Wales’ Kicking Game – An Autumn Review

It was an impressive set of results for Wales over the Autumn with convincing wins against Scotland, Australia, Tonga and South Africa.

As ever, Wales defence was excellent and there were flashes of some of their weaker parts of their game evolving, with a couple of top class set piece tries and improvements in the maul defence and lineout.

One area that still needs addressing to take their game to another level is their kicking game – specifically kicking in the defensive half of the field.

We have seen recently how Ireland use the kicking game to apply pressure to the opposition and this is something Wales can learn from; you don’t need to force the play to create opportunities – sometimes these opportunities come from applying pressure to the opposition.

There are 5 main kick types that we will focus on, which are characteristic of Wales’ strategy under Gatland.


(1) Clearing kick from their own 22m 

This is a Gatland favourite – the Welsh clearing kick is aimed to stay in field, rather than find touch. The tactic has been a mainstay of Wales under Gatland but it is a tactic that we find very difficult to understand.

There seem to be 3 reasons Wales do it. Firstly, by not kicking to touch they take the lineout and the associated lineout drive, out of the armoury of the opposition. Secondly, if the opposition run the ball back, there is an opportunity to tackle and jackal the ball and thirdly it increases the ball in play time, which Wales thinks suits their fitness levels.

Our view is that in most cases Wales end up losing about 50% of the territory gained from the kick, through the initial carry from the opposition catcher and are usually forced back on the defensive again, with often an unorganised defensive line. It doesn’t relieve pressure, it invites is back on Wales.

Here are two examples from the South Africa game.

In the first, Gareth Davies clears fairly long but Le Roux has an easy catch and South Africa can start to attack again.

kick 8 51 mins 22 bad.gif

In the second example Tomos Williams finds very good distance and with a strong Welsh defensive line they tackle Louw in his own half of the field.

kick 12 69 mins 22 good.gif


Our verdict: From deep in their half and when they are under pressure, Wales should kick to find touch, so allowing their defence to reform and perhaps even to steal or pressurise the lineout. 

Where they can put good distance on the ball (find grass in the opposition half), then the kick to keep the ball in play is a good tactic.


(2) Box kick by scrum half in own half 

Wales lost momentum in the 2nd half by too easily conceding possession and territory to the Springboks. Every team uses the box kick tactic but there are 4 possible outcomes that depend on the quality of the kick and the chase:

(1) The kick is re-taken by a Welsh player competing for the ball (it’s usually a winger)

(2) The receiver catches the ball near the touchline and is bundled in to touch

(3) The receiver catches the ball and is immediately tackled

(4) The receiver has time to catch the ball and set up a counter-attack

The objective is option 1, with a sliding scale of desirability down to option 4. 

Here are a few examples from the South Africa game of this type of kick.

In the first Davies’ box kick about 20 metres, North flaps a hand at it but it’s South Africa who pick up possession and start to attack.

kick 7 47 mins box bad

In example 2 (below), Davies kicks long, there is a poor defensive press and Kolbe makes a dangerous break.

kick 6 45 mins box bad

The final example shows Davies’ kick travel barely 10 metres, North again fails to catch the ball and South Africa secure it about 5 metres in front of Davies’ kicking position.

kick 5 box bad

Our verdict: Every team has to have this kick as a weapon in their arsenal. Wales’ problem is that the execution of the kick is often not accurate enough, whether this is because of poor kicking or having wingers who can’t compete in the air for the ball. 

Aerial prowess has never been a strength of North’s and this weakness makes the box kick to compete, a difficult tactic for Wales to effectively employ. North and Adams on the other wing, would be better standing off the ball and tackling the catcher, rather than over running the ball or slapping it to who knows who.


(3) Midfield high kick to compete

Between Wales 22m line and the halfway line Wales will often put up a high kick in the centre of the field, with the intention to try and compete to win the ball back.  This is one of Dan Biggar’s trademarks and when he came on against South Africa he executed the kick on a couple of occasions. 

South Africa make a huge mess of the kick in the first clip and Wales win a scrum for a knock on. 

kick 11 67 mins high bad

There’s not as much depth on the kick in the 2nd example but again the Springboks struggle to deal with it, gifting Wales a scrum.

kick 10 63 mins high bad

Our verdict: This is a very good option, when executed to perfection by Dan Biggar. In both these examples Wales relieve pressure, gain territory and the ball and put the onus back on South Africa to defend.

If executed badly, the kick can either gift cheap ball to the opposition or potentially put the whole team offside. 


(4) Shallow cross field kick with the aim to compete for the ball/kick pass

Here is Gareth Anscombe attempting this type of kick in the first half.

kick 4 cross field bad.gif

On the face of it, it looks like a successful kick but it is a very high risk/low success rate tactic. Firstly, the kick needs to be very accurate, secondly the catcher then has to take the pass (usually in the air) and try and find a supporting runner and thirdly, if the ball spills lose the opposition could have a clear run to the Welsh try line.

Wales ended up conceding possession too cheaply in this example, using a move that has a low chance of success.


Our verdict: The shallow kick/kick pass should only be used in 2 circumstances; around the half way line when the catcher has a clear opportunity to catch the ball and isn’t going to be under pressure, and near the opposition line where a tap down could lead to a try, but there is plenty of space to be able to defend a break if the ball bobbles free. 


(5) High cross field kick towards the touchline to apply pressure

This type of kick is becoming more and more common, with Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell being two good proponents of the approach.  It is usually kicked around the half way line to the 10 metre line, with the target to isolate the wingers or back 3 of the opposition, near the touchline. 

The aim isn’t necessarily to compete for the ball in the air, but to gain territory and try and win the lineout or jackal.

Here are a couple of examples of Wales employing the tactic.

This is an inch perfect kick from Anscombe who puts enough height on the kick to allow North to be under the ball, while still landing the ball just 2 metres from the touchline.

Unfortunately, we get the North flappy arm again, whereas he would have been better just standing off and either taking Le Roux in to touch or picking up any slapped ball from the Springbok full back.

wales kick 1 cross field good.gif

In the 2nd clip it’s Biggar who attempts the kick but it goes too far and South Africa can comfortably take the ball.

kick 9 63 mins diaginal bad.gif

Our verdict: Done well, this is an excellent kick option that puts the pressure on the opposition but also gives Wales a chance to make large territorial gains and potentially even recover possession if the catcher can be put in touch.

Wales need to use this tactic more often.


Improvements for the 6 Nations?

There are certainly elements of Wales kicking strategy and execution that Wales can improve on for the 6 Nations.

Gatland is not going to stop keeping the ball in field off defensive clearances so Wales need to focus on finding more depths on their kicks. Davies needs to improve his box kick accuracy and the wingers need to either learn how to compete in the air or just stand off and be ready to make a positive hit when the catcher touches the grass.

In general, Wales could learn from Ireland’s approach of kicking to apply pressure to the opposition, rather than always trying to use low success rate options that often just concede the ball to the opposition.


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An Autumn of Discontent – What Happened to the Zero-Tolerance Approach to Head Injuries?

Let’s quickly recap on what has happened around the head injuries/concussion issue in rugby over the last year or so:

  1.  Rugby found out it had a serious problem with head traumas and concussions causing life changing changes to players’ physical and mental health
  2.  World Rugby carried out studies to look at how to best combat dangerous tackles and came out with revised guidelines on acceptable tackles
  3. At first players struggled with the changes and the “game’s gone soft crowd” shoved their heads in the sand and pretended concussion wasn’t a big issue
  4. Referees and disciplinary committees started to get to a sensible and consistent application of the high tackle guidelines
  5.  Along came the 2018 Autumn internationals and the “norms” established over the last 18 months seem to have been thrown out of the window

In December 2016 World Rugby announced the latest high tackle guidelines with the bullish phrase, that they had  “……strengthened its [World Rugby’s] commitment to injury prevention by announcing details of a zero-tolerance approach to reckless and accidental head contact in the sport”.

Just consider this phrase as we work through the examples from this Autumn.

It’s not just around high tackles that we have seen a complete change in the approach from referee and disciplinary bodies; tackles in the air, the use of the TMO and even cynical rugby offences, all seem to have been treated far more leniently than they were just a few weeks ago when we were watching domestic rugby.

Here are the main incidents from the 4 weeks of Autumn internationals.

Owen Farrell tackle (England v South Africa)

This was in the last minute of the game and a South African penalty would have given them the chance to win the match. Referee Angus Gardener did refer the incident to the TMO but it was judged that Farrell had attempted to wrap his arm.

farrell tackle sa

Pre-Autumn test judgement: If this occurred in a domestic fixture in October Farrell would have received at least a penalty against him and arguably a yellow card.

It is interesting to note that World Rugby’s own guidelines on illegal high tackles include an example very similar to Farrell’s.


Samu Kerevi collision with Leigh Halfpenny (Wales v Australia)

Kerevi was supposed to be charging the ball down as Halfpenny attempted a clearing kick but not only was he extremely late but his shoulder also seemed to make direct contact with Halfpenny’s head.

Referee Ben O’Keefe didn’t refer the matter to the TMO, telling the Welsh captain that it wasn’t deliberate.

Did the fact O’Keefe not use the TMO arise because he felt under pressure from World Rugby’s recent announcement on reducing the amount of TMO input?  This was a crucial moment at a key point in the game – exactly what the TMO should be used for.

To add to the confusion O’Keefe’s statement that the collision wasn’t “deliberate” is pretty irrelevant, given World Rugby’s own guidelines allow red cards to be issued for reckless challenges.

australia wales halfpenny late hit.gif

Pre-Autumn test judgement: A red card for Kerevi for reckless, direct contact to the head with force (Halfpenny is still suffering the adverse effects, nearly two weeks after the incident)


Alun-Wyn Jones high arm on Bernard Foley (Wales v Australia)

As Jones goes in to contact he raises his arm and makes contact with the tackler at the top of the chest/neck.

This wasn’t looked at by the TMO and Jones wasn’t cited.

awj high .gif

Compare this incident with another from a Women’s Autumn test (below).

megan rom red card .gif

In the Women’s example, the USA’s Megan Rom was shown a red card during the game and subsequently banned for 3 games. Is there much difference with the Jones’ example?

Pre-Autumn test judgement: Jones’ arm does move straight to the top of the chest/neck area, but it is more of a push than a strike. Yellow card but a case for a red if it is considered a strike with force.


Dan Faleafa drives his shoulder in to Aaron Wainwright (Wales v Tonga)

Tongan flanker Faleafa ignores the ball and drives his shoulder in to the upper chest and then head of Wales’ Wainwright. Faleafa wasn’t cited after the game with just a penalty awarded during the game.

wainwright highhit.gif

Pre-Autumn test judgement: Red card


Cheslin Kolbe is high tackled by Wenceslas Lauret as he reaches for the try line (France v South Africa)

Referee Nigel Owens got this one badly wrong. Instead of awarding South Africa a penalty try and giving a yellow card to Lauret for the high arm that makes contact with the head, Owens gives a knock on against South Africa.

This was looked at the by the TMO, but bizarrely neither the TMO nor the referee thought the tackle was high. Ball watching?

kolbe hit.gif

Pre-Autumn test judgement: Yellow card and penalty try


Siya Kolisi headbutt on Rob Horne (Scotland v South Africa)

Another great example of the “zero-tolerance” approach to head strikes.  In this incident Rob Horne was holding down the South African captain, who responded with a back head butt which appears to make contact with Horne’s head.

This incident was looked at by the citing commissioner who deemed it not to be worthy of a red card because of two mitigating factors; the player was held by Horne and that the strike was of moderate force.


Pre-Autumn test judgement: Red card


Sam Whitelock cynical block, while on the floor (Ireland v New Zealand)

Ever since the yellow card was introduced in to rugby, truly cynical offences have always warranted a yellow card…until the Autumn tests, when New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock got away with just a penalty for this.


Pre-Autumn test judgement: Yellow card


Sam Whitelock “clearout” on Cian Healy (Ireland v New Zealand)

Just a few minutes in to the game and with New Zealand attacking, Healy finds himself on the wrong side of the ruck and receives what looks like a shoulder to the head/neck from the clearing All Black Sam Whitelock.

Wayne Barnes seemed to see the incident because he immediately said “clear out is legal”.  Whitelock wasn’t cited.


Pre-Autumn test judgement: Red card


Rob Kearney air challenge

Kearney got lucky in the Ireland v New Zealand fixture after clattering in to Rieko Ioane. Barnes just gives a penalty.

Pre-Autumn test judgement: We see this sort of challenge pretty often, with both players attempting to play the ball but the receiver jumping higher and earlier than the player from the kicking team. Rightly or wrongly, the tackling player is always penalised and will receive a yellow card or a red of the tackled player lands on his upper shoulders/head.

It was interesting to read on Twitter a number of people congratulate Wayne Barnes on a strong refereeing performance, but if a strong display means getting the big decisions right, Barnes’ fell well short.


Fraser Brown high tackle (Scotland v Argentina)

Paul Williams from New Zealand got this one badly wrong as Fraser Brown swings an arm in to the tackle and makes direct contact with the head.

Yes, the fact the carrier was falling is some mitigation but that should mean it was a yellow card and not a red (a direct hit to the head with force), rather than it being a penalty offence.

Pre-Autumn test judgement: Yellow card. Not a red because player is falling.


Owen Farrell no-arms tackle on Izack Rodda (England v Australia)

Farrell’s famous “no-arms” league style tackle was back in the spotlight as his effort saved a certain Australia try.  As Australia’s 2nd row Rodda charged to the line, Farrell failed to use his arms and sort of jumped in front of the big Aussie.

It wasn’t a particularly dangerous tackle but it was certainly illegal and given the location of the offence, a penalty try should have followed.

Not for the first time in a big game Jaco Peyper was reticent about penalising foul play. judging it a fair tackle.


Pre-Autumn test judgement: Penalty try.


Izack Rodda “spear” tackle on Elliot Daly (England v Australia)

As Daly takes the ball in to contact he is tackled, lifted through the horizontal and appears to land on at least his back (if not his upper back/shoulders).  Jaco Peyper is again keen to keep the cards in his pocket and only awards a penalty.

tackle on daly.gif

Pre-Autumn test judgement: Yellow card


What happen’s next?

Who knows. We have to assume that it was no coincidence that we had so many incidents in these three weeks that were dealt with more leniently than they would have been in October.

We know that the approach has caused more confusion in supporters’ and players’ minds over the way laws are applied, and it has undermined the campaign to make rugby a safer sport at all levels.

Will we see a return to the “norm” when the domestic rugby returns or was the approach to the internationals tests the “new” approach going forward? Brett Gosper has suggested that more cards should have been shown, but why is there such a disconnect between the boss of World Rugby and the elite referees on the pitch?


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Ireland – The Masters of the Pressure Rugby Game. How New Zealand Were Beaten

Ireland can arguably claim to be the best team in World Rugby at present, after seeing off the All Blacks in fairly comfortable fashion.

For the neutral, Ireland are a fascinating team to watch and analyse, to try and work out why they are as good as they are. Their backs lack a bit of pace, they aren’t particularity potent off turnovers or set plays and their forwards won’t be off loading at pace over the gain line, so why are they so good?

The answer is that they play a simple game plan that relies on pressure; exerting as much pressure on the opposition until they crack. Pressure through an accurate kicking game from Sexton and Marmion (or Murray in previous games), pressure from a fast defensive line, pressure at every breakdown and pressure from tight carries near the opposition line.

Ireland’s pressure game needs accuracy in all aspects of their game, from kicking to ball handling and from reading referees at the break down to having patience in the opposition 22.

Using examples from the New Zealand win we look at these 4 key pressure points that are the key to Ireland’s game.


(1) Pressure from kicking

We covered the accuracy of Sexton’s kicking in an article in the 6 Nations but there was more of the same in the All Blacks fixture, with Kieran Marmion joining in the act with a superb kick with just 1 minute on the clock.

The kick is just too long for Stockdale but a length that the Irish winger can then tackle Barrett as he lands. Ireland gain 40 metres and apply pressure.

marmion kick

With 29 minutes on the clock Sexton hangs a beautiful drop-out which Ireland re-gather through Rory Best and set up another attack.

sexton restart

This next example is a good example of Ireland applying pressure on to the opposition, as opposed to trying to create an immediate opening themselves.

Ireland win good attacking ball and move it to Garry Ringrose, who decides not to attack with ball in hand but kick for the corner and pressure the All Blacks through a 5m lineout.

ringrose grubber

Finally, it’s Marmion again, who deals with slow ball by placing a box kick on the edge of New Zealand’s 22m line, which once again they re-gather.

marmion 2


(2) Pressure at the breakdown

New Zealand played in to Ireland’s hands a little by playing a narrow attacking game. This allowed the Irish forwards to quickly take a carrier to ground and then jackal the ball – sometimes legally, sometimes illegally.

In the first few minutes of the game, New Zealand attacked the Irish line and it was only the breakdown work of van der Flier and Stander that earned Ireland a penalty and released the pressure that was building.

stander jackal.gif

The next example was a crucial point in the game, because the penalty award was from an illegal jackal from Peter O’Mahony that lead to the lineout that Ireland scored from.

Who knows what Wayne Barnes was looking at but it’s clear O’Mahony goes straight on to his elbows and even his nose looked like it hit the turf.

Instead Barnes awards Ireland the penalty and they head up the field and score a well worked try.

pom jackal.gif


(3) Pressure in defence

Ireland’s defence was superb, and has been for a while. In their last 15 games against tier 1 opposition (excluding Italy) they have only conceded an average of 15.5 points a game, with just 4 teams managing to get over 20 points (Wales twice, Argentina and Scotland).

Ireland do defend narrowly but when the opposition tries the direct approach, there is no defence.

Here are a couple of examples of the strong Irish defence.

defence example 3

The next example, below also includes a nice read from Ringrose, who cuts out the back door pass to Barratt.

defence example 2


And a double hit by Toner and Ryan drives New Zealand back over the gain line.

toner ryan hit 1


(4) Pressure from forward carries

Ireland scored points in 4 separate plays (1 from a try and 3 from penalties).  In 3 of the 4 scoring plays the ball was moved from the Irish half to the scoring position through a penalty conceded by New Zealand:

1st Ireland penalty – 7 minutes Retallick plays Marmion’s arm and Barnes awards penalty to Ireland. Ireland stay in NZ 22 and kick penalty from in front of posts

2nd Ireland penalty – 22 minutes, a high tackle on Stander results in a penalty. Ireland kick for the corner and after another New Zealand infringement (Whitelock should have been given a yellow card), Ireland again play some phases in the All Black’s red zone, which leads to a penalty in front of the posts and 3 points

3rd Ireland penalty – Ireland move the ball in hand to take them to the All Blacks 22m, through 16 phases.

Ireland try – O’Mahony wins a jackal penalty which Sexton kicks in to the New Zealand half for a lineout Ireland score from.

A characteristic of Ireland’s play is what they do with the ball in and around the opposition’s 22m line. They often slow the play down to allow their forwards to get in to position, they play 1 or 2 out passes to forwards and nearer the try line they employ pods of 3 players who pre-latch on to the carrier to give added momentum to the drive.

It is very simple rugby and the opposition know what they will do, but stopping it proves very difficult, and often – as we saw against New Zealand, the opposition become frustrated and give away penalties.

The clip below is a classic example of Ireland’s attacking structure in the opposition 22 under Schmidt. Notice how the ball only moves wide once Ireland have been awarded the penalty advantage.


Again, the emphasis is on simple rugby (you won’t often see off-loads, miracle passes, complex set plays or individuals getting isolated with the ball out wide), it’s highly organised and orchestrated play that applies maximum pressure on the opposition’s defence.



Pressure, pressure, pressure

Schmidt’s game plan revolves around applying pressure at the breakdown, the defensive line, through kicks and in close carries.

New Zealand struggled to find a solution and it’s up to the 6 Nations teams early next year to provide Ireland’s next test. How do you counter this sort of pressure game?


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Do Test Teams Need the Ball to Win a Rugby Game? A Look at the Relationship Between Possession, Points and Wins in International Rugby

We will all have seen the possession and territory statistics flashed up on the screen during a big game, but what do they really tell us? Does the fact our team only had 40% of the ball during the half really matter?

In this series of 3 blog articles we will look in turn at possession, territory and then both combined, to determine if these metrics are a good guide to the performance of our team.

We have completed the analysis by looking at games between tier 1 nations only, from the start of the calendar year 2016 to the end of the 2018 Rugby Championship.

In this first article we will look at possession (shown as a percentage), to determine if there is a relationship between the amount of a ball a team has, the total points scored by that team and the chances of victory.

The results are quite surprising.


Which Team Has the Highest Possession Percentages?

Ireland. By some distance, with an average possession % of 55.6% over the period of analysis.

At the lower end of the table it’s perhaps surprising to see New Zealand, Wales and England, who are currently ranked 1,3 and 4 respectively in the World Rugby rankings.

At first glance there doesn’t seem to be a strong link between performances and possession.

possession total table


More Possession Must Mean More Points?

Surely, the more ball a team has, the more points they must score? This just seems like fairly basic logic, given no team has ever scored a point without having the ball.

To test this theory, for each of the 10 tier 1 teams we plotted the possession % on the x-axis against points scored by that team on the y-axis, and applied a trend line

Logic suggests that as the possession % increases, the number of points scored by that team should also increase?

The findings were very surprising; 8 of the 10 teams had either a flat trendline (showing no relationship between possession and points scored) or even a negative relationship, meaning that as the possession % increased the team scored fewer points.

One team had a reasonably strong positive relationship between the two metrics, while our final team had a strong relationship; the greater the % possession they have, the more points they score. Have a guess which team this was.

Firstly, let’s look at the 8 teams which had a flat or even negative relationship. It should be noted that in the Wales graph we stripped out 1 outlier (where Wales scored 67 points with 63% possession in the 2016 6 Nations); all other data sets are complete.


argentina possession v points scored



new austrlia chart



england possessin v points



France possession v points



ireland possession v points



Italy possession v points


South Africa

SA possession v Total Points scored




Wales possession v points outlier stripped out

Now for the 2 teams that have a stronger relationship between the two metrics, with Scotland being the first team.


scotland possession v points

And the team that shows the strongest correlation between possession secured and points secured is New Zealand.

New Zealand

new nz chart


The graphs above tell us that for the majority of the teams, securing a higher percentage of ball doesn’t necessarily mean that you will score more points; New Zealand being the real anomaly.

To try and understand why this is the case we will look at two teams in a bit more detail – New Zealand (because of their strong correlation) and England (who score fewer points when they secure a greater percentage of the ball).


New Zealand’s Data

There are 31 games in New Zealand’s data set, with a peak possession at 75% (against South Africa in 2018) and a low of 34% (against Ireland in 2016 in Dublin).

Let’s look at New Zealand’s average possession % against each of the other tier 1 teams.

nz new table


It is interesting to see that – leaving Italy to one side, the highest possession games New Zealand played were against their biggest long term rivals South Africa and Australia. These games also saw a high average points scored by New Zealand and (again leaving out Italy), the 3 highest averages are against Argentina (41.5), South Africa (41) and Australia (39.7).

By contrast their games against northern hemisphere teams yielded fewer points and a lower % possession. Perhaps if New Zealand played more games against the norther hemisphere teams, a large data set would bring the average up towards the averages seen against the Rugby Championship teams.

There is not a huge disparity between the possession percentage when at home (52.4%) against away (46.8%), and in the average points scored at home (41.7) against away (36.9).

Perhaps the main finding in this analysis is that when New Zealand play against their southern hemisphere rivals they secure more possession and secure more points, than in games against the northern hemisphere teams (in particular Ireland and England).


England’s Data

There are 29 games in England’s data set, with a peak possession at 58% (against Wales in the Summer 2016 tour “warm up” game) and a low of 29% (against Australia in the 2nd test in 2016).

Let’s look at England’s average possession % against each of the other tier 1 teams.

england possession table

These figures show a completely different trend than the All Blacks’. New Zealand have a percentage of possession and score more points against their southern hemisphere neighbours, whereas England struggle for ball against the likes of Australia and Argentina and have their highest possession figures against fellow 6 Nations teams Scotland, France and Wales.

If we look at the average points scored by England against Australia and Argentina we see these are high numbers, thanks in the main to some free flowing games on tour in Australia in 2016 (28-39, 7-23 and 40-44) and in Argentina in 2017 (34-38 and 25-35).

When England play southern hemisphere teams they seem to join in the fun with high scoring fixtures, even if they struggle to secure possession, while in the 6 Nations they often find the Irish, Welsh and French defences more difficult to break down, scoring 15, 21.3 and 22 points respectively.


Does More Possession Mean More Wins?

The charts above have shown us that there isn’t a strong relationship between points scored and percentage possession (other than in New Zealand and perhaps Scotland’s case). But does a higher percentage of ball mean a team is more likely to win the game, regardless of how many points they score?

There isn’t much we can learn from New Zealand’s data, given they win nearly all their games anyway, but in our data sample the All Blacks have lost the following games:

  • South Africa 2018 – 75% possession
  • Ireland 2016 – 49% possession
  • Australia 2017 – 43% possession

In the South Africa game, the All Blacks secured 75% of the ball but still lost, while in defeat against Australia they only had 43% of the ball.

The data also shows New Zealand can win with a low percentage of possession. In the final test against Wales in 2016, the All Blacks won the game 46-6, with just 38% of the ball.

Let’s turn to Wales’ wins to determine if there is a relationship with the percentage possession they secure.


Wales Possession and Wins

Logic would suggest that more ball would equate to a higher chance of winning a game, but the table below gives a mixed picture.

wales wins by possession

* Ireland and Wales played out a draw in 2016.

Where Wales secured less than 39% of the ball they achieved strong wins against Argentina in two tests and against South Africa (in Washington). Their only defeat came against Ireland in Dublin – a game decided in the final moments.

Even in games where they have less than parity on possession, they managed to beat strong teams such as Ireland and South Africa (twice).


Ireland Possession and Wins

Ireland keep the ball so well, they don’t have any games in the <39% possession category.  Wales had just 4 games in the 60%+ bracket whereas Ireland have 10 games, s the table below shows:

ireland wins by possession band

* Ireland and Wales played out a draw in 2016.

Again, there is no clear pattern showing more wins with a greater percentage of possession. Where Ireland have had less than 50% of the ball they have notched up wins against South Africa, Australia, England and Argentina – with two of the wins against the southern hemisphere teams and England being away.

Ireland’s most impressive wins have been against South Africa at home in 2017 (38-3) and New Zealand in Chicago, where Ireland only had 46% and 51% possession respectively.

In the follow up test in Dublin after the Chicago win, Ireland had an impressive 66% of the ball but lost 9-21.

If we look at games where Ireland have secured 60%+ possession they have won an impressive 7 out of 10 games, with their only defeats coming to the big 3 southern hemisphere teams (Australia and South Africa were both away, with New Zealand played at home).

This is perhaps an indication that if Ireland secure 60%+ of the ball they are very difficult to beat.


What Does This Tell Us?

There are a few key learnings from this analysis:

  • There is a reasonable (but not huge) spread between teams in terms of average possession per game, from Ireland (55.6%) to Italy (46.1%)
  • The weakest team – Italy, has the lowest possession rates but the best team (New Zealand) only ranks 7th on the list; the current World Rugby teams ranked 1,3 and 4 currently make up 3 of the bottom 4 teams in possession terms
  • Only New Zealand show a strong positive relationship between amount of possession they secure and the number of points they score
  • 8 of the 10 teams show no relationship or even a negative correlation (they score fewer points as their possession levels increase)
  • Looking at Wales, Ireland and New Zealand’s results there isn’t a strong link between possession levels and win rate; one New Zealand’s defeat came in a game where they secured 75% of the ball
  • There is some evidence that Ireland only lose to high ranking teams in away fixtures, where they secure more than 60% possession


Our initial premise, that more ball must mean more points and a higher chance of victory doesn’t show up strongly in this data, although there is some evidence that Ireland in particular are harder to beat at higher possession levels.

Ireland are a team that like to keep the ball through multiple forward phases and close quarter driving. This might explain why their possession rates are so high. Wales, by contrast are often happy to concede ball by kicking it away; they often seem more comfortable without the ball than they do with it.

The 2018 Autumn tests have started in the same fashion with Wales securing 47% of ball against Australia and 40% against Scotland, yet they won both games. Ireland had 61% of the ball against Argentina and 57% against Italy – winning both.

So, the next time the possession statistics flash up on screen, don’t pay too much attention to them – your team can still win without much ball!


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David Pocock – Wales v Australia; An 80 Minute Masterclass in Breakdown Illegality

David Pocock is one of the best rugby players in the game today. He is also one of the most illegal players.

The breakdown is a morass of illegal offences, most of which are material but not called up by the referee. It makes this phase of play dangerous, but it also slows down attacking ball….which leads to the sort of game we saw in Cardiff when Wales played Australia.

Referee Ben O’Keefe allowed Pocock to dominate the breakdown, using the full range of illegal techniques. Here we have picked out a few examples.


10 minutes

Wales attack the Australian 22m line and are looking for quick ball to release their backs. As Nicky Smith carries in to contact Pocock dives off his feet over the tackled player. The combination of Pocock and his supporting team mates slows down the ball.

pocock 2.gif

If we look at Pocock’s body position as he arrives at the tackle, he isn’t supporting his body weight, or even pretending to do so. What is O’Keefe looking at?

In a game decided by 3 points, these sorts of decisions by O’Keefe have a huge bearing on the final outcome.


11 minutes

Wales drive up the centre of the field and Pocock helps to make a strong tackle, but watch his body shift after the tackle to lie on the Welsh side of the breakdown, to slow down the Welsh ball. Clever play.  Again O’Keefe is perfectly positioned but ignores it.

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14 minutes

George North takes to ball in to contact and our man, Pocock is first to the breakdown. O’Keefe awards the penalty to Australia for holding on.

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We have some sympathy with O’Keefe in this example because he doesn’t have a clear view of the action. The still below shows that as Pocock moves down towards the ball he uses his left hand to support himself, while attacking the ball with his right arm.

As he then moves towards a standing position the right arm comes on to the ball, which gives the illusion to the referee he has supported his bodyweight.

pocock still 5


43 minutes

Wales put some phases together in broken field but as Halfpenny makes a run, it’s Pocock again over the ball and awarded the penalty.

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The clip doesn’t clearly show what happened, but the still below shows that as the ruck forms, Pocock isn’t attacking the ball, he has his hands on Halfpenny. He only attacked the ball as he moved to a standing position, as is often his approach.

pocock still again


72 minutes

This was a crucial passage of play, coming shortly after the hit on Halfpenny in the charge down.

O’Keefe awarded the penalty to Australia which drew them level with 8 minutes to go.

pocock illegal jackal 72 minutes.gif

The still below shows Pocock on his forearms and not supporting his bodyweight.

pockock off feet 72 minutes


What could Wales have done about it?

There are probably 4 ways to clear a jackal who is very low over the ball:

  1. Get under them – virtually impossible when the jackal isn’t supporting his bodyweight
  2. Roll them to the side – difficult against a strong player like Pocock, who is already set
  3. Drive in to their back – again, difficult to shift someone like Pocock using this technique
  4. Ignore the gate and drive in to the side of Pocock.


This 4th technique – although completely illegal, is the best method of shifting someone in Pocock’s position over the ball.

We recently highlighted the breakdown carnage in the South Africa v New Zealand, Rugby Championship game, where players from both sides cleared out the jackal, not from their gate, but by entering the side (see the example below).


sa nz 6

So the best way to clear an illegal jackal is by illegally ignoring the gate and driving in the side.  A nice summation of the mess rugby officiating finds itself in at the moment.


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The 5 Most Controversial Last Minute Refereeing Decisions: Farrell, NZ v Lions 1993, Australia v Ireland, Scotland v Australia, NZ v Lions 2017

Being a referee is hard enough at the best of times, but when a controversial moment happens in the last minute and your decision will determine the outcome of the game, you have to wonder why referees volunteer to do it!

Here are 5 of the most controversial last minute decisions.  Have we missed any others?


(5) England v South Africa – 2018 Owen Farrell

England were leading South Africa 12-11 in a scrappy Autumn international, the clock had turned red and South Africa were on the attack when Owen Farrell decided to put in one of his trademark shoulder hits on Andre Esterhuizen.

farrell tackle sa.gif

Referee Angus Gardener consults with the TMO, and between the two of them they decide Owen Farrell has used his arms in the tackle.

Interestingly, World Rugby’s website gives examples of the sorts of tackles they want to stamp out and one of them is nearly identical to Farrell’s hit.

This should have been at least a penalty to South Africa in a kickable field position.


(4) Australia v Ireland – 3rd test 2018

Ireland’s series win in Australia was their first away against the 3 big southern hemisphere teams, but it didn’t come without controversy in the 3rd and deciding test.

With over 80 minutes on the clock and Australia trailing 16-20, the Wallabies launched waves of attacks on the Irish try line. As Foley tried to get the pass out of the tackle, just metres from the Irish line, there appeared to be a hand from Jacob Stockdale that prevented the ball from reaching its intended recipient.


Referee Mathieu Reynal consulted the TMO who stated that there was no clear evidence of contact between Stockdale and the ball, so bringing an end to the game and a series win for Ireland.

What do you think? Does the ball deviate as it passes Stockdale’s hand?

ireland australia 3rd test stockdale.gif


(3) New Zealand v British and Irish Lions – 1993 1st test

The Lions’ performance in the 2nd test of the 1993 tour must rate as one of the greatest from the Lions, particularly after it came off the back of a very controversial 1st test, decided by a last minute penalty awarded to New Zealand.

Going in to the last minute of the 1st test the Lions were leading 18-16 and a monumental victory seemed to be within touching distance, when Australian referee Brian Kinsey decided to give a penalty to New Zealand, which Grant Fox successfully kicked to win the game.

lions 1993 penalty 1st test.gif

Dean Richards wrapped up Frank Bunce but instead of penalising Bunce for holding on he awarded the All Blacks the penalty. Dewi Morris’ face conveys the shock and surprise.


(2) Scotland v Australia – 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter final

Scotland were heavy underdogs in this game and yet a Mark Bennett interception try with seven minutes to go, seemed to have given Scotland the victory and place in the semi finals.

With 2 minutes left to play, Scotland make a hash of their lineout, the ball bobbles around a few times and Joubert awards a penalty to Australia for Scotland playing the ball in an offside position.

Joubet scotland australia.gif

At the time, the TMO couldn’t be used to review these sorts of incidents, so Craig Joubert was left to make a decision based on what he saw in that split second. Unfortunately for him, the penalty incident was replayed on the big screen as the kick was taken and the crowd could see the ball had hit an Australian player.

The game finished with Joubert beating a hasty retreat from the ground, after Foley had kicked the penalty to give Australia a 35-34 point victory.

World Rugby later released a statement saying that Joubert had got it wrong.


(1) New Zealand v British and Irish Lions 2017 – 3rd test

It’s the 3rd test in arguably rugby’s most high profile match, the British and Irish Lions against New Zealand. With the series standing at 1-1, the match at 15-15 and with less than 2 minutes on the clock Beauden Barrett restarts for New Zealand.

The ball comes forward from Liam Williams and Ken Owens momentarily catches the ball before dropping it. Referee Romain Poite immediately signals for a penalty for a deliberate offside, and in such a kickable position the series looks to be New Zealand’s.

After demonstrations from the Lions’ captain Sam Warburton, Poite decides to ask the TMO to check the incident.

After talking to the TMO Poite seems to be happy with his original decision that it was a deliberate offside and therefore a penalty, but by the time he has walked over to the two captains, his view has changed and he deems Owens’ intervention to be accidental and therefore just a scrum.

Make your own mind up. Did Read fairly challenge Williams in the air? Did the ball come forward off Williams? Was Owens’ contact accidental or deliberate?

lions 3rd test final penalty.gif


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Dan Lydiate – Strength In Contact

Saturday’s Wales game against Scotland was made for Dan Lydiate, with Scotland repeatedly sending heavy runners in to his defensive channel. Lydiate made 23 tackles in the game (none missed) but it’s his strength in the tackle and at the contact area that are so impressive.

With gainline superiority a key aspect of winning a game of rugby, having someone like Lydiate standing in those narrow channels and taking out the opposition runners, gives a massive advantage.

He can either tackle very low (we covered his “chop tackle” technique which incurred the wrath of some referees, a few years ago) but he has refined his technique to make it more acceptable to officials.

When he tackles high, his physical attributes mean defenders often stop dead and fail to gain any momentum over the gainline.  He has also developed his game to now provide a jackal option over the ball.

Lydiate may not have the best carrying game and doesn’t often get used at the breakdown, but if you want a defensive 6 to stop players on the gainline there are few better.

Here are some highlights from his game.

(1) Off an attacking lineout Lydiate comes around the corner and makes a good gain over the tackle line

lydiate 8


(2) In a defensive position, Lydiate is first out of the line and makes his trademark tackle to immediately take the carrier down. With the help of Moriarty as the second tackler, Scotland lose distance on the play.

lydiate 7

(3) Jonny Gray is taken to ground in a strong (but high!) hit from Lydiate

lydiate 5


(4) Lydiate again leads the line and targets the legs of the carrier, giving the supporting players the chance to jackal and either win, or slow, the ball.

lydiate 4

(5) Scotland continue to send heavy forward runners down Lydiate’s channel, with little success as he hits Toolis behind the gainline

lydiate 3

(6) Lydiate is the jackal in this phase as he spiders (illegally) over the ball and slows the Scottish move. The referee allowed him to do it, so it’s good play.

lydiate 2

(7) Lydiate and Jones stop the carrier dead in his tracks

lydiate 1

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