Scotty Stevenson: Intriguing stats from the bunker

Latest in-depth rugby analysis raises more questions than answers - and threatens the tropical rainforest.

Benji Marshal's numbers could be even better if he had played a few more games for the Blues. Photo / Getty Images.
Benji Marshal's numbers could be even better if he had played a few more games for the Blues. Photo / Getty Images.

I have spent the past week with my head buried in spreadsheets. This is horrifying to me for a number of reasons, two of which being I have wasted my entire adult life making bad jokes about my brother being an accountant and yet I've probably looked at more numbers this week than he has, and, given my proclivity for printouts, somewhere a toucan is currently without a patch of rainforest.

It's not just this week, though. It's every week. Rugby, like all professional sports, is finding its own particular devils in the details, and that's the reality of modern analysis.

This is nothing new to the coaches and the coders of course, but the drive from fans for deeper meaning in the plays and deeper statistics on the players means watching rugby has become more forensic than fanatical. On balance, this is a good thing. Unless you're a toucan.

Sports fans want justification for opinion, and rightly so. It seems, given one particular response to last week's column, that these days even satire requires some form of statistic as a meaningful backup.

However, the fact is sports analytics is a burgeoning business. The Herald Rugby Stats Centre is actually a concrete bunker seven floors underground on Auckland's Albert St, employing 72 computing graduates and a retired janitor. You can't even access the elevator without a 10-digit pin code and retinal scan - that's how seriously we're taking this data.

I never thought I'd be surrounded by numbers as part of my weekly working life (my former maths teachers would ruefully concur) but I'm thankful for that bunker, because there is always a joyful moment when you can find some form of evidence to back up that gut feeling.

There's the issue of Benji Marshall, for instance, who has played just 146 minutes of rugby for the Blues in this year's competition yet has still managed to offer the third-most offloads, fourth-most defenders beaten and second-best metres-per-run average. Would those numbers be even better if he had played a few more games? According to former Wallaby Tim Horan, Marshall just needs more game time.

Then again, when you think this is coming from a former Wallaby it could well be another underhanded Australian tactic, and I don't have an algorithm for that.

I don't have an algorithm for many of the things I love best about rugby. Malakai Fekitoa's hit on Conrad Smith a fortnight ago is statistically one tackle. But what impact does a play like that have on a team? You can't find a stat for heart and soul. You can't find a stat for the expert angles Tony Woodcock has in his arsenal when he's attempting to manipulate the opposition's scrum for a short side attacking play. You won't find Force captain Matt Hodgson's two try-saving plays against the Highlanders on any spreadsheet, nor will you find the column for "Honey Badger post match interview hilarity quotient".

You will find plenty of numbers for turnovers won, and penalties conceded, but it's only when you put the two together that you realise Phillip van der Walt is the most positive turnover specialist in the game, effecting five of them for every penalty he concedes. Compare that with Michael Hooper, who has a ratio of one to one. Then again, what if that turnover was in the dying stages of the game and it was the play that ultimately secured victory? Matt Todd's and Jack Lam's numbers should reflect that, but they don't.

Last week there was so much hype around the return of Tim Bateman for the Hurricanes. Is it any coincidence that Conrad Smith's key numbers in the victory over the Crusaders were all better than his season averages? Did he lift simply because he was playing against the Crusaders? Is there a mathematical equation for midfield trust? Does anyone have a Panadol?

Then there's this to consider: sometimes the numbers raise more questions than they supply answers. Like, how is it the Chiefs have scored more tries from the lineout than any other New Zealand team when they have the worst lineout percentage in the competition? Given their classic against the Bulls last weekend, maybe we need to add a column for creativity.

All things considered, perhaps I'll watch my footy the old-fashioned way this weekend; I'll sit back and enjoy the Hurricanes scoring the kind of tries that no other team scores, and the Highlanders grafting their way to another home victory on the back of Shane Christie's tackling against the freewheeling Rebels, and the Crusaders (maybe) finding their attacking mojo at Ellis Park, and the Stormers ... okay, that's going too far.

I'll just put down the spreadsheets. Somewhere my brother is laughing, and I don't have room for a toucan.

Quade on target

Quade Cooper may never win over footy fans this side of the Tasman but if he can manage a 15-point haul against the Force in Brisbane on Saturday night, he'll certainly win some more respect. Those 15 points will mean he becomes just the 11th player in Super rugby to pass the 700-point mark. If he bags 16 he'll be in the top 10. This will, of course, aggrieve Northland fans - David Holwell will be knocked out of the top 10 list.

Sharks rest easy

The Sharks, amazingly, will head into the second bye of the season this weekend. We say amazingly because the Blues, Hurricanes, Reds and Brumbies are yet to have their first. That peculiarity aside, the Sharks are the only conference leaders who are guaranteed to stay there after this weekend. The Blues and the Hurricanes could both steal the top NZ spot from the Chiefs, and any of the Reds, Force, Waratahs and Brumbies could be top in Australia.

Card sharks

There was a little bit of chat around rugby circles this week over the number of cards issued so far this season. Across seven rounds the number (36) is up 38 per cent on the same stage last year (26). Also up are penalty tries (four this year, one at same stage last year). And here's one more: the seven referees this weekend have adjudicated 17 matches and given 11 yellow cards. The nine refs not involved have adjudicated 25 matches for 25 cards.

- NZ Herald

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