky business, and entirely drive the way a game is played; and given that the way a game is played is the game, scoring systems drive the game.
In soccer, if you score a goal, it’s a goal. That’s it.* It doesn’t matter where you scored it from, how it was scored [header or shot, from open play or from dead ball], who scored it, or how ‘good’ it was – there’s only one value. You can’t get a quarter-goal for hitting the woodwork, or a half-goal for an own goal, or a three-quarter goal for one that takes a deflection on the way in. Anybody can score at anytime over the ninety minutes.
*Do you get a point for a goal, or do they just count goals? It doesn’t even matter.
It’s almost too obvious to write – when has that ever stopped us? – but in rugby not only are there are different methods to score [i.e. a try, a penalty goal, a drop-goal etc.], there are different values [or weights] associated with these scoring actions.
It’s quite a finely balanced system. Every time you hear some yahoo [typically a southern hemisphere commentator] complain that penalty kicks are overvalued or the converse, that tries are undervalued, bear in mind that making pennos worth two points or even one point would encourage defending teams to cheat their hearts out in order not to concede a try. And you’d deal with that by yellow cards? Brilliant, take the decision out of the laws of the game and put it solely under the referee’s discretion. A genius idea. That’s sure to lead to consistency.Well-weighted And Simple
Since we’re not inventing a game from scratch, nor codifying one, it’s important to accurately reflect the way that the game is played when assigning value to the actions of the players for the purpose of rating their effectiveness/worth.
If, for example, the aim of a ruck was to get there in the first three players on your side, rucking would essentially be a bleep-test with variable locations [rather than static locations] to touch.
You’d sprint to a ‘ruck’, lightly tap the tackled player there with your hand and then hover nearby until the next ‘ruck’ location became apparent, at which stage you’d dart in, tap a player and then hover again.
That’s pretty clearly not how the game is played. Doing something effective at a ruck is as important as getting to a ruck. Just like the scoring system in rugby is weighted, we felt that rather than merely count the rucks that a player was involved in, it’d be far more worthwhile to rate his effectiveness at each ruck.
Defining The Hierarchy
Essentially what we wanted to create was a simple system that relied on visual evidence and didn’t require any involved formulae to produce comparable results.
The first part basically means that you’re only reliant on having a recorded broadcast of the match – you don’t need any third-party-supplied numbers or products. It’d be great to have access to GPS and discover the impacts that each player experienced at each ruck, but that’s a pipe dream … a sweet, smoky, crack-pipe dream.
The second part, namely weighting each individual participation in a ruck, is the idea. That’s what started the whole thought process four or five months ago and, because it is both the kernel and the longest established part of the ‘system’, it has taken up residence in a little corner of The Mole’s thinkspace.
It’s a basic system, with a basic scoring method. Each action by each player at a ruck is distributed into one of five categories: turnover [worth 5 pts]; decisive [worth 4 pts]; hit [worth 3 pts]; guard [worth 2 pts] and present [worth 1 pt]. It’s as simple as that.
Primarily, the whole exercise is about satisfying a personal curiosity. It really is nothing more than watching a particular aspect of a match very closely in order to build up [and, in this case, document] an accurate account of what each individual player did in his time on the pitch.
There are some very significant drawbacks to the system. It’s massively time-consuming, for one thing. We’ve streamlined it a bit over a few attempts, essentially through making the spreadsheet both more user-friendly and more graphic, but it’s still basically a pain in the hole to do.
A Routine Of Pure Untrammelled Drudgery
Marking a match essentially means watching it in slow motion: you’re watching the recording, pausing at every ruck, and then going to the spreadsheet, entering the match-clock time, which team is in possession, the phase number, then marking the players involved on their actions. Then you rewatch it again at full speed to double check whether or not you’ve missed anything or under-rated anything, pausing it again so that you can check that you’ve entered all the information accurately and correctly into the spreadsheet, and then doing the same thing for the next ruck.
We’re typically early risers over in Mole Towers, which is handy when you’re doing a pretty tedious data-entry exercise like this; you can watch it with the volume down and nobody else is up [and/or wants to watch the TV]. Even so, just getting through any match in this mode and creating an accurate first draft of the spreadsheet typically takes four to five hours, and that’s before you’ve cleaned up the spreadsheet, resolved the different variants [turnover, decisive etc.] on a player-by-player basis per half etc.
Objectivity In The Marking System
Secondly, it’s a little bit objective. We think that the way the marking system is structured [i.e. one point differences between categories on either side] minimises the effect that the individual marker has, i.e. you might categorise a player as ‘present’ instead of ‘guard’ at one ruck where it’s in the balance what he’s doing, while somebody else might have it the other way around, but in the end, the difference is only one point per incident. It doesn’t skew the overall result too badly.
However, in order to adequately and effectively mark the contribution of each player involved at each ruck, there is an element of objectivity involved. We looked at other ways of marking players’ contributions [i.e. awarding points to the first three players who arrive at each ruck, as mentioned above], but it’s not as satisfactory. That method, for example, rewards mobility rather than effectiveness. There’s no point being in the first three at every ruck if you’re totally ineffective when you’re there, if you’re driven off the ball or just don’t do your job very well.
The objectivity element shouldn’t prove a huge variable, but that’s only if you’re marking it with a straight bat. If you’re going in with an agenda to reward certain players or downgrade the work of others, you can easily do it: because it takes about 300-400 minutes just to mark each 80 minute game, nobody’s going to check your work. What’s the f*cking point though?
The Mole appreciates that there are bounders out there in the world of internet rugby time-wasting who’ll try and massage the numbers to suit their agenda. Just as in any walk of life, you shouldn’t do a deal with somebody you don’t trust. When you buy a paper [or pay an on-line subscription] to read reports, interviews and opinions on the rugger, you’re essentially going into business with that hack. There’s a middleman involved, and you get a whole lot of extra sh*t that you don’t need [I call that the Travel section], but you’re essentially paying to read an article or a series of articles that a journalist has written.
If you don’t trust his judgment or put much credibility in his opinions on how players have performed, why do you pay him? If you’re spending your time reading this blog, you likely have formed an opinion on whether or not we’re complete bluffers. With those qualifications set out, onwards.What’s a turnover?
This study was all about analysing what happened at the ruck, so quite a number of turnovers that happened in the game don’t show up on it. For example, if the ball was kicked away and somebody on the other team caught it, they don’t get marks for a turnover. Likewise, if a ball was lost in the tackle [whether forward or backwards] and gets pounced on, you don’t win any turnover points for that either – because it was a tackle, not a ruck.
What you do get turnover points for are winning the ball cleanly as the breakdown turns into a ruck [if the ruck had formed beforehand, the jackal shouldn’t – in theory* – be allowed to touch the ball with his hands] or forcing the other side to commit a penalty offense to stop you winning the ball cleanly, i.e. turning the ball over.
*For example, Toby Faletau’s game-changing steal in the third test at Ruck #109 [54:46 on the match clock] was way outside the law. It was a ruck, not a breakdown – there were two tacklers and the tackled player on the deck, then Wycliffe Palu and another [unidentified] Wallaby get their hands on Faletau before he even touches the ball; it’s clearly a ruck at that stage, and you can’t handle the ball in a ruck. Faletau should have been penalised, but there you go.
What counts as decisive?
Decisive acts are standout acts that are decisive factors in any particular ruck; typically they’re big hits that generate forward momentum or technically excellent examples of rucking that take an opposition player to the ground and out of the game. This includes:
- knocking somebody down in a straight hitting contest [George North on James Horwill at 51:04 of the second test];
- smashing a jackal off his feet and out of contention [Sean O’Brien on George Smith at 19:47 of the third test];
- wrestling an opposing player to the deck by rolling away with a limb [or his head] and taking him off his feet and out of the game [Sam Warburton on Michael Hooper at 11:15 of the first test]
Incidentally, this has a noticeable effect on the shape of the game. The number of ‘decisive’ hits drops significantly in the second half of games where there are a high number of attempted jackals in the first forty to fifty minutes, as dishing out the big hits obviously takes a lot of energy. It’s another reason to use your front five subs relatively early in the second half, to make sure the number of decisive hits and hits don’t drop off entirely as your starters get more and more tired.
Other examples of decisive acts are:
- kicking the ball out of an opposition ruck [Jamie Heaslip at 00:17 of the second test];
- causing an opponent player to knock-on at the base through a ‘counter’ ruck [this didn’t actually happen in the Lions test series];
- protecting your own ball against a significant counter-ruck [Sam Warburton at 38:11 of the second test]
Sometimes a player was awarded a ‘decisive’ mark [4 points] rather than a ‘hit’ mark [3 points] when their action didn’t really fall into any of the categories listed above, but it was still a big infuence in the outcome of the ruck.
For example, there were a couple of instances in the Lions’ long run of possession in the first half of the first test [the 23 phases between 09:41 and 12:31] where Tom Youngs [at 10:17] and Adam Jones [at 11:27] ‘moved the pile’ and generated forward momentum and quicker ball by putting a huge shunt in on a slow/static ruck that moved bodies away from the ball. They may have made initial contact with their own men rather than immediately knocking an opponent out of the game, but it was still a decisive act in the context of that particular ruck .
And a hit?
A hit is the basic action of a ruck, i.e. when you hit an opponent player at ruck time and move him. Because rucks are a disjointed business, occasionally you can initially make contact with your own player and end up moving an opposition player – if so, you get yer three points. If you carom into your own player having any effect on an opposition player, you only get a ‘present’, i.e. one point. If you make a hit on a player and he shrugs you off immediately and looks a little bit embarrassed for you [as happened to Geoff Parling in the second test – Ruck 78, 43:41 on the match clock], you only get a ‘present’ mark as well.For the purpose of defensive rucks [i.e. when you’re the team without the ball] an unsuccessful attempt at a jackal also counts as a hit – the weighting just seems to make sense. Even if it may require a ‘decisive’ hit to remove a well-positioned jackal [which might make you consider that a jackal is worth the same as the act that negates it, i.e. 4 points] an unsuccessful jackal isn’t a ‘decisive’ act. After all, you didn’t turn the ball over.
Nonetheless, an attempt at the jackal requires an effort from one of the ball-carrier’s supporters to move the defender off the ball [rather than just step over the tackled player with his arms outstretched, like a tire-pulling Jesus Christ], and that energy expenditure adds up as the game goes on and on. Jackals force the attacking team to
- a] commit more players to the ruck; and
- b] work hard when they’re there, rather than just seagull.
Simply put, the guard protects ball that has already been won by basing himself over it in a strong position to resist any counter-ruck. Just like snowflakes, every ruck is different, but typically speaking, a guard will not make any meaningful impact on an opposition player – otherwise you’d classify his actions as a ‘hit’ and award three points rather than two.Sometimes a player acting as a guard has arrived too late to do the ‘real’ work, i.e. clearing out an opposition contestant, but it’s not an inconsequential role. Firstly, merely being there and establishing a strong base with good posture [Dan Lydiate is a great exponent of this] is often enough to discourage an opposition player from wasting his energy trying to contest or disrupt ball that is, from his perspective, already lost.
Secondly, the presence of a player over the ball [i.e. the ball is within his stance] establishes that the ball is not out and the ruck not over, hence opposition players can’t come around the side and try and pick it without conceding the penalty.
Thirdly, a guard gives protection to the scrum-half to perform his job without interference … although on occasion it’d be better if the guard wasn’t there and the No9 didn’t have the opportunity to dwell on the ball!
Finally, there are occasions when a guard will be called upon to defend the ball [and his scrum-half] against a determined counter-ruck – you’ll often see this late in games, for example, when a desperate team floods the ruck of an opposition team trying to run the clock down.
Hey – that’s not the ruck inspector. Oh yes it is!
The ‘present’ mark covers a whole range of sins. If you’re there at the ruck, but don’t do anything that could qualify as any of the actions that would come under one of the four above categories, you get marked as ‘present’.
People who take on a pick-and-go at the base automatically count as present; they’re not getting marked for carrying the ball, they’re getting marked for being present at the ruck off which they pick.
In defensive rucks, standing at pillar [if you’re attached to the ruck, not if you’re 3 metres off it] will earn you a ‘present’ mark. In offensive rucks, being attached to somebody who’s in the guard position will earn you a ‘present’ mark.
Why do people who are ‘present’ at rucks but don’t do anything of note get a mark at all? It’s better to be there than not be there. The mere fact that an opposition player is in the vicinity shuts down options for the other side.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As might be evident from some of the stills used to illustrate the various action categories, the guinea pig tests for this system were the three Lions games against the Wallabies over the summer. There were some interesting conclusions to draw from the numbers that the players put up in each test, and overall we felt that the system was worthwhile and practicable, while obviously not perfect.
Every match is its own context and pans out in a different manner. As such, sometimes there are an awful lot of rucks in the game, and sometimes there are relatively few. However, a baseline system like the one proposed should give a reasonably accurate comparison between individual players within a specific match, and in this case, because the three matches were played by a limited pool of players, within the series.
The First TestAlex Corbisiero Comes Up Trumps
In hindsight, it seems a poor call that Corbisiero was omitted from the original squad in favour of Mako Vunipola. The obvious caveat is that Corbisiero missed the vast majority of the second half of the 2012-13 season, returning for his then-club London Irish in May to play some essentially meaningless fixtures in the Premiership. The Lions squad was announced on 30 April, at which stage Corbisiero had only played two games in 2013.
As England scrum coach under both Johnson and Lancaster, Graham ‘Wig’ Rowntree had overseen the entirety of Corbisiero’s national career and, as recently shown in the ‘Lions Raw’ teaser, pushed hard for him to be the first loosehead substitute. Good call! Corbisiero had a great test series – obviously his scrummaging was top notch, but his work rate and effectiveness at the ruck and breakdown was just as good.
Paul O’Connell’s Impact
O’Connell embodied Ian McGeechan’s phrase, ‘a test match animal’. Having missed almost the entire season due to injury, he roared into life with a performance for the ages in Munster’s against-the-odds victory at the Stoop over Harlequins in the Heineken Cup quarter-final. Quins had been unbeaten in the competition to that point, but O’Connell was the rallying point for a Munster performance that turned preconceptions on their head and salvaged their season.
He took up in Australia where he left off in London. His performance in the first test was outstanding in terms of effort and application. He carried the ball seven times for 17 metres, but his biggest impact was without the ball: by The Mole’s scorecard, the Munster lock was the dominant presence at ruck time in the first test, racking up a whopping 109 points [0 turnovers, 2 decisives, a monstrous 24 hits, 11 guards and 7 presents], and was the only player to break into three figures in a single game over the series.
Tom Croft, Show Pony Or Work Horse?
The much-maligned Tom Croft also put in a serious stint in the first test, especially in the first half. Croft led the Lions’ pack as a ball carrier – 27 metres run from seven carries, including one clean break – and is credited with making eight tackles.
However, it’s fair to say that that’s sort of expected of him, especially the running part. What came as a surprise during this analysis was his workrate at the ruck. Croft was second only to O’Connell with a ruck mark of 56 in the first half, and led the team with 16 hits. His impact in the second half dropped off considerably [he earned only 19 marks in 32 minutes on the pitch in the second period, though still ended fifth on the Lions leaderboard with 75 points], but he was obviously running on empty, and might have been substituted earlier had Gatland selected Sean O’Brien, and not the one-dimensional Lydiate, on the bench.
Adam Jones, Not A Lazy Bones
Not a lazy player in the slightest. In one of the many puff pieces that was part of the post-selection, pre-departure phony war, it was revealed that Jones was the Lion with the biggest chest measurement, stretching the tape at 51 and a half inches. You’d imagine that he was also at the top of the pile with the waist measurements as well. Would sir like a little more room in the seat? Yes sir would.
Jones weighed in at a conservative 121kg and in comparison to his Welsh team-mates, it’s fair to say that he carries some sloppy weight. It is what it is. When you put his bodyshape in tandem with his widely acknowledged excellence as a tighthead scrummager, it’d suggest that he’s very much the stereotypical ‘old-school’ prop who waddles from scrummage to scrummage and doesn’t do much in between, and indeed that seems to be the default opinion of him as a player. Well, he probably does waddle a bit, but the idea that he doesn’t contribute between set-pieces is largely off the mark.
His first half performance at ruck time in the first test saw him in joint second place with Croft, trailing only renowned workhorse O’Connell. The Lions were able to put together a significant number of multi-phase possessions [including the 23-phase monster that saw them erroneously penalised by referee Pollock and led to Israel Folau’s breakout try] and Jones is a willing worker when it comes to repeat efforts at close-in rucks. Granted, he acted as guard with more regularity than any other member of the pack [12 instances], but he contributed a fair number of hits  and a decisive shunt  too. He’s not a guy who takes a lot of time off on the ground, or who stands out taking a breather in the backline rather than following the ball.
Counter-balancing that is the fact that he knows he’s not going to go much longer than an hour on the pitch, and often times he’ll be taken off considerably short of that mark. For example, he was on the pitch for just 51 minutes in the first test. Rucking is as much about effort and fitness as it is about aggression and technique, and it’s improbable to the point of impossible that Jones would be able to keep up those numbers if he knew he had to go 80 minutes; if he pushed himself that hard in the first half, he’d have nothing left in the tank for the last half hour, and his play would degenerate into the scrum-to-scrum waddler that he’s often portrayed as.
When the play breaks up, he’s a lot less effective. This was readily apparent in the second test. Play can break up in a number of ways – sometimes as a result of counter-attacking, for example, which is what many people read into the phrase – but a contestable kicking game like that of the Pumas in RWC07 or the Lions in the second test is also an example of a lot of broken play. In this instance, we don’t mean a lot of passing and few rucks, we mean a lack of continuity of possession. Jones is extremely unsuited to play an effective role in a gameplan that is fundamentally reliant on a kick-chase. He wasn’t able to hit a ruck, see the next one two metres away and plow into it; instead, the ball was often kicked high for a contest 15-20m ahead, and he was largely unable to either reach the resulting breakdown or predict where the next one would take place. Thus he spent much of that game like a turtle on his back, rocking backwards and forwards as the game got away from him.The second test was a hard watch. It was an absolute abortion of a game.
Gatland [somewhat predictably and very conservatively] opted for an aerial bombardment; somewhat less predictably – he has been a hell of a successful coach – he had little in the way of a Plan B. We dealt with this at length in a previous article and will try to veer away from revisiting old ground too often, as this piece is intended to be a specific examination rather than a general overview.
Having reviewed the game in eye-watering detail, there are really four key pieces of information about the Lions’ rucking and breakdown work that stand out. We’ve already mentioned [above] that the gameplan effectively removed Adam Jones from contributing in open play, which is one of them.
Geoff Parling, The Bearded Caretaker
Parling was one of The Mole’s favourite players on the squad and ended the tour with laurel wreathes around his shoulders and praise ringing in his ears – and rightly so, given his performances throughout the tour and the way he carried himself off the field. However, the Lions suffered badly from the injury-enforced absence of Paul O’Connell in the second test.
There’s nothing that Parling does in the lineout that O’Connell can’t do just as well – if not better – and around the park there was a significant loss of physical aggression, power and leadership by example. As we mentioned previously, the benchmark for workrate and effectiveness at the ruck and breakdown was set in the first test by O’Connell, with 109pts.
In contrast, Parling’s efforts in the second test over 80 minutes amounted to a score of 63 [0 turnovers, 0 decisives, 15 hits, 6 guards and 6 presents]. It’s not as though Parling didn’t expend a huge amount of effort; his 9 hits in the first half led the Lions. The problem was that he was not particularly effective at ruck time. He’s not a big-bodied powerhouse who can blow away jackals like straw men, and he tends to be a bit of a waist-bender [the most stinging criticism in American football scouting reports]. He didn’t exhibit great accuracy in a range of clear-out skills and he lacked the aggressive finishing ability that O’Connell showed.
One of the most surprising results to emerge from this exercise implicitly validates a Gatland selection in the third test.
Jamie Heaslip, who had been so effective in the first test – handling the ball twenty times, making nine tackles and missing none, and finishing third in The Mole’s ruck marks with a score of 78 – slipped out of the game badly in the second half, having made a bright start.
After three decisive interventions in the first six minutes [kicking the ball out of the first Australian ruck, inflicting a big clear-out on Joe Tomane in ruck #5 and winning a penalty around 05:45 when Horwill failed to release under his jackal] his influence diminished from there on, and he was substituted after 62 minutes for the hard-charging Sean O’Brien. The Scrum.com numbers report that Heaslip ended the game as the Lions leading ball carrier with 4 carries for 12m, but they’re hardly stellar numbers in any context. He made the second fewest tackles of any member of the starting pack [trailing only Adam Jones], and his ruck mark of 39 [31 of them achieved in the first half] over 62 minutes was exactly half that of the 78 he accumulated in the 80 minutes of the first test.
It’s important to take on board the part that Gatland’s selection and tactics for the second test had in influencing Heaslip’s role, while acknowledging that the player’s own performance in the second half was not up to either his standards or what was expected of him.
In picking a pack whose back five was comprised of Alun-Wyn Jones, Parling, Lydiate, Warburton and Heaslip, Gatland selected only one good ball carrier; and even then, Heaslip is more renowned as an open field runner rather than an ice-breaker in the Sean O’Brien or Louis Picamoles mould. While Mako Vunipola is a strong carrying loosehead prop with a big engine, he’s not an experienced test player or a first class scrummager. He ended up having to deal with his own problems at the set-piece, which had an impact on his overall performance.
Given the lack of a Jamie Roberts [or a Manu-Tuilagi shaped substitute] in midfield, a player around whom Gatland’s Welsh attacking strategy is reliant on to get over the gainline, the Irish No8 was regularly to be seen standing in the backline on Lions ball, ostensibly to fill the Roberts role.
You can’t be in two places at once though, and the lack of ball carriers in the selected pack meant that the Lions provided a minimal threat around the fringes when in possession.
The apparent lack of logical, one-thing-follows-another thinking in the gameplan meant that even standing out in the backs, Heaslip was rarely used in the Roberts fashion: on occasion he was the decoy runner, but the ball didn’t make it beyond the half-backs often enough to exploit the carrier/decoy dilemna in the Wallaby defense. For the most part the ball was kicked towards the roof for Tommy Bowe and George North to contest when it came back down to within ten feet of the playing surface.
As a result, Heaslip drifted out of the game in the second half and didn’t do enough to get back involved before he was subbed off. In The Mole’s opinion, given Heaslip’s second half performance and the parity between the two No8s during the preliminary matches, Gatland’s call to replace him with Faletau for the third test was justified.
The Constructed Narrative
One of the more odious side-orders to the Lions tour was the journalism which, with the honourable exception of Dean Ryan – who was badly missed on Sky broadcasts but made sure his cult was kept informed by moonlighting for the Grauniad – routinely dipped into the well of myth-creation and propaganda.
It was the combination of harrumphing tone and the construction of a parallel narrative that became actively irritating as the tour wore on. Anybody who has an active interest in rugby could recognise from their previous year of form that the Australians weren’t world beaters, and the fact that the team was missing important players like David Pocock, Scott Higginbotham, Tatafu Polota-Nau and [for the majority of the tests] George Smith and Digby Ioane through injury, as well as proven test-match talents like Quade Cooper, Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell through selection, should have cast some doubts over the hullaballoo that greeted the narrowest of victories in the first test.
However, a win is a win, and people can get carried away if they’re not particularly circumspect. The search for silver linings and bloated praise that came in the train of the second test defeat was something else. The Grauniad wrote:
“Sam Warburton – The heart and soul of the team. Turned in one of the finest 70-minute spells in history in the second Test.”
Warburton put in a good shift – Scrum.com credits him with nine tackles, and his ruck mark of 78 [2 turnovers, 3 decisives, 15 hits, 4 guards and 3 presents] from his 66 minutes on the field was exceptional. On the other hand, he was an absolute non-entity with the ball in hand, it was a crap match and the Lions lost.
The Mole can name a better performance by a Welsh player in this series than Warburton’s second test [Leigh Halfpenny in the third], and I can name a better performance by a Welsh flanker in the last two years [Dan Lydiate vs France in the 2012 Six Nations].
“One of the finest 70-minute spells in history?”
Did he make thirty-eight tackles? Did he score a vital try? Did he lead his team to one of the biggest upsets of the decade? Then it wasn’t “one of the finest 70-minute spells in history”. Idiot.
That may seem churlish towards Warburton, but I don’t think it is. If anything, it’s a criticism of the way the tour was over-covered an over-hyped in the media. The player himself had a good game in a bad match, and maybe the Lions would have won if he had stayed on the pitch for the full 80 mins; after all, they were leading 15-9 when he went off. On the other hand …… Sean O’Brien’s performance in the third test [in which he was substituted after 59 minutes, thus on the pitch for seven fewer minutes that Warburton in the second test] was superior in almost every metric: he touched the ball more often, ran for more metres, beat more defenders, made more offloads, made more tackles and importantly, for the sake of this article, outperformed Warburton at the ruck and breakdown, finishing with a ruck mark of 86 [1 turnover, 2 decisives, 18 hits, 8 guards, 3 presents].
If Warburton’s performance was “one of the finest 70-minute spells in history”, what does that make O’Brien’s? The best hour ever? That’s both rhetorical and dismissive, in case the tone doesn’t make it over the fibre-optic line.
The Right Call
Lest The Mole be accused of bringing an Irish agenda to the table, Toby Faletau’s excellent performance at No8 should be highlighted. According to the Scrum.com numbers, he was the Lions’ best ball carrier, with 25 metres run from 11 carries, beating 4 defenders along the way. He was also used extensively in the lineout, winning four balls in the set-piece; in his six matches to that point, he had only taken three, while Heaslip had been a go-to option on tour, second only to Ian Evans [who, to give context to that statistic, didn’t feature in any test match-day squads and was also the lineout caller in the tour games in which he played]. Whether Faletau’s lineout abilities had been intentionally hidden on tour is impossible to say. What matters is that he when he was needed, he performed.
The Welsh No8 also led the Lions in his ruck mark score with 92 over 76 minutes [he left the field to be treated for a blood injury for four minutes to be replaced by Justin Tipuric, then returned as a sub for Sean O’Brien] – he earned 2 turnovers, made 0 decisives, and put in 19 hits, 9 guards and 9 presents. He had a first-rate game.
Captain’s Performance – Play Up And Play The Game
The other stand-out in the pack was Alun-Wyn Jones, who had an absolute stormer. While his ruck mark of 70 was his lowest score of the three test matches [he hit 76 in the first test and led the Lions with 92 in the second], his overall performance was terrific. He touched the ball sixteen times in open play, including four passes and two offloads out of contact, and was second only to Toby Faletau as the best ball-carrier in the Lions pack, making 15 metres from 12 carries and beating a defender. In defense, he also led the tackle count along with Sean O’Brien: both players made thirteen successful tackles, but AWJ missed just one in comparison with O’Brien’s two. It really was a captain’s performance from the off.Conclusion
This was an exercise that The Mole had intended conducting for a good few months, and an article that we should have finished a good few months earlier too!
As mentioned above though, it can be pretty tedious double-checking your results, and there was also a struggle with how to adequately represent the findings. Having spent time compiling three pretty detailed spreadsheets, we were quite keen to publish these and show exactly how we rated each particular Lions player in each ruck [see below] to provide evidence that the system was reasonable and that the results weren’t rigged. However, in the end we just decided to present the marks and damn the evidence. I know that Leaving Cert Maths requires you to show your workings, but the interweb doesn’t. Trust me, it’s there.
Obvious time constraints mean that it’s an exercise that’s not always practical to carry out, but it’s one that we believe is worth doing; it certainly threw up some findings that we found interesting, even revelatory [in the mundane sense of the word, i.e. revealing, rather than as a ‘Eureka!’ moment]. Rugby is – to The Mole’s eyes, at least – the quintessential team game, and it’s also a very complicated one, with a lot of important things happening without the ball.
P.S.: We’d like to carry out a similar exercise for the forthcoming Irish test matches, but in reality, it’s impossible to predict whether or not we will have the time for it.