Currie Cup Final Features Two STATS Rugby Union Clients

Longstanding STATS rugby union clients, Toyota Free State Cheetahs and Vodacom Blue Bulls will go head- to-head in the 2016 Currie Cup Final, South Africa’s premier rugby union competition this weekend.

Toyota Stadium in Bloemfontein will host the Free State Cheetahs, who have won their last 9 matches and are favourites playing the ever consistent Blue Bulls.

Established in 1891, The Currie Cup is one of the oldest rugby competitions and is regarded as the cornerstone of South Africa’s rugby heritage. The winner of the Currie Cup will be rewarded with the coveted gold trophy – the most prestigious prize in South African domestic rugby.

The Free State Cheetahs and Blue Bulls and both been STATS clients for multiple seasons, utilising a range of STATS Rugby Union performance solutions to improve player and team performance.

Both teams will be using STATS Portal – a global video library to support match preparation and opposition scouting along with STATS Gamelens – a self-coding and video-editing platform to deliver customized analysis and streamlined performance feedback to their teams.

Best of luck to both teams this weekend!


Six Nations: Can England overcome the ghosts of previous Grand Slams lost?

The enduring appeal of the Six Nations Championship is in its unpredictability and over the years perhaps no team has suffered more from the its fluctuations than England. Having secured their first championship since 2011 thanks to Scotland’s victory over France last weekend, nothing less than a first Grand Slam since 2003 will satisfy England.

Victory against Les Bleus at the Stade de France would mean just a second Grand Slam in 21 years for the English and, as players from previous failed attempts will attest, the final hurdle has often proved an insurmountable obstacle. Twice in the last five editions of the tournament England have entered the final round of fixtures favourites to complete the clean sweep. Twice they have returned from road losses with their dreams in tatters as Ireland in 2011 and Wales two years later upset the odds.

Further back in the history of the competition, England entered the final round of fixtures as strong favourites to complete the Grand Slam every season from 1999 to 2001. On each occasion they came up empty-handed. Scott Gibbs’ late try and Neil Jenkins’ conversion on a sunny evening at Wembley handed the last ever Five Nations title to Scotland in ‘99 as Wales spoiled the party with a come-from-behind 32-31 win. In 2000, the championship was scant consolation when England’s Grand Slam dream was washed away at a rain-soaked Murrayfield as Scotland secured a 19-13 win. A year later they waited six months to secure the slam as the Championship was disrupted by an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK, only to find Ireland in inspired form in the late autumnal chill.

Securing the Championship with a game to spare this time around will undoubtedly alleviate the pain of some of England’s near-misses. Over the last two campaigns England have missed out on the title on points differential by a combined 17 points. Essentially two converted tries and a penalty have stood between England and three straight Six Nations titles in 2014, ’15 and ’16.

As the final round of the 2016 Six Nations approaches, England have overwhelmingly outperformed Saturday’s opponents in terms of offensive production. Eddie Jones’ team has out-scored Guy Noves’ France by 50 points over their first four games, and scored ten tries to France’s seven. England’s points differential of 52 is just nine less that France’s total points scored. England’s average margin of victory has been 13 points, although that was inflated by a scintillating second half demolition of Italy en-route to a 40-9 thumping.

The French total margin of victory over their two victories so far has been just three points. However, France can draw on the fact they sit behind only Ireland in terms of meters gained per game through carries (710.2) and lead the tournament for total offloads (56). Furthermore, there are signs that in the heat of battle England can be rattled, just as they were in last year’s World Cup. England have been the least disciplined side in the 2016 Six Nations, conceding 51 penalties and a tournament-high three yellow cards. That may prove costly and decisive this weekend.

While England are 3 to 1 on in most bookmakers to claim the Slam, it is worth noting that they have lost three of their last four games in Paris. That said, England have come out on top in eight of the last twelve meetings between the sides.

Jones, in his first season in charge, has spoken to the veterans of England’s recent missteps to get a sense of what lies in store in Paris on Saturday.

“I went around and talked to a couple of the players who had experienced those Grand Slam opportunities and asked if there was anything we could learn from them,” he told the RFU website.

“The underlying thought was you can never underestimate an opposition team in Test match rugby.”

England are prohibitive favourites going into Saturday’s game, and yet, as players of the recent past can tell Jones, finishing the job is easier said than done.

Interested in finding out about the application of advanced analysis in elite sport? Prozone is running a series of webinars on topics including Team Cohesion and Player Recruitment. Click here to find out more and register.

Six Nations: Week 5 Preview

England secured a first Six Nations title since 2011 last weekend as they beat Wales at Twickenham and France were defeated by Scotland. The destination of the championship may have already been decided, but the final weekend will determine whether England can become the first team to win the Grand Slam since Wales achieved the feat in 2012.

Wales v Italy (1430 GMT, Saturday)

The final ten minutes of last weekend’s game against England showcased the quality that Wales are capable of producing. Scoring two tries and coming agonisingly close to a third, Wales were briefly at their rampant best as they threatened to derail England’s dreams of a Grand Slam.

Wales’ issue during the 2016 Six Nations has been an inability to play their best rugby for sustained periods. The latter stages of last weekend’s game were impressive, but the Welsh committed far too many errors, giving away eight penalties and making just 87% of their tackles. It hasn’t been an especially memorable tournament for Wales, particularly given the team’s successful recent history in the competition, but this weekend’s game against Italy will give them a chance to secure second place as they go up against the tournament’s weakest defence.

Italy have been disappointing in 2016 and look to have gone backwards after evidence of progress in recent years. Last Saturday’s 58-15 annihilation at the hands of Ireland highlighted Italy’s weaknesses when confronted with aggressive running rugby. In addition to their defensive struggles (Italy have conceded 157 points, 77 more than any other team), the Azzurri have lacked incisiveness in attack. Making just 13 line breaks and scoring only six tries, Italy have had problems on both sides of the ball and will be left with more questions than answers after disappointing World Cup and Six Nations campaigns.

Player to Watch: Dan Lydiate (Wales)

Dan Lydiate will captain Wales this weekend in the absence of Sam Warburton, just reward for his superb performances of late. Lydiate had a monster game against England despite defeat, making 24 tackles (10 more than any of his teammates) and being in the first three to thr breakdown on 35 occasions. Hitting the ruck 50 times, Lydiate lived up to his reputation as an indefatigable presence in the pack and will be important if Wales are to dominate the breakdown against Italy this weekend.

Ireland v Scotland (1700 GMT, Saturday)

Ireland’s defence of their title has fallen flat this year, but their performance against Italy last weekend was that of a team rediscovering its mojo. Scoring nine tries, recording 154 hitups, 10 line breaks and carrying for 1,110 metres (all single-game records for the 2016 Six Nations), Ireland were rampant and will be hoping to replicate that performance against Scotland in Dublin on Saturday.

It may have been a disappointing campaign for the Irish, but they have improved as the tournament has progressed and could secure a third-place finish if results go their way this weekend.

Scotland’s impressive victory over France at Murrayfield further demonstrated the progress they are making under the stewardship of Vern Cotter. Despite averaging the least amount of possession per game (46.4%), Scotland control 52.7% of territory (the most in the Six Nations) and are now a legitimate force at the scrum and breakdown.

Scotland’s lack of incisive ball carriers in the back line shows up in their lack of metres gained with the ball in hand (589.5m per game, fewest in the tournament), although the superlative performances of Stuart Hogg have given them a world-class point of focus in attack. If they can work on creating a more balanced backline in attack then this team has an opportunity to make great strides in the coming years.

Player to Watch: Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)

Jamie Heaslip was in fine form against Italy last weekend, marshalling the Irish pack and crossing the line for two of the team’s nine tries. Carrying the ball for 83 metres, more than any other Irish forward, Heaslip’s performance was central to Ireland’s ability to exploit weaknesses in the Italian defence. Taking the ball into contact 10.75 times per game and averaging 56.5 metres carried, Heaslip is a fearless operator who combines grit and creativity at the number eight position.

France v England (2000 GMT, Saturday)

France host England in Paris this weekend and will be looking to spoil their opponents’ dreams of a Grand Slam. Les Bleus were disappointing in defeat to Scotland last weekend and have been relatively unconvincing throughout the tournament but will be hoping to avoid a repeat of last year’s heavy defeat against England and finish with a flourish.

France’s main problems have been in defence, with the team making just 121.5 tackles per game at 88.7%, both tournament lows. They have also struggled to assert themselves with the boot, kicking for 463.7 metres per game, fewer than every other team, and controlling just 50.9% of territory, less than all but Ireland (42.7%). France have the ability to play devastating attacking rugby on their day (as illustrated by their 56 offloads, 21 more than next-best Italy), but those days have been too few and far between of late.

As the newly-crowned Six Nations champions, England will be desperate to secure their first Grand Slam since 2003 in Paris this weekend. England were superb for 70 minutes last week, keeping Wales at bay and taking advantage of their attacking opportunities, but the team’s near-collapse at the end showed that there is still plenty of work to be done.

Having recorded the fewest line breaks (13) and offloads (24) made during the tournament, England still lack fluency in attack but are starting to play at a higher tempo and get the ball to the flanks with greater regularity. There are also concerns with indiscipline, with England conceding 51 penalties over their four games so far.

That said, Eddie Jones has done superbly to help England bounce back from their World Cup disappointments and the team’s Six Nations success could well act as a strong platform for future development.

Player to Watch: Maro Itoje (England)

Maro Itoje has just four international caps to his name, but the 21-year-old plays with the confidence and intelligence of a veteran. Last week he shone against an experienced Welsh pack, making 16 tackles, carrying for 39 metres and dominating the lineout with two steals. Arriving within the first three to the breakdown on 33 occasions (second only to James Haskell), Itoje was key to his team’s control of the majority of the game. England may just have unearthed a diamond.

Interested in finding out about the application of advanced analysis in elite sport? Prozone is running a series of webinars on topics including Team Cohesion and Player Recruitment. Click here to find out more and register.

Six Nations: Week 4 Preview

This weekend sees another exciting round of games in the 2016 RBS Six Nations. All three matches hold a lot of promise, but the focus will undoubtedly be on Twickenham as England and Wales meet in a contest that will surely be pivotal in determining the destination of this year’s title.

Ireland v Italy (1330 GMT, Saturday)

A game between the two teams still to record a victory, Ireland and Italy will both be looking to salvage some pride when they meet in Dublin on Saturday. With only a draw and two defeats to show from the opening three games, it’s fair to say Ireland’s defence of their Six Nations title hasn’t gone to plan. However, Saturday’s game could see the Irish start to climb the table from fifth position, while Italy are looking to avoid a second winless campaign in three years.

Ireland haven’t been helped by a catalogue of injuries in the past few months, but the team’s performances have been disappointing thus far. Ranked sixth for average possession (44%), average territory (42.6%), offloads (13) and average kicking metres (493), the defending champions have struggled to impose themselves on their opponents and convert the attacking chances they’ve created.

Italy have showed glimpses of quality during their three games, but there have also been significant low points, such as their second-half collapse against England. Strong in terms of carrying the ball (average of 682.3m per game, second only to France), Italy are capable of playing threatening attacking rugby but have proved porous in defence, conceding 11 tries (three more than England, Wales and France combined). Unless they improve significantly in defence the Italians are unlikely to record a win in their final two games.

Player to Watch: Robbie Henshaw (Ireland)

One of Ireland’s most potent attacking weapons, Robbie Henshaw has played well without much reward during the Six Nations. Running 266m with the ball over three games (13.3% of Ireland’s total), Henshaw also averages 12.6 tackles per game and is also a useful secondary outlet kicking from hand. This weekend will see him resume his partnership with Jared Payne in the centre and he should get plenty of opportunities to run at a shaky Italian defence.

England v Wales (1600 GMT, Saturday)

England and Wales’ clash at Twickenham on Saturday could be a decisive moment in the battle for the Six Nations title. Heading the table with three wins from three, England have been effective without being spectacular. Wales, meanwhile, have improved as the tournament has progressed, defeating Scotland and France after drawing with Ireland in week one.

A four-try second half against Italy aside, England have struggled to consistently find a cutting edge in attack. Making just eight line breaks in three games (equal fewest with Wales), England have occasionally looked short of ideas when attempting to break down opposition defences. That said, Eddie Jones’ team have demonstrated intelligence game management, kicking for 681 metres per game (second overall) and conceding just 28 points, 19 fewer than Ireland’s second-ranked defence.

Wales have averaged the least ground made with the ball in hand (582 metres per game) and yet average the most gained with the boot. Reliant on the kicking skills of Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland to establish position, Wales have the ability to put England under pressure and pin them back. Warren Gatland’s team have also been tenacious in defence, making 185 tackles per game at a 91% success rate (second only to Ireland). If Wales can maintain their defensive standards and prevent England from getting quick ball, then they have a chance of repeating their World Cup performance and claiming what would be a highly significant victory at Twickenham.

Player to Watch: Taulupe Faletau (Wales)

Arguably the best number eight in the world on current form, Taulupe Faletau could prove decisive for Wales. Tireless and effective, Faletau has recorded 58 tackles during the Six Nations, ranking in the top three Welsh players for tackles made every game. He is consistently one of the first to arrive at rucks, having been in the first three players to hit the breakdown on 91 occasions (only Sam Warburton has done so more regularly for Wales). Carrying the ball for 36m per game, Faletau’s attacking threat was underlined by his try against Ireland, his fifth for Wales. Faletau’s head-to-head battle with Billy Vunipola, his opposite number and close friend, should make for fascinating viewing.

Scotland v France (1500 GMT, Sunday)

Scotland host France at Murrayfield this weekend in a game that will have implications for the title race. France need to win to keep the pressure on England and Wales at the top of the table, but Scotland could be dangerous opponents as they look to build on their 20-36 win over Italy in week three.

Scotland have struggled to convert possession and territory into points during the competition, but Vern Cotter’s team played some encouraging rugby in Rome at the end of February. Making 10 offloads against Italy and scoring three tries, the team showed good attacking intent and secured plenty of fast ball, with 60% of rucks lasting three seconds or less. Scotland will need to take bring the same intensity on Saturday if they are to test an improving French side.

France may be a long-shot to win the 2016 title after suffering defeat at the hands of Wales in week three, but Les Bleus have been one of the competition’s standout teams. Dominating possession (averaging 59.53%), France have been incisive in attack and lead the tournament for line breaks (12, joint with Scotland), offloads (43) and metres gained with ball in hand (760.7m per game). There are big signs of improvement for France after a disappointing World Cup campaign and they may well be too strong for Scotland this weekend.

Player to Watch: Virimi Vakatawa (France)

Virimi Vakatawa has played only three matches for France but has already made a big impact on the Six Nations. Vakatawa’s sevens background shows in the way he plays, the powerful winger having announced himself with a try against Italy and an average of 52.6m with the ball in hand over the three games. Vakatawa is also highly direct and constantly looks to test the opposition defence. Taking the ball into contact on 40 occasions (13.3 per game), Vakatawa is even more direct and physical than Wales’ George North who takes contact 7.3 times per game. The French winger is likely to be a thorn in the side of Scotland this weekend.

Interested in finding out about the application of advanced analytics in elite sport? Prozone is running a series of webinars on topics including Team Cohesion and Player Recruitment. Click here to find out more and register.

Six Nations: Week 3 Preview

After an intriguing opening two rounds of action, the third week of the 2016 Six Nations promises to go a long way towards shaping the final outcome of the tournament. Wales and France’s clash in Cardiff is likely to determine both teams’ chances of securing the title, while a win for England over Ireland would surely make them the favourites. At the foot of the table, Italy and Scotland’s game is likely to decide the destination of the dreaded wooden spoon.

Wales v France (20:05 GMT, Friday)

A crucial game in the battle for the Six Nations title, France’s visit to Cardiff could make or break the fortunes of both teams. A win for France could see Les Bleus go top of the table, while a Welsh victory would propel Warren Gatland’s team right back into the championship race.

France have looked impressive under the leadership of new coach Guy Noves, securing home victories over Italy and Ireland. There have been some concerns over the strength of the French pack, but the team’s attacking rugby has been fluent. Averaging 57.5% possession and 52.9% territory, Les Bleus have been strong in terms of controlling games and imposing their will on their opponents. France have also been adept at keeping the ball alive in attack, making a total of 41 offloads and averaging 784.5 metres gained with the ball in hand, more than any other team in the Six Nations.

In contrast, Wales haven’t been as strong as some expected them to be, drawing with Ireland in week one before relying on a late surge to scrape past Scotland in their second game. Marshalled by fly-half Dan Biggar, Wales have managed games well with the boot, making an average of 835.5 metres including a massive 1,080 metres against Scotland. In fact, Wales’ kicking game could swing Friday’s match in their favour against a French side that likes to run with the ball and averages just 557 metres kicked per game, potentially forcing Les Bleus to run from deep into the teeth of a strong Welsh defence.

Player to Watch: Wenceslas Lauret (France)

A physical and creative back row forward, Wenceslas Lauret has drawn praise for his performances against Italy and Ireland. Having played every minute of the tournament so far, Lauret has averaged 48 metres gained per match and has demonstrated phenomenal speed around the field. Among the first three French players to the breakdown on 70 occasions over the two games (more than any of his teammates), Lauret is key to France’s ability to retain possession and a relentless force at the ruck.

Italy v Scotland (14:25 GMT, Saturday)

A matchup between the two teams at the bottom of the standings, Italy and Scotland’s meeting in Rome sees each side battling for their first victory of the competition following consecutive defeats.

Italy may currently sit in sixth place, but the Azzurri have displayed some good attacking rugby at times, particularly in the first half against England in Rome. Averaging 682 metres gained with the ball in hand (second only to France), the Italians can pose a significant threat but lack a cutting edge in terms of converting attacking flair into points on the board. Italy have also shown an ability to manage games for extended periods (57.5% possession against England), a skill which should serve them well against Scotland.

Battling to avoid the ignominy of finishing the Six Nations at the foot of the table, Scotland will be determined to beat Italy after losing 19-22 at Murrayfield last year. Averaging 763 metres kicking, the Scots have generally relied on the boot to keep territorial battles even but have shown some cutting edge in the backline. The likes of Stuart Hogg have seen Scotland record eight line breaks (equal most with France), something that could trouble an Italian side that make just 89% of their tackles, the fewest of any team.

Player to Watch: Michele Campagnaro (Italy)

Italy may have opened their campaign with two straight defeats against France and England, but Michele Campagnaro has been one of the Six Nations’ most impressive players. Spearheading Italy’s attacking play from outside centre, the Exeter Chiefs player has averaged 108.5 metres gained with the ball in hand as opponents have struggled to contain his speed and directness. Campagnaro has also been key in defence, leading Italy with 20 tackles against France and 15 against England, as his dynamic play a highlight of the Azzurri’s campaign.

England v Ireland (16:50 GMT, Saturday)

Arguably the most important game of the weekend, Ireland visit Twickenham desperately seeking their first win of the campaign, while England will be looking to retain their position at the top of the standings after victories over Scotland and Italy.

Despite looking unconvincing at times during their opening two games, England came through to secure two wins and show glimpses of a new approach under coach Eddie Jones. England are the tournament’s top try scorers after an excellent second half display against Italy, but Jones’ team have generally struggled to break through the opposition defence with the ball in hand. England are joint last in terms of total offloads with just four, while the team has gained an average of just 569.5 metres with the ball in hand, 21 metres less than Ireland. England will need to find more of an attacking edge this weekend if they are to unlock a stubborn Irish defence and remain at the top of the standings.

Ireland, meanwhile, have been largely disappointing. Yet to record a victory, the defending champions rank sixth for average possession (40%), average territory (42.7%), tries (1), line breaks (4), offloads (9) and kicking metres (554.4). Having been put under pressure by Wales and France, Ireland’s defence has been fairly resolute despite the results, making 221.5 tackles per game at 93% completion, the best of all teams so far. The Irish will need to improve on the attacking side of the ball as well as remaining strong in defence if they are to come away from Twickenham with a victory over an England team that showed its attacking prowess during the second half of the recent game against Italy.

Player to Watch: George Kruis (England)

A relative newcomer to the English pack, George Kruis has become a fixture in the side in recent months. Making 31 tackles over the opening two games, Kruis’ work rate has been central to the strong performances of the English forwards. Within the first three to the breakdown a total of 45 times during the tournament, Kruis is extremely mobile for a lock and gives England and added dynamism in the forwards. The Saracens player has also contributed points, crossing the line to score against Scotland in the opening week.

Interested in finding out more about the application of advanced analytics in elite sport? Prozone is running a series of webinars on topics including Game Intelligence and Player Recruitment. Click here to find out more and register.

Will Super Rugby newcomers Sunwolves & Jaguares be hunters or hunted?

The evolution of Super Rugby, the world’s premier club rugby competition, continues with the expansion of the field to 18 teams when the tournament kicks off next weekend.

True, the inclusion of a sixth South African side in the shape of Southern Kings may not get the average fan’s pulse racing. However, it is the admittance of sides from South America and Asia into this formerly exclusive club that piqued worldwide interest.

From the dawn of professional rugby in the mid-90s, Super Rugby – or Super 12 as it was in its first pro incarnation – has been an exclusive club for the titans of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

Now Super Rugby will extend its reach to hitherto unrepresented continents.

Argentina are flying the flag for South America by way of Los Jaguares and Asia gains recognition from Japan in the form of the Sunwolves. Even though the expansion has been years in the planning, the timing for the Argentinian and Japanese debutantes to enter the competition could seemingly not be better. There is a case to be argued that the Pumas and Brave Blossoms had the best performances of the recent Rugby World Cup aside from competition winners New Zealand.

Argentina emulated their best-ever result by reaching the semifinals, though they ultimately finished fourth last year compared to their third-place finish in 2007. Japan became the first nation to ever win three games but not escape the pool stage, in the process winning more games in England that they had managed in seven previous tournament appearances.

Professional rugby has more of a foothold in Japan than in Argentina, where the “Top League” largely sustained by corporate sponsors has existed since 2003, a fact that is reflected in the composition in their Super Rugby franchise.

Only 10 of the 31 in the squad that represented Japan in England are contracted to the initial Sunwolves squad. They boast 12 foreigners, including players contracted from traditional rugby powers Tonga, Samoa and Fiji.

Overall they have a more international feel to their squad than Los Jaguares, whose players are all Argentinian born and bred. Further enhancing the contrast, Los Jaguares boast 20 of the players that represented Argentina so effectively in reaching the semifinals, prompting speculation that the experience of these “new” boys may indeed be Jaguares in sheep’s clothing.

Now that the teams have been admitted, how will they fare?

There have been three previous expansion teams since Super Rugby as we know it began in 1996 with 12 (excluding the pre-professional Super 6 and 10), and none have done particularly well. In 2006 the field was expanded to include Western Force from Australia and Cheetahs from South Africa.

It took the Cheetahs until 2013 to make their first playoff appearance while the Force have yet to progress to the qualifiers.

Melbourne Rebels were added in 2011, promptly went 3-13 in their first campaign and they too are still awaiting a maiden playoff berth having won only 29 percent of their Super Rugby games.

There is reason to be optimistic the Sunwolves and Los Jaguares will buck the trend.

In warmup matches so far, the Sunwolves hammered a domestic Top League select 52-24, while the Jaguares performed creditably in a 29-14 loss at the Stormers. In players like Nicolas Sanchez, Facundo Isa, Juan Martin Lobbe and Juan Martin Hernandez, Jaguares boast talent with experience of European and International competition at the very highest level.

Sunwolves will be led by Kiwi Mike Hammett, who has several years’ experience in Super Rugby, and also in Europe. Their captain, Shota Horie, played all but 20 minutes of Japan’s successful Rugby World Cup group phase campaign.

Not least of the potential upsides for the new teams is home-field advantage.

Johannesburg-based Lions will have almost a 17,000-mile round trip for their season opener in Tokyo. Chiefs, meanwhile, will find the 50,000-capacity Velez Sarsfield stadium awaiting them following a 6,000-mile, 16-hour trip from Hamilton.

Los Jaguares and Sunwolves will meet on April 23rd in Tokyo. STATS will have live coverage of that match and the entire Super Rugby campaign. You can follow the fortunes of all the new Super Rugby franchises with STATS from the opening weekend of the tournament beginning February 26.

Photo By: AP Photo/Rob Taggart

STATS Publication: 2015 Rugby World Cup in review

The 2015 Rugby World Cup reached a dramatic conclusion on Saturday as New Zealand defeated antipodean rival Australia at Twickenham to claim an historic third world title.

Now the World Cup is over, STATS is producing an eBook highlighting some of the key lessons that can be learned from the tournament. Reviewing key performance trends and what they could mean for international rugby union in both the short and long-term, the eBook will provide an analytical insight into the game’s greatest competition.

The eBook will be published on the STATS website on November 5th.

Photo By: AP Photo/Tim Ireland

STATS Rugby World Cup Final Preview

After five weeks of enthralling Rugby World Cup action, just Australia and New Zealand remain standing to do battle for the Webb Ellis Cup at Twickenham on Saturday.

Having beaten South Africa 20-18 in a bruising and rain-swept semifinal last weekend, Saturday’s match represents the All Blacks’ fourth appearance in a World Cup final. A chance for New Zealand to claim the trophy for a third time and become the first team to successfully defend the title, Steve Hansen’s experienced side goes into the game as the slight favourite over its antipodean rival.

Like New Zealand, Australia is also appearing in its fourth final having won the World Cup on two previous occasions, 1991 and 1999. Michael Cheika’s team impressed during its semifinal clash with Argentina, scoring four tries en route to a relatively comfortable 29-15 victory, and will be hopeful of upsetting the odds this weekend to claim a third title for the green and gold.

Previewing what promises to be a thrilling encounter between two of the true powerhouses of rugby union, STATS has taken an analytical look back at Australia and New Zealand’s performances throughout the tournament to see where Saturday’s final could be won and lost.

Game Management

One of the most notable differences between Australia and New Zealand during this World Cup has been how the two sides manage games and seek to control the pace and pattern of play.

An archetypally dominant team, New Zealand has averaged 55.5 percent possession and 58.6 percent territory throughout the tournament, while Australia has been successful despite regularly giving up more of the ball to its opponents, recording World Cup averages of 47.3 percent and 51 percent, respectively, for possession and territory.

The Wallabies’ semifinal performance against Argentina was a good example of the team’s ability to successfully manage a game despite having a minority of the ball. Despite the Pumas having the ball 56 percent of the time, Australia was nevertheless able to win by dominating at the breakdown and capitalizing on scoring opportunities with intelligent play in the back line.

In contrast, New Zealand asserted its authority in possession against South Africa, dominating both overall possession (56 percent) and territory (68 percent). However, despite the team’s apparent monopoly of the ball, the All Blacks were unable to open up much of a gap over the Springboks on the scoreboard. Giving away 13 penalties in the semifinal to continually provide South Africa with scoring opportunities, New Zealand will need to be more disciplined against an Australian side that has proved its ability to remain highly competitive despite regularly seeing less of the ball than its opponents.

Despite these differences in the amount of control the teams have exerted over their matches to this point, both Australia and New Zealand have played relatively high-tempo rugby throughout the tournament.

Recording an average recycle time of 2.7 seconds, the Wallabies have played with the fastest tempo of any team, with scrum half Will Genia marshalling the team through the phases and ensuring that Australia plays with a speed that can be used to exploit any disorganization that may arise in the opposition’s defensive line.

Similarly, New Zealand’s average recycle time of 3 seconds (just above the tournament average of 3.2) has seen the All Black backs provided with quick ball movement from which to launch devastating attacks that showcase a thrilling brand of running rugby.

Back Row Battle

Containing many of the most experienced and influential players on both sides, the battle between the back rows of Australia and New Zealand could well prove decisive in terms of deciding the destination of the Webb Ellis Cup.

Featuring Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read, the All Blacks’ back row boasts a combined 295 caps and generates the majority of the team’s strategic and emotional leadership on the field.

All three players have contributed hugely both offensively and defensively, with Kaino (48), Read and McCaw (44 each) leading the All Blacks in tackles made and Read making more carries over the gain line (31) than all but two players at the World Cup. Read and McCaw have also been typically effective at the breakdown, earning eight and six turnovers, respectively, as New Zealand has asserted its superiority in the pack. As if that wasn’t enough, Kaino and Read have each contributed to the scoring with two tries apiece, with both of Kaino’s and one of Read’s scores coming in the knockout stages.

Inspired by the performances of David Pocock, arguably the best player in the world on current form, Australia’s back row looks to have all the qualities required to match the All Blacks. A master at the breakdown, Pocock has won 14 turnovers in his four World Cup appearances, five more than any other player. Taking the ball into contact on nine occasions and making 18 tackles against Argentina, the number eight has become increasingly key to Australia’s performance as the tournament has progressed.

Of course, Pocock doesn’t operate in isolation, with his back row colleagues Scott Fardy and Michael Hooper having made significant contributions to the Wallabies’ progression through the tournament. Relentless defenders, Fardy has made 55 tackles during the competition, the ninth most of any player, while Hooper follows not too far behind with 47.

Given the depth of talent that both teams possess in the back row, the trio that can assert its dominance at the breakdown most effectively on Saturday could go a long way to establishing control of the final and pave the way to World Cup glory for their team.

Wing Wizards

Another key area on Saturday will be out wide, with both teams’ wingers in superb form going into the final.

Averaging 10.3 linebreaks (tournament average 6.3) and 11 offloads (tournament average 8.7) per game, New Zealand has played typically fluid and attractive rugby during the World Cup. Looking to get the ball through the hands of the back line whenever possible, this approach has resulted in plenty of scoring opportunities for the wide players.

The tournament’s leading try-scorer with eight, Julian Savea’s pace and strength are key weapons in New Zealand’s attacking arsenal. A display of world-class finishing, Savea’s hat trick against France in the quarterfinal showcased the skills that have seen him score 38 tries in 40 internationals. Australia’s defence will have to be at its best to stop him if he gets sight of the try line on Saturday.

On the opposite flank, Nehe Milner-Skudder has impressed with his elusive running and dexterity with the ball. With five tries and a total gain of 437 metres during the tournament (third most of any player), Milner-Skudder is a potent attacking force. There are slight concerns over the winger’s ability to deal with the high ball, something South Africa attempted to exploit in the semifinal, but Milner-Skudder’s offensive instincts should prove a serious test of the Wallaby back division.

For Australia, wingers Adam Ashley-Cooper and Drew Mitchell have been the primary try-scoring options, with both players coming to the fore during the knockout stages. Ashley-Cooper’s hat trick was the catalyst behind Australia’s defeat of Argentina in the last four, while Mitchell’s brace either side of halftime was crucial in the tight 35-34 quarterfinal victory over Scotland.

A less offensively creative side than New Zealand, Australia has averaged seven linebreaks and 7.6 offloads per game during the World Cup, scoring 26 tries to the All Blacks’ 36. However, Ashley-Cooper and Mitchell have been efficient at making ground and taking their opportunities when Australia has the ball out wide. With Mitchell making 283 metres and Ashley-Cooper 261 metres during the competition, both players are extremely dangerous in the final third of the field and will test the defensive skills of their primarily offensive-minded All Black counterparts.

A meeting of two of rugby union’s most traditionally elegant and evocative teams, the stage is set for a classic final between Australia and New Zealand as the southern hemisphere giants seek to become the most decorated nation in the history of the Rugby World Cup.

Photo By: AP Photo/Rui Vieira

Rugby World Cup 2015: Semi-Final Preview

After a pulsating set of quarterfinals last weekend, the 2015 Rugby World Cup is approaching the semifinal stage. As the tournament reaches its denouement, a pair of tantalizing southern hemisphere clashes will be played at Twickenham this weekend to decide the two teams that will contest the final on 30th October.

South Africa v New Zealand

24/10/15, Twickenham, 1600

A meeting between two of the most successful sides in Rugby World Cup history, the first semifinal will see South Africa and New Zealand go head to head at Twickenham.

Although both teams have lifted the Webb Ellis Cup twice in their history, New Zealand has dominated recent games between the sides, winning eight of the last 10 meetings. The most recent match between New Zealand and South Africa came during this year’s Rugby Championship, with the All Blacks winning 20-27 in Johannesburg in July. South Africa’s last victory over New Zealand came last October, the Springboks winning 27-25 in Johannesburg with 19 points from Handré Pollard.

Despite suffering a surprise defeat at the hands of Japan in the opening game of Pool B, South Africa quickly got itself back on track to comfortably progress to the quarterfinals. Faced with a belligerent Wales side, the Springboks emerged victorious after a physical battle which proved the strength of the team’s pack, particularly the excellent back row trio of Francois Louw, Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen.

Statistics from the tournament illustrate South Africa’s superb game management skills, with Heyneke Meyer’s side averaging 60.8 percent territory through its five games so far. The Springboks are also the most effective kicking team in the competition, making an average gain of 822.4 metres per game with the boot, far in excess of the tournament average of 599.3 metres.

If South Africa can impose itself physically on the All Blacks (the Springboks average 119 successful hitups per game, 18.2 more than New Zealand) on Saturday and dictate the pace of the game, then the 1995 and 2007 champions will have every chance of progressing from what promises to be a fascinating semifinal encounter.

After negotiating Pool C with relative ease, New Zealand unleashed a stunning performance against France in the quarters, producing some outstanding attacking rugby to record an emphatic 62-13 victory.

Playing a fluid, attacking style of rugby, the All Blacks average 11.6 linebreaks per game (almost twice the tournament average of 6) and 211.8 passes, 22.8 per game more than South Africa. Steve Hansen’s side has translated this running rugby into points of the board, scoring an incredible 34 tries in its five matches – 8 more than any other team.

Yet to show any real weakness, New Zealand will be the favourite going into this weekend’s semifinal showdown, but South Africa can take heart from the fact that the All Blacks are yet to be tested physically. This should be a fascinating game between two of the sport’s most successful nations.

Argentina v Australia

25/10/15, Twickenham, 1600

After respectively defeating Ireland and Scotland in the last eight, Argentina and Australia will meet at Twickenham on Sunday to contest the second semifinal. For the Wallabies, the match represents a chance to reach a fourth Rugby World Cup final, while Argentina will be hoping to progress beyond the last four for the first time in its history.

Argentina has made huge improvements in recent years, although Australia dominates the history of meetings between the two sides. Of the last 10 games between the two teams, Australia has won 9, most recently defeating Argentina 9-34 in Mendoza in July. That said, Argentina has recorded a relatively recent victory over Australia, scoring a 21-17 home win over the Wallabies in October 2014.

Arguably the most impressive side at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Argentina has disproved the cliché of the Pumas being over-reliant on a strong pack by playing with great pace and invention in the back line. After suffering a 26-16 defeat to New Zealand in its first game of the tournament, Argentina progressed well throughout the pool stage before producing a superb quarterfinal performance to beat Ireland 43-20.

Making 13.8 offloads (5 above the tournament average and more than any other semifinalist) and 11 linebreaks per game, Argentina has combined its traditional physicality with a fluent offensive style that has produced 26 tries, second only to New Zealand. If the Pumas can perform against Australia as they did against Ireland, then Argentina – with fly-half (and the tournament’s leading points scorer) Nicolas Sanchez in excellent kicking form – will have a good chance of reaching its first Rugby World Cup final.

After negotiating a tough Pool A, recording impressive victories over England and Wales, Australia narrowly beat Scotland in the quarters, winning with a last-minute penalty from Bernard Foley.

An efficient team in terms of converting attacking opportunities into points on the board, Australia has played with a high tempo throughout the competition, averaging 2.6 seconds recycle time. Recording less offloads (7.4), linebreaks (7.2) and hitups (82.6) per game than any of the other semifinalists, Australia has been largely reliant on the boot of Foley in attack, with an exemplary defence (144.6 tackles per game at 89.4) being the cornerstone of the team’s success thus far.

Australia’s defence will be sternly tested again this weekend against Argentina, particularly following an exhausting quarterfinal battle against Scotland. The Wallabies are the slight favourite going into the game, but Michael Cheika’s team will need to be at its very best to resist an Argentinian side at the peak of its powers.

Photo By: AP Photo/Alastair Grant

After Rugby World Cup Pool Stage, Contenders Stake Their Claim

The pool stages of the 2015 Rugby World Cup went largely to form with seven of the top eight countries progressing based on World Rugby’s pre-tournament rankings.

With Australia, England and Wales pitted together in Pool A, the obligatory tournament ‘group of death’, it would not have been possible for all eight advance.

The odd men out were England, which became the first host nation to fail to escape the groups in the 28-year history of the tournament after titanic losses to Wales and the Wallabies.

Argentina were the top points scorers in the group stages with 179 in three victories as they moved on from Pool C behind reigning champions New Zealand.

As expected the All Blacks breezed through a routine pool, dispatching Tonga, Namibia and Georgia – although they did have some trouble with the Pumas before recording a 26-16 win.

New Zealand led the pool stages with 25 tries and had the joint-top try scorer of the first round in winger Julian Savea. After failing to score in the opening match against Argentina, Savea touched down five times in 160 minutes against Namibia and Georgia, or a try every 32 minutes.

Those five tries have Savea tied with South Africa’s Bryan Habana, who equaled Jonah Lomu’s tournament record of 15 total tries when he completed his hat trick in the 64-0 drubbing of the United States.

Despite a stunning opening-match defeat by the Brave Blossoms of Japan, the Springboks were actually the first nation to win their group, outscoring opponents 144-22 in their remaining three pool stage matches. Their average winning margin (41 points) was second only to Argentina (43 points) among the eight teams progressing from the pool phase.

Heyneke Meyer’s men completed the pool phase second in points scored (176) and tries scored (23) despite that shocking 34-32 reverse in their first match. The Springboks’ loss meant that only three sides escaped the pool stage unscathed. New Zealand were perfect, as were Australia and Ireland.

For the Irish and the Wallabies, their defense was as effective as their offence in securing top spot in tough groups. The sides each allowed tournament lows of two total tries against and just 35 points conceded in their four pool matches.

Australia in particular showed their mettle in surviving seven minutes down to 13 men against Wales when both Will Genia and Dean Mumm were given yellow cards in short order late in the game. Those were two of four yellows Australia saw in their pool matches, making them the most carded team of those who survived the groups, and behind only Namibia (six) overall.

Against the Welsh, the Wallabies were able to hold out and extend their lead through Bernard Foley’s fifth penalty of the day, which left him one behind Japan’s Ayumu Goromaru (13) for the most in the tournament. Goromaru (58) and Foley (56) ranked second and third, respectively, in point scorers through the group stage behind Scotland’s Greig Laidlaw.

Laidlaw kicked 11 penalties, 11 conversions and scored a try as he helped Scotland become the only team ranked outside the top eight, pre-tournament or during, to reach the quarterfinals.

Photo By: AP Photo/Christophe Ena