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Analysis: The incredible ruck-to-try ratio from the World Cup quarter-finals

Performance analyst Eoin Toolan examines the try-scoring trends from last weekend’s action.

THERE IS A strong sense that attacking rugby has come to the fore at the World Cup in Japan and that a shift has been made away from stifling defences having had the upper hand in rugby in recent years. 

As the World Cup enters its penultimate weekend, 269 tries have already been scored, which is only one try short of the total for the 2015 edition.

I thought it would be worth analysing the tries from last weekend’s quarter-finals and attempt to correlate the data to successful team attack.

Is there one specific weakness in modern-day defences that attacks have started to exploit? The findings are telling.

Source of possession

First, let’s take a look at where teams are building their try-scoring attacks from.

Below is a table that displays the origin of possession for the 22 tries scored last weekend.

Tries

Lineout attack, which is consistently viewed as the primary source of possession for tries scored in rugby, was the equal-highest starting point in the four quarter-finals.

Indeed, of all tries scored in the competition to date, 46% have originated from lineouts.

To put this statistic into context, the next highest source of tries overall in the tournament is the scrum at 16%.

Turnover attack also accounted for eight tries last weekend, with five teams scoring tries off opposition errors, whilst it is the fourth-highest source of possession for overall tries scored in the competition at 13%. 

Scrum attack was the third highest with five last weekend. 

Kick return completes the table from last weekend, with Australia’s only try in the quarter-final starting from an England kick. This possession source has supplied 14% of overall tournament tries. 

Phase Count

While source of possession is most definitely a tellingly statistic, deeper analysis of the data is required to provide proper insight.

The number of phases it takes a team to score a try is a good barometer of whether the source of possession actually has a meaningful influence on the outcome itself.

japan-rugby-wcup-new-zealand-ireland Beauden Barrett scored on first phase from a turnover against Ireland. Source: Mark Baker

For example, if a try is scored off the initial one-to-three phases from a scrum, then this is generally a result of a pre-planned launch, such as a Joe Schmidt power play, and so the source of possession is definitely a relevant component.

However, if the phase count moves beyond four phases, then typically the attacking team is into multi-phase attack and, therefore, where the possession started is of less significance.

If this logic is applied to last weekend’s matches, then of the eight lineouts involved, only three would be considered influential in the lead-up to the try.

The remaining five would be attributed to the team’s multi-phase attack. Of course, winning the ball at the lineout is still absolutely crucial to facilitating the try. 

Strikingly, and this is where the numbers start to reveal some significant trends, the eight turnover attack tries all remain untouched while only one of the five tries from scrums is altered. 

Astonishingly, of the 22 tries scored on quarter-final weekend, 50% of them were scored on first phase, with another three tries on second phase, and one after three phases.

In my article two weeks ago, I revealed there was a correlation between teams with high ruck counts in the World Cup and poor attacking performances. This theory is vindicated by the fact that the ruck-to-try ratio [i.e. how many rucks it took to score a try] was less than one ruck per try, at a staggering 0.6 in 16 of the tries scored last weekend. 

Think back to New Zealand’s tries against Ireland.

Two Richie Mo’unga kick passes off first phase twice led to tries off the ensuing ruck. Ardie Savea’s poach at the breakdown instantly led to George Bridge’s try with no ruck, as we see below.

GB

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And Beauden Barrett’s hack through off Johnny Sexton’s handling error for New Zealand’s crucial third try also did not require one recycle, as we see below.

BB

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In the three other quarter-finals, England’s two intercept tries against Australia, Wales’ two tries against France, and all three of South Africa’s tries against host nation Japan did not involve a single ruck.

Defensive pressure was clearly a component to a number of the above tries, leading to intercepts or mistakes by the attacking team. However, two critical strategies in avoiding rucks are offloads and attacking kicks.

Offloads featured in five of the tries in the quarter-final, four of which were the final pass before the try, whilst the fifth was the catalyst to the linebreak in the lead up to France’s second try.

Attacking kicks were instrumental in three tries, with two from Mo’unga, while Henry Slade’s sublime grubber [below] for Johnny May’s second try was a great example of a player refusing to die with the ball in order to maintain momentum from the linebreak.

Eng

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Defences thrive on rucks as they are focal points from which to set their defensive system off. Having the ability to get players in prescribed positions from the breakdown outwards provides an organisation in the line for tacklers to operate in.

This is something that is practiced in training ad nauseum. However, no ruck means ambiguity for defenders. There is no longer the luxury of role identification, opposition nomination and a call to get off the line.

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An offload or an attacking kick causes disconnection in the defensive line as players scramble to shut down the threat. Would-be tacklers’ shoulders get turned, their scanning patterns shifted, and communication is generally compromised.

Reducing ruck counts is what is allowing the best attacking teams to thrive. The three teams with the highest average rucks per game at the World Cup were all beaten quarter-finalists last Saturday: Australia (109.2 rucks per game), Ireland (105.2) and Japan (95.3).

The Wallabies’ attack has come in for the most criticism due the lack of variation to their game. Their high possession-based game was effective at times – they feature in the top three for average defenders beaten (32.6) and interestingly they generated the fastest average ruck speed in the tournament at 3.6 seconds.

However, as we have seen, the data from the weekend clearly indicates that there is a far greater likelihood of scoring tries from low ruck counts.

Four tries from the weekend did have high ruck counts. Three in the New Zealand v Ireland came after 12, 10 and nine phases respectively and one of France’s three tries against Wales was after an eight-phase build-up.

Significantly, the starting points for all four scores was in the opposition 22. The dynamic of the defensive system changes in this zone. With no backfield for the wingers to cover, the opposition can now defend with 14 players in the line.

Space is at a premium and attacks are forced to go into a narrower shape, which is more about grinding opposition teams down. Phase counts are inevitably going to rise as a result.

While offloading is more difficult, kick space does still exist as highlighted by Joey Carberry’s grubber on Saturday night, which unfortunately Robbie Henshaw could not ground, summing up an awful night for Ireland.

The remaining two tries of the weekend belong to England and took five and six phases to score. Importantly, they were possibly the best examples of a quality multi-phase attacking shape systematically breaking down a defensive structure.

The source of possession for both tries was England’s lineout but given the phase count, I would define these as multi-phase attacks. England are receiving a lot of praise for how they are varying the use of their power runners, mixing between the front-door and back-door options.

The ability of their playmakers, particularly George Ford, Owen Farrell, and Slade, to stay square at the line and play late to either short runners such as Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi or go out the back to the likes of Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson is exceptional.

222

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It is no coincidence that the two best-constructed tries of the weekend, with a total ruck count of eleven, both came from England. 

We see the final two phases of one of those scores above and below.

333

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Statistics suggest that attack is winning the battle at this World Cup.

Over the next two weekends, the team that makes the early kill in the phase count will win the war.

About the author:

Eoin Toolan  / Professional rugby coach and performance analyst

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