Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: The stats which matter to the All Blacks selectors

Aaron Cruden could be in line for the starting number 10 berth for the All Blacks. Photo / Getty
Aaron Cruden could be in line for the starting number 10 berth for the All Blacks. Photo / Getty

The first All Blacks squad of the year will be announced tomorrow and, for those wanting to pre-empt and then make sense of the selections, statistics from last year's World Cup provide a good insight.

The numbers from last year paint the picture of how the All Blacks play the game and what skills matter to them. It's not a definitive guide to how they will set up in 2016 or how they will select their team but it provides significant clues. It also provides a reminder that test football and Super Rugby have as many differences as similarities.

Trends, patterns and skills prevalent in Super Rugby are not always relevant to what will win tests. Players who have shone brightly in Super Rugby are not always doing the things they need to impress the All Blacks selectors - which is why there may be selections tomorrow that come as a surprise.

One of the most under-appreciated numbers to come out of the World Cup was that New Zealand's scrum was the least likely to be re-set or to end in a free kick or penalty and, as a result, the All Blacks were the team who scored the highest proportion of tries from scrums.

Those statistics explain why Owen Franks continues to be a critical player for the All Blacks. The Crusaders, with Franks anchoring the scrum, have enjoyed a 95 per cent success ratio this season, confirming that Franks is a rock-solid scrummager - destructive even. The importance of his work in establishing dominance and not giving away penalties at the set piece is enormous.

The numbers produced by Charlie Faumuina demonstrate why the All Blacks prefer using him off the bench once the game is opening up. Faumuina has easily the broadest and most impressive skill-set of any prop in New Zealand, demonstrated by his Super Rugby statistics before this weekend's round of games: 61 carries, five offloads and 10 defenders beaten. That's about double the numbers put up by most props.

To a lesser extent, the success of the scrummaging at the World Cup alludes to the strength and contribution of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick. The former has been conservatively managed by the Crusaders and that's partly been to give him a better chance of being on the field for most of the test season.

The All Blacks want Whitelock and Retallick to be on the field for the guts of each test. The twin towers aid the stability of the scrum, but their aerial work is equally impressive. At the World Cup, the All Blacks lost only one in every 22 of their own throws and stole one in every four of their opposition's.

What bolsters that lineout excellence is the contribution of the loose forwards. Kieran Read is one of the world's best lineout forwards and his numbers in Super Rugby confirm that. He's had 42 lineout takes - the best return of any loose forward in New Zealand.

The All Blacks have, and almost certainly will continue, to use their blindside flanker as a lineout option and it's here that Elliot Dixon has probably secured his place.

He and Jordan Taufua have both made 75 tackles, but Dixon's accuracy has been higher and he's also taken 10 turnovers to Taufua's eight. It's the aerial contribution that separates them most, however, as the Highlander has had 34 lineout takes this year. With a proven ability to cover lock, he's exactly the sort of player whose skills marry with the All Blacks' ambitions.

Loose forwards

As much as they are about set-piece excellence, the All Blacks led the World Cup for ruck-ball retention and their forwards made a pass every 2.7 possessions, which was by some margin the highest figure of the tournament.

Set-piece locks with the athleticism to clean out rucks and skills to pass and catch are a must for the All Blacks game plan, which is why Patrick Tuipulotu, despite not being quite in top form, is likely to be recalled.

Accurate and relentless defence was one of the other key pillars on which last year's title run was built, with the All Blacks conceding an average of just 12 points in the pool stage and 16 on average in the knockout rounds.

Supremely accurate one-on-one tackling is imperative and that's why Sam Cane and Ardie Savea, who are respectively second and 11th overall in the Super Rugby tackle count - are going to be key players in 2016.

If there is one concern, it lies in the goalkicking numbers which were phenomenal at the World Cup and may be hard to replicate now Daniel Carter has retired.

Carter attempted 12 penalties and missed only one. In the knockout rounds, he landed 11 from 14 conversions and his success ratio in those last three games was 85 per cent.

Of the men hoping to replace Carter, Lima Sopoaga has the best stats this year with a 75 per cent success rate in Super Rugby. Beauden Barrett has nailed 62 per cent of his kicks and Aaron Cruden just 58 per cent.

However, the stats also show the All Blacks scored 67 per cent of their points through tries. A running first five-eighth with the ability to control the game tactically is what the All Blacks are after. They have built a triple-threat game and need a No 10 who can manage it, pull the right strings and set alight the attacking patterns.

What the numbers show is that Cruden and Barrett roughly pass, kick and run in the same ratios, while Sopoaga has a higher kick ratio. In regard to overall effectiveness, the Chiefs were averaging 34.4 points and 4.7 tries a game; the Hurricanes 30.1 points and 4.2 tries and the Highlanders 26.8 points and 3.1 tries per game before this weekend.

First fives:

- NZ Herald

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