Six Nations: Nick Mallett’s numbers game

Scotland had more possession and territory against France last yea but Nick Mallett says those stats don't tell the whole story. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Scotland had more possession and territory against France last yea but Nick Mallett says those stats don't tell the whole story. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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LOVE them or loathe them, no one can deny that statistics are playing an increasing role in how rugby is perceived and played. That is just one of the reasons that former Springbok and Italy coach Nick Mallett is teaming up with the Six Nations official statistics partner Accenture to do a little number crunching before and after the upcoming games.

If you take a look on the website the casual punter is able to burrow surprisingly deeply into the data. Taking last season’s championship as an example, you can discover that Moray Low failed to make a single pass in the game against Ireland last season, George North carried the ball for 128 metres against Scotland and that France somehow managed to lose more lineouts on their own throw (eight) at Murrayfield than they managed to win (six) which is surely a record of some sort... and still they beat Scotland on the day. Bare statistics on their own can be illuminating or utterly misleading, a point that Mallett not only accepts but underlines.

“If you look at the tackle count,” says the South African in his distinctive bass, “you don’t get the full picture because that depends upon what defensive structure you are using. If you use a blitz or a press defence like Wales then you know that you are going to miss a few more tackles, you might accept something like an 80 per cent completion rate, but you hope to gain more turnovers. You have to look at the missed tackles (because the defenders are flying up so fast) and set them against, say, the four knock-ons and the two turnovers in contact that you won because of the blitz.

“If you are using a drift defence you don’t want to miss any tackles, you are targeting 95 per cent because the defence is so much more passive. And as a coach I don’t want to know how many tackles a player has made, I want to know how many offensive tackles a player has made and by that I mean a tackle that takes the opposition more than three seconds to recycle the ball.”

Mallett insisted that he was working with Accenture in an effort to delve much deeper into the numbers and find something that is revealing. He has always been one of the game’s deeper thinkers and he dismisses simple territory and possession statistics, not quite as meaningless, but as somewhat less than meaningful.

Sure enough Scotland dominated possession (58 per cent) and territory (58.5 per cent) and scored two tries to one against France last season only to lose. Look harder and you see the reasons might lie in the penalty count where Scotland conceded 13 to France’s five. Teams don’t give away penalties without a good reason, at least not very often, they usually concede because they are under extreme pressure at the scrum or the breakdown.

“South Africa have long played a game that relies upon territory and penalties,” says Mallett. “They are quite happy to win with 40 per cent of possession by kicking the ball to the opposition and tackling the hell out of them until they make a mistake. New Zealand play very differently. They pressure you by holding on to the ball for a long time and building pressure.”

Just occasionally statistics tell the story in a way that can’t be countered. Those that witnessed Scotland’s tame showing against England at Murrayfield last season will probably have wiped it from their hard drive but one statistic reminds us of the full horror of that afternoon. Ball won in opposition 22: England 44, Scotland 0. Ouch.

“The try-origin statistics tell us that most scores from the last 50 internationals have come from three areas: the turnover, return of a poor kick and a lineout within 40 metres of the opposition line,” says Mallett as he warms to his theme. “It used to be an attacking scrum but now the lineout should spell danger for the opposition. The lineout drive is very difficult to stop and the attacking team always have a chance of milking a penalty or a yellow card from the referee if the defence collapses it. Then they have the opportunity of kicking for goal or taking another attacking lineout. The offensive lineout is an incredibly effective way of scoring points.”

I can’t let Mallett go without quickly ascertaining who he thinks will win this season’s tournament. “Oh, that is a really hard question,” he replies. “I think picking the winner of the World Cup is easier than the Six Nations!

“Scotland have definitely improved under Vern Cotter by about 20 per cent, which puts them right back in the mix. Ireland have been very consistent, winning last season’s tournament before beating Australia and South Africa in the autumn. Wales have a good draw and if they can get a good start they will be dangerous but if England can win in Cardiff they will get a lot of momentum from that.

“I think the winner will come from one of those three countries [Ireland, Wales and England] but I believe that Scotland, France and Italy can give someone a bloody nose. I don’t see anyone winning the Grand Slam and I think the tournament won’t be decided until the final day and, maybe even then, only on points difference.”

And when Scotland do win the Championship after a photo finish we will go back to Mallett and his team of number crunchers at Accenture to find out exactly how they managed it. ✱