Possession Isn’t Everything
Possession and territory are traditionally crucial measures of a team’s dominance in rugby, however success in these metrics doesn’t always lead to victory. It’s one thing having possession of the ball in the opposition half but it is another to convert that pressure into points. Across the 2019 and 2020 Six Nations, nine of the 11 games which had the highest possession figures for one side saw the team with that dominance go on to lose the game.
The Art of the Tackle
Over the last couple of years, England have developed this concept even further, knowing they don’t need possession of the ball for the entire 80 minutes, trusting their defence to keep the opposition out and knowing their attack will take their chances when called upon. In both 2019 and 2020 they were the only side to make 100+ dominant tackles in either campaign, accounting for five of the 10 highest match tallies in that time. Not just stopping the attack but putting it in reverse gear.
Looking specifically at 2020, England made 116 dominant tackles across their five matches, that is an average of 23 per game. When we analyse where on the pitch those came we can see a relentless intent to put the opposition on the backfoot regardless of location.
Maro Itoje was definitely the main wrecking ball for Eddie Jones in 2020, accruing 22 dominant tackles, eight more than any other player in the Championship. However, Itoje wasn’t the only player taking it to the opposition for England. Of the 28 players to register five or more dominant tackles in the tournament, eight had a red rose on their chest, more than any other nation, illuminating a clear tactic for the eventual champions.
Breaking the Mould
Dominating the tackle area is one thing but for the full game plan to come into effect a side needs to have a clinical attack to punish opponents when they get their hands on the ball.
In 2019 Wales memorably won the Grand Slam but somewhat bizarrely they did it on the back of a rather blunted attack. They were the only side not to make at least five line breaks in any of their games, averaging just 2.6 per game across the tournament.
In a similar trend, in 2020, Champions England averaged just 2.8 line breaks per match, again the lowest tally of any side in the Championships. Both of those editions of the Six Nations also saw the winners tally the fewest metres carried over the five rounds of fixtures. Less about quantity and more about quality.
A lack of line breaks was a definite factor in Wales’ struggle to penetrate the opposition 22 in 2019. Even when they did manage to do so they weren’t overly efficient at coming away with points. Warren Gatland’s men averaged just 23 points per game and had an average winning margin of 9.8 points, including two victories when they had been trailing at the break.
Their 2019 success was definitely borne out of their defence rather than attack. That same year, however, England were playing some free-flowing rugby, averaging 37 points and 4.8 tries per game, and Wales were the only side able to shut them down. England averaged more 22 entries per game (9.6) than any other side and were also by far the most efficient in that Red Zone (3.2 pts per visit).
Jump forward to 2020 and France were the most clinical team, averaging 3.2 points per visit to the opposition 22, however for the second year running they averaged the fewest visits per game (7.2 in 2020).
Surprisingly, given their differing fortunes, England and Wales matched each other in 2020 for both points per visit and visits per game, whilst Ireland, despite doing well to get into the opposition’s danger area, failed too often to come away with any rewards.
Rucking and Rolling
Returning to the mantra of efficiency and we can see England’s control at the breakdown over the last two campaigns has been exemplary. In 2019 they lost just six rucks (the fewest) and in 2020 just 14 (the second-fewest). In their title-winning effort last year only five of the rucks they lost were in their own half, whilst in 2019 they lost just two in that part of the pitch, not turning the ball over in dangerous areas clearly a key focus for Eddie Jones and his men.
As we come to the kick-off of the 2021 edition of the tournament, the squads and coaching units could be afforded some excuses for a lack of cohesion due to the chaos caused by the Covid pandemic. It will be interesting to see what game plans do develop however and which key metrics are focussed on to lead to success. The core foundations of the sport may seem obvious – defend strongly and attack with precision – but the nuances of these principles are deep and with many variables, undoubtedly the team that finds the perfect blend will be smiling come the conclusion of the tournament.
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