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How to win a Rugby World Cup - be on your best behaviour

Ireland and France have risen to the top of the world rankings on the back of being more disciplined than their rivals.

Image: Ken Sutton/INPHO

INTERNATIONAL RUGBY HAS become a sporting version of Play Your Cards Right, minus the presence of Bruce Forsyth as host, surveys of 100 people and peak Saturday night TV audiences.

At a time when analysis of rugby is broader and deeper than ever, one area of the game remains so blatantly straightforward that you wonder why so many coaches haven’t copped on to it. It’s simple enough: keep your 15 players on the park and your chances of winning dramatically increases.

Despite stating the bloody obvious here, only one top-tier international side has managed to stick to that policy throughout 2022, the Six Nations champions France. Is it mere coincidence that the team who pushed them hardest in that tournament were the only other side to go through the entire competition without receiving a card?

To answer that one, we have to take you to the tidy clubhouse in the Jerry Collins Stadium on the eve of the third Test of Ireland’s summer tour to New Zealand where the Irish head coach, Andy Farrell, was asked a question by a local journalist about the high tackle ruling.

Purposely Farrell paused before answering, fixing his inquisitor with a stare, before quietly pointing out how the laws of the game are a bit like the weather. Complaining about it won’t change it.

“Some teams play on the edge; we like to keep a low penalty count,” Farrell said.

It seemed a minor point. But it’s actually a major one.

Being on your best behaviour is now a tactic in rugby, successful teams prepared to lose certain collisions – sometimes even scores – in order to keep their full compliment of players on the pitch.

And it pays off.

Consider this stat.

In games involving the nine leading teams in the world this year – New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, France, Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland – yellow and red cards have had a staggering impact on results, the teams with numerical advantages outscoring their penalised rivals by 233 points to 31 during sin-binning periods.

This is the context we need to use when re-examining Farrell’s philosophy. “Some teams play on the edge; we like to keep a low penalty count.”

Certain teams, New Zealand and Australia in particular, have struggled to make the adjustment, playing on the edge remaining part of their DNA. Remember the ferocity of the All Blacks’ approach to the 2016 game against Ireland in Dublin, a couple of weeks after they lost to Joe Schmidt’s side in Chicago? Robbie Henshaw and CJ Stander will likely never forget it, each of them suffering concussions in that match.

It’s interesting, looking back on those incidents from a distance of six years, to see that neither Sam Cane nor Israel Dagg received cards for those challenges. Under today’s updated rules they’d have seen red.

That was the fate that befell Angus Ta’avao-Matau in Dunedin, during the second Test of Ireland’s summer tour, following his high tackle on Garry Ringrose. Ta’avao-Matau’s red card, combined with yellows for Leicester Fainga’anuku and Ofa Tu’ungafasi, meant Ireland had a numerical advantage for 54 minutes of that Test. It was their first win over the All Blacks on New Zealand soil.

leicester-faingaanuku-receives-a-yellow-card-from-jaco-peyper Fainga’anuku receives a yellow card. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Earlier this year, they fared even better, running away from an exhausted England side in the final quarter of their Six Nations encounter, nailing a record Irish win in Twickenham, their hosts’ cause severely hindered by Charlie Ewels’ first-minute red card.

Were these examples of good Irish luck or good Irish behaviour?

Well, let’s look at the evidence.

Across the last 16 games, Ireland have kept their penalty count to 10 or under on 13 occasions. They have received two yellow cards in 2022 whereas their opponents have picked up five yellows and three reds. Ireland’s last red card was Bundee Aki’s against England 15 months ago.

Has this disciplined approach paid off? Well, judge for yourself. Across 640 minutes of international rugby this year, Ireland have had a numerical advantage for 198 minutes. They outscored their opposition by 99 points to 23 in that timeframe.

This is the context we need to use when re-examining Farrell’s philosophy. “Some teams play on the edge; we like to keep a low penalty count.”

Ironically, Ireland have won key games – against England in Twickenham, New Zealand in Wellington – while losing the penalty count. Yet there’s evidently a stated policy, namely to avoid picking up cheap cards by repeatedly offending and by adapting tackle techniques to reduce their number of yellows and reds.

That’s the key to success. A low penalty count helps – France being the prime example of a team who leaped off the naughty step. In the 2019 Six Nations, when Jacques Brunel was their coach, they had the highest penalty count in the competition. This year they had the second lowest and won the grand slam.

But a low penalty count alone does not bring any guarantees, Ireland coughing up four fewer penalties to the All Blacks at Eden Park in their opening Test of their New Zealand tour. New Zealand won 42-19.

It is cards that cost teams. England looked like they were on their way to beating Scotland in this year’s Six Nations until Luke Cowan-Dickie’s ill-timed intervention, when he deliberately pushed the ball into touch. They lost by three, Cowan-Dickie’s indiscretion and yellow card changing the game.

luke-cowan-dickie-commits-a-deliberate-knock-on-leading-to-a-yellow-card-and-a-penalty-try-for-scotland Cowan-Dickie's knock-on cost England the game. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Let’s move on to Scotland-Wales a week later. Just three points separated these sides at the end of that one. You may recall that Finn Russell was yellow carded when the scores were level, Dan Biggar landing the match-winning drop-goal in his absence.

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Now to New Zealand versus Argentina in Hamilton just a few weeks ago. The All Blacks were chasing the game when Shannon Frizell was yellow carded with 10 minutes to go. New Zealand ended up losing by seven. It was the Pumas’ first away win over New Zealand.

On to last weekend, and the controversy involving French referee, Mathieu Raynal, and his decision to penalise Bernard Foley’s timewasting towards the end of that 76-point thriller between the Wallabies and All Blacks. “Mate that just cost us the Rugby Championship,” Nic White, the Australian captain, said to Raynal afterwards.

The obvious reply was that actually, it didn’t, but that New Zealand’s ruthlessness to score 21 points when Australia were reduced to 14 players at various stages of that game proved to be the difference.

It regularly has. All in, the Wallabies have conceded 22 yellow and red cards during coach Dave Rennie’s 29-game tenure and are now placed a record low in the world rankings, Rennie’s win ratio hovering under 40 per cent. They are the prime example of a team who isn’t adapting to the new laws.

And they aren’t alone.

Between them South Africa and Argentina had 10 players carded in their two recent meetings, 56 unanswered points going the way of the side who had a numerical advantage during those sin-bin periods.

There are more examples, the Welsh being the best of them. Let’s go back to their summer tour to South Africa. Wales were 18-3 up in the first Test of that series. Four yellow cards aided a Springbok comeback. South Africa won 32-29.

A year earlier, in the 2021 Six Nations championship, it was a completely different story, the Welsh keeping their discipline while everyone else – including Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony – lost theirs. If playing with an extra man for 66 minutes helped Wales against Ireland, then Zander Fagerson’s dismissal the following week arguably had an even greater impact, Wales snatching victory at Murrayfield from the jaws of defeat, a consequence of Fagerson’s red card.

Next was England, Wales winning the penalty count en route to winning the game. Then Italy, who coughed up 28 unanswered points to the Welsh when they had players in the bin. And with that Wales were champions.

They would also have been grand slam winners had they avoided yellow cards in the concluding ten minutes of their final championship game against France. Alas, a 12-point lead disappeared in the dying minutes when two of their players disappeared to the sin-bin.

Champions in 2021, Wales recorded the second worst disciplinary record in 2022, and sure enough, ended up second from bottom when the tournament ended.

That’s modern rugby. Those who play the best card tricks end up winning. It’s only a matter of time before the secret gets out.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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