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Rugby Restarts: The Return of the 2019/20 Premiership Season

 

Domestic rugby union action is set to return in the UK with the resumption of the 2019/20 Premiership Season. It’s been over 5 months since we last experienced live action, so Stats Perform is on hand to refresh your memory on all the key narratives and insights ahead of the restart.

By: Jonathan McCormick

159 Days

When Harlequins and Sale Sharks take to the pitch on Friday night it will be 159 days since we last witnessed live Premiership action – another match that featured Quins, who went down against the Bristol Bears on a Sunday afternoon in March that now feels like a lifetime ago. For context, the length of time between the opening game of the season and the last game in March was 142 days.

With that in mind, you could be forgiven for forgetting what went on in the English top-flight in the ‘pre-COVID’ era, but don’t worry; using Stats Perform’s in-depth rugby data we’ll bring you back up to speed with the key facts and figures ahead of the restart, as well as assessing how the Chiefs, Sharks, Bears and Saints found themselves in the playoff spots before the break.

The Kids Are Alright

Most Breaks In A Single Premiership Rugby Match

 

During the first five months of the 2019/20 season, a series of young stars came to the fore. Perhaps none more so than Louis Rees-Zammit who became just the fourth player under the age of 19 to score a try in Premiership rugby for Gloucester when he crossed twice against Worcester in December. He then became the youngest player to register a league hat-trick for the club when he scored three against Northampton in his next match (18y 329d).

Not content with scoring tries, the Welsh flyer also made seven clean breaks against London Irish in February, the joint-most recorded by Stats Perform in a Premiership match (since 2008/09). His tally equalled the efforts of Christian Wade, Jason Woodward and Taqele Naiyaravoro, as well as Zach Kibirige, who managed that feat on the same matchday as Rees-Zammit (Rd 11).

23-year-old Jack Willis has also had a stellar season, with the Wasps back row buzzing around opposition breakdowns all season, winning 28 turnovers in total – including 24 jackal turnovers – almost twice as many as any other player (Blair Cowan, 15). In fact, Willis’ current tally has only been bettered twice in a single season, with Matt Kvesic winning 29 in 2015/16 and Hendre Fourie recording 37 turnovers in 2009/20. Going into the restart Jack Willis is on course to surpass Fourie’s tally should he maintain his current rate for the remainder of the season. The flanker has averaged 2.8 turnovers per 80 minutes, while Fourie averaged 2.3 per 80 during his record-setting season 10 years ago.

Most Turnovers In Premiership Rugby Season

Another young player who has posted impressive stats this season is Ben Earl, who is one of five players joint-top of the try-scoring charts having crossed the whitewash on seven occasions. The 22-year-old back-rower has been in fine form with ball in hand this season, averaging 6.1 metres per carry – the best rate of any of the 150 forwards to run with the ball on 25+ occasions this campaign. Earl has also proven to be a menace at the breakdown too, winning 12 turnovers this season – behind only Jack Willis and Blair Cowan. Earl is currently on loan at Bristol from Saracens and will surely have mixed emotions when the two sides clash at Ashton Gate on Saturday in their first outing of the restart.

The Perfectionists

This Premiership season has seen its fair share of accuracy so far, particularly on the south coast where Exeter duo Gareth Steenson and Joe Simmonds have been close to flawless from the kicking tee. Steenson has slotted a staggering 97% of his place kicks in the Premiership in 2019/20, with the Chiefs stalwart missing just one of 30 attempts, while Joe Simmonds has landed 92% of his kicks at goal, slotting 35 of 38 efforts. Currently, their numbers would rank them first and second respectively for goalkicking success in a single season (since Stats Perform has recorded this data, minimum 20 attempts), however, they will need to keep their near-perfect numbers up for the remainder of 2019/20, or perhaps just not attempt another kick this campaign…

At the lineout, Jack Walker has been the biggest perfectionist in this league campaign, finding a Bath teammate with 66 of his 68 throws so far in 2019/20, a success rate of 97%. Of players to attempt at least 20 throws in a season, Walker’s rate is the best for a single Premiership campaign since 2013/14, when Rob Hawkins recorded a 97% rate for Leicester.

When it comes to looking after the ball, look no further than Sale’s Faf de Klerk. The South African scrum-half has had the most attacking touches (253) of any player who is yet to make a handling error in the Premiership this season. Making up the rest of the top five for this, admittedly slightly niche, category is Leicester’s now-departed Sam Harrison (217) and three of England’s Rugby World Cup squad – Willi Heinz (190), Owen Farrell (167) and George Ford (164). As if the World Cup winner needed more bragging rights…

The Big Hitters

Another Sale man has been getting in on the headlines this season. Back-rower Jono Ross has topped the tackle charts so far this season with 201 hits in total. It’s nothing new for Ross though; this is his third season with Sale and in each of his previous two Premiership campaigns he was the top tackler for the entire league having made 336 in 2017/18 and 331 in 2018/19. In fact, those two tallies are the highest recorded by Stats Perform in a single Premiership season and time will tell if the man from Johannesburg can top them in 2020.

Jono Ross’ tackle numbers include just a further 11 missed tackle attempts for an incredibly impressive 95% success rate in the league this season, but it is Gloucester’s Jake Polledri who has been the most accurate tackler this campaign, making 59/59 tackles. Usually, a rampaging ball carrier (don’t worry, he’s still beaten the most defenders per 80 minutes of any player this season), the Italy flanker has been just as effective in defence this season having not missed a tackle. Ollie Atkins holds the record for most tackles in a Premiership season without missing since Stats Perform have recorded this data (2008/09), making 97/97 in 2015/16 – could Polledri be the first to break triple figures without missing in a campaign?

The Top Four

Generally, the top-scoring team in a league season will find themselves in the playoff spots and this season has been no different, with league leaders Exeter sitting five points clear at the summit having scored more points (390) and tries (48) than any other side this season. Exeter’s game is incredibly possession-based and the Chiefs love to grind down their opponents by making them defend for large periods of the game – on average they’ve spent 19 minutes and 21 seconds in possession per game. Breaking that down further to examine their individual passages of play, the Chiefs average 2.2 phases and 22 seconds on the ball per possession, both league-highs. It’s a valid argument, though, that possession alone doesn’t mean much if you don’t do anything with it, but Exeter have made the most of their time on the ball.

In fact, we can make a direct comparison to Bath who boast similar numbers for average phases (2.1) and length of possession (21 seconds) and have also put together 10+ phases on 36 occasions this season, a joint high along with the Chiefs and 12 more than any other side. However, when you compare the progress both teams make in an average possession Exeter top the charts by gaining seven metres on average, 1.5 metres more than any other side and over twice as many as Bath who rank bottom (3.4m).

Exeter are also incredibly efficient when they reach their opponent’s 22. On average they have recorded 9.2 22 entries per game this season, a rate that sits above the league average of 8.6, but crucially they average 3.2 points per entry – the only team to average 3+ points each time they get inside the opposition 22.

Sale sit second after a hugely impressive first half of the season. In contrast to Exeter, the Sharks’ league standing is a result of boasting the strongest defence in the league. They’ve conceded just 190 points and 20 tries in 2019/20 – at least 40 points and six tries fewer than any other team. Their defensive solidity comes from the fact that they’ve missed just 207 tackles in total this season, whereas the league average (excluding Sale) sits at 299 missed tackles. That has given them the best tackle success rate (89%) and has meant they’ve conceded fewer linebreaks (5.5) and metres (248) per game than any other side, resulting in fewer scoring opportunities for their opponents. In attack, Sale’s maul has been a real threat this season, crossing for a league-high six tries in that fashion, but they’ve also proven to be the most dangerous team following turnover ball, scoring 15 tries after winning a turnover – four more than the next best team – accounting for a league-high 36% of their tries.

Turnovers Won - 2019/20 Premiership Rugby

TeamTries Following A TurnoverTotal Tries Scored% Tries From Turnovers
Sale154236%
Wasps114127%
London Irish73321%
Exeter74815%
Bristol63219%
Northampton63517%
Leicester42020%
Harlequins43412%
Gloucester43711%
Saracens44210%
Bath2248%
Worcester0180%

Bristol, who sit in third, have been perhaps the great entertainers this season, playing a brand of rugby that focuses on shifting the ball wide to create space for their dangerous runners. Bristol top the charts this season for average carries (133), metres (423), breaks (9.8), defenders beaten (29), offloads (8.5) and passes (173), although their expansive play isn’t without its risks as they’ve also conceded the most turnovers this season (14.9 per game). Quick ball has been key for Bristol in being able to play this expansive style of rugby, in attack their breakdown work has been excellent, their average ruck lasting four seconds flat, quicker than any other club this campaign.

2019/20 Premiership Season - Averages Per Match

TeamCarriesMetresClean BreaksDefenders BeatenOffloadsPassesTurnovers Conceded
Bath1243296.123.84.514513.1
Bristol1334239.828.88.517314.9
Exeter1323948.126.24.513913.4
Gloucester1173649.522.08.515013.7
Harlequins1133377.220.16.313313.9
Leicester1033085.520.54.811412.3
London Irish1083305.615.36.411713.5
Northampton1244109.223.07.415314.1
Sale1123379.421.87.811912.8
Saracens1163578.121.77.313214.2
Wasps1103789.425.55.612314.2
Worcester121.3277.520.37.814414.3

Bristol’s ability to get the ball wide quickly is a real team effort, their forwards have made a combined 546 passes this season, over 150 more than any other side in the Premiership and account for 24% of their total passes this season – another league-high. You can read more about their style under coach Pat Lam here.

Similar to the Bears, Northampton have also been hugely exciting to watch this season and are another team that enjoy playing with width as they look to find holes in the opposition defence. They are particularly adept at creating width from set-piece situations – from the average scrum, the maximum width Saints play with is a league-high 18.8 metres, moving the ball 1.7 metres per second in the process – quicker than any other team in the league. Meanwhile, from lineouts they stretch the play 32.5 metres on average, sitting only behind Worcester Warriors (32.9) in that regard but again topping the charts for the speed with which they move the ball following a lineout, this time shifting the ball away from the original set-piece at a rate of 3.1 metres per second. Their ability to move the ball quickly has allowed them to get across the gain line efficiently too – 47.6% of their carries this season have taken them over the advantage line, a tally only Wasps (48.8%) and Exeter (48.1%) can better.

Exeter currently sit in the driving seat as the Premiership season restarts this weekend and with Saracens out of the running for 2019/20 the Chiefs are the only team with recent experience of winning the league. However, two of their playoff rivals (Bristol and Sale) have already beaten them at Sandy Park this season suggesting that on their day any of the playoff hopefuls are capable of winning the title, and we also shouldn’t discount teams such as Wasps and Bath from muscling their way into the top four.

One thing is certain this season, though, the playoff race is sure to have us on the edge of our seats each week as the best of the league fight for those all-important positions.

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