Wales’ 6 Nations’ Squads – Player Contribution by Region (2004 – 2018)

It’s nearly that time of year again, when rugby moves from being a minority sport to one where your butcher and gran have a strong view on who should be starting the opening fixture – it’s 6 Nations time!

One aspect of the Wales squad announcement that is always interesting to monitor is the relative contribution of players from each of the regions and from overseas teams. It gives us a view of the changing strengths of each region and the competing financial pull from the French and English teams.

We now know the 39 players chosen in Warren Gatland’s squad, so this is what the data shows us.

 

Contribution for each year by region

The left hand Y axis shows the number  of players in the initial 6 Nations squad.

wales squad by region 2018

 

What does this graph show us? Well, there are a few obvious things to pick out:

  • The squad size has varied greatly over the past 15 seasons
  • After a brief peak around 2006 the numbers of players in non-Welsh regions steadily increased until 2016 and has dropped slightly since that peak
  • The Dragons have consistently contributed the fewest players of all the Welsh regions over the period
  • The Ospreys have supplied more players for each squad than any other region over the period
  • This season’s Scarlets’ contingent is their highest ever contribution by a full 3 players; it is also the first time they have been the biggest contributor since 2014

Looking at some of these findings in a bit more detail:

 

Squad size

Over the period we have analysed the squad size has varied from 39 to just 28, although the trend seems to be for bigger squads. This year’s squad (39) is so large due to a number of fitness question marks over key players.

squad size 2018

 

Contributions from England and France

As the first graph showed, the general trend over the analysis period is for more players from outside Wales to be picked in the Wales 6 Nations squad. If we break this number down in to its two categories – England and France, we get the following distribution:

overseas contribution to wales squad 2018

The contribution from England is at it’s historical high but there is no representation from France for the first time since 2011. Although Rhys Webb is contracted to join Toulon next season, the new “60 cap” rule will mean he should be ineligible to be chosen for Wales.

It will be interesting to see how the new “60 cap” rule effects the number of Welsh players in England France. Those under the cap threshold may have an incentive in remaining (or returning) to play in Wales but the more experienced players could leave in greater numbers.

 

Contribution by Welsh region

Which regions have contributed the most players over the period? The Scarlets have now jumped above Cardiff for 2nd place in the table but both are still a considerable distance behind the Ospreys.

total contrib 2018

 

 

If we average this out for each season they have been in existence we get something for the Celtic Warriors fans!

average 2018 contribution

 

And finally, which team has been the top contributing region for any one 6 Nations’ season?

2018

 

To follow theblitzdefence on Facebook follow us here.

Advertisements

Steff Evans’ red card – it’s time to revisit aerial challenges

The tackle of a player in the air is one of the most contentious areas of the modern game and the Christmas derbies threw up another example to add to the archives. In the Scarlets – Ospreys games, the Scarlets and Wales winger Steff Evans made contact with the Ospreys’ wing Ben John, which led to him being issued a straight red card.

Here is the incident:

 

The red card was correct….under the current guidelines

World Rugby clarified how sanctions would be applied to tackles in the air in a 2015 guideline. This is what is says:

air tackle.jpg

 

If we apply these tests to the Evans incident there is a strong case to be made that he wasn’t in a position to make a fair challenge (because John was already in the air and in a position to catch the ball) and that John subsequently landed on his neck. This means a red card is an appropriate sanction.

The incident though does highlight several issues around the tackle in the air which need addressing.

 

(1) The sanction is based on the outcome of the incident

Having the punishment dependent on the outcome of an incident is fundamentally an unjust approach, for several reasons:

  • When an offending player takes another one out in the air they should only be responsible for the actions they can control, namely how and where they make contact with the “catcher”
  • When they make contact with the catcher, anything else that happens from then on is often down to a bit of luck (or bad luck), the way the catcher responds to the contact. These actions are generally outside the control of the offending player so it is unfair to make him liable for them.
  • There is often no relationship between the nature of the offence and the outcome. For example, a short instinctive pull down on a catcher’s shirt can often result in a more dangerous outcome than a player deliberately driving through the legs of a catcher in the air. The guidelines struggle to differentiate between the two, which leads on to the 2nd point of interest.

 

(2) The removal of intent from the action

We have seen a general trend in rugby to move away from only punishing deliberate acts of foul play to also include those where the offending player has just been reckless in his actions.

The tackle in the air does not require the officials to demonstrate any intent or that there was a deliberate attempt to harm the catcher, only that the offending player wasn’t in a position to make a fair challenge (we’ll come back to this concept later).

This move towards punishing reckless play has had the effect of removing “rugby accidents” from the field of play; what used to be a natural outcome from 2 players playing a contact sport, has now become an issue of determining which player was reckless in their actions. A difficult test.

Only a few years ago we all knew what a dangerous tackle in the air looked like. One player was focused on the ball in the air, while the offending player ignored the ball and took the catcher out in the air. By moving the test of guilt to pick up reckless acts a whole can of worms has been opened.

 

(3) What’s a fair challenge?

The key words in the World Rugby guidelines on the tackle in the air are “fair challenge”. How these words are interpreted and applied can be the difference between the referee saying “play on” and a red card.

The heart of the problem with determining whether it was a “fair challenge” is that we only know at the very last moment, when one player or another finds themselves in a position to catch the ball. This means that a player is judged not only on their own actions, but on how these actions relate to the other player’s actions, which they can’t control and are often not aware of.

To try and explain this concept a bit more clearly let’s look at a screen shot a split second before the impact:

steff evans.jpg

If we ignore Ben John for a moment and imagine he’s not there, could Steff Evans have been in a position to catch the ball? Yes, definitely.

Both players have their eyes focused purely on the ball. Both players are in position to catch the ball (assuming no opposition), so what is different about the actions of the 2 players? It’s that Ben John has got in to the air first.

This seems to be the crucial factor in determining whether a player can make a “fair challenge” – the player that gets in the air first, has all the “rights” in the challenge.

The fundamental problem with this is that if a player is focused on the ball they are not aware of what the other player is doing. We are therefore asking players to commit to competing the ball while somehow factoring in what the opposition is going to do. It’s an impossible task.

We often talk about a “duty of care” in these incidents, but rarely is that duty of care applied to the player who gets in the air first. In this example John will have been oblivious to whether Evans was in the air or not, he will have been purely focused on the ball. Should a duty of care also apply to the catcher?

 

What’s the solution?

The simple fix is to make the sanctions dependent on the actions, rather than the outcome. This would mean references to where the catcher lands on his body would be removed and replaced by a description of the actual nature of the offence.

The introduction of penalising reckless (rather than deliberate) offences has resulted in considerable confusion around what players should and shouldn’t do in an aerial challenge, which is now primarily determined by who jumps in the air first.

The prevalence of the box kick and cross field kick in the modern game has increased the number of aerial challenges for the ball and accentuated the risks in this aspect of the game.

If we are saying that these sorts of challenges can lead to serious head or neck injuries, more drastic action is needed to reduce the risk.

One suggestion is that after a kick over head height, the team that kicked the ball can’t compete for it in the air as long as a defender is in a position to make a catch. This would reduce the number of challenges in the air and lead to a safer game.

 

 

To follow theblitzdefence on Facebook like us here.

 

 

 

International rugby teams and twitter followers

The festive season is just around the corner, so we thought we would leave the technical analysis for a week or so and have a light-hearted look at the world of test rugby nations and twitter followers.

We have looked at the top 30 test nations (as per World Rugby’s current rankings) and found the number of followers they have on twitter. This data was then applied to a couple of different parameters to see what else we could glean from the information.

 

(1) Twitter followers

This table shows the number of followers on each official union twitter account. In some cases there a two official accounts – one in English and one in the home language.

Twiter followers 1.jpg

A few interesting entries include perhaps a surprisingly large number of followers of Russia and Kenya, perhaps off the back of their 7s appearances. Australia, as a fairly populous nation with excellent internet access is perhaps lower than we would expect?

 

(2) Twitter followers as a % of population

We then calculated the total number of twitter followers as a percentage of that nation’s population.

What we don’t know from the Twitter data is the percentage of followers from a national test from that specific nation. It is probably the case that a large percentage of followers of the All Blacks come from outside New Zealand, given their wide appeal.

twitter 2.jpg

 

(3) Comparing Twitter ranking with World Rugby ranking

The final table shows the World Ranking of each test nation and compares it to the Twitter ranking (based on number of followers). This gives us a feel for which nations punch above their playing “weight” in the world of Twitter.

twitter 3.jpg

The countries at the top of the table are probably there due to the strength of their 7s following, rather than a wider appeal to the XVs game. Kenya has a huge 17 point difference between their World Ranking (30) and their Twitter ranking (a healthy 13).

Japan is perhaps lower than expected but how prevalent is Twiter in Japan? Do they use domestic social media platforms as their preferred means of sharing information and interacting?

 

 

Theblitzdefence would like to wish everyone a very Happy Christmas.

 

To follow theblitzdefence on Facebook, like us here.

The Fall and Fall of French Test Rugby

Firstly, a warning.

This article isn’t written as a cold, objective assessment of France’s current fortunes; instead it is an outpouring of frustration and pity at the current state of the French national test team.

For those of us who were first introduced to rugby in the 1980’s, the players in the vivid blue of France represented everything that was great about the game. Players like Phillipe Sella, Serge Blanco and Franck Mesnel combined panache, entertainment, skill and flamboyance with a bubbling undercurrent of violence and intimidation.

These were rugby superstars playing rugby as it should be played.

Fast forward 3 decades and the team is a pale shadow of the great French teams of old.  In harmony with the performances on the pitch, the colour of their shirt also seems to have dimmed over time, from a glorious blue to a muddy shade of dark blue. Where has the life and colour gone in French test rugby?

Some Statistics

It’s nearly 2 years since we wrote the myth-busting article “Which French Team will Turn up?”.

 

The answer then was a very average one and things in the intervening period haven’t improved. Here are a few charts and statistics:

Number of French wins in the 6 Nations:

France - no of 6 N wins.jpg

 

Final position in the 6 Nations

final position france

 

Rugby World Cup performances

rwc results.jpg

 

Performances against major nations

New Zealand – it doesn’t seem that long ago that France used to be the All Blacks’ nemesis, but France have now lost 11 games in a row to the men from New Zealand, including the 2015 RWC quarter final humiliation, when they lost 62-13.

Australia – France have won just 2 of the last 11 games (2012, 2014).

South Africa – the Boks have been going through their own barren period and yet they have now won 6 in a row against France, including 3 tests in the Summer of 2017 when many felt that they could win the series. Their defeats in that series were also heavy – 37-14, 37-15 and 35-12.

England – France have won 3 of the last 10

Ireland – France dominated this fixture until 2011. The 2012 and 2013 6 Nations fixtures were draws and since then Ireland have won 4 of the 5 fixtures

Wales – this was another fixture that France dominated for decades but Wales had won 5 in a row (including 2 wins in Paris) before the controversial last minute try for France game them victory in the 2017 6 Nations fixture.

 

World Rugby rankings

France currently stand at number 9 in the world with Fiji breathing down their neck in 10th place. France did move up to number 3 in the world in 2011 but their steady decline since then seems terminal.

french world rankings decline

 

The fall and fall

The data suggests that somewhere around 2010 or 2011 France’s decline started. Although they reached the World Cup final in 2011 there was perhaps an element of luck in their semi-final win (Sam Warburton’s red card) and most commentators were of the opinion that this wasn’t a strong French team.

Their 6 Nations form has been very poor for a number of seasons and finishing in 4th place or lower for 5 consecutive seasons, isn’t a record a team like France should be aiming for. Indeed this could have been 6 seasons in a row if it wasn’t for the controversial France-Wales game in 2017.

French test rugby has been in the doldrums for too long. World rugby needs a strong French team to compete at the top table and provide competition to the best teams in the world. A nation of the size, wealth and rugby pedigree of France should be competing for World Cups, not looking to avoid the 6 Nations whitewash against Italy.

In the next article we will look at some reasons why we think France struggle at test level but if you have any theories please let us know.

 

To follow us on Facebook like us here.

 

Wales v New Zealand review: – lineouts, Steff Evans & midfield defence

Anyone who has watched Wales in Autumn internationals will know that the performances and results are quite predictable. That’s why we tweeted this – slightly tongue in cheek tweet, after the Australia game:

As it turned out, it was two All Black tries in 5 minutes, with the first in the 57th minute that took the game away from Wales and helped New Zealand to a 18 – 33 victory.

For all the talk of Wales’ game evolving, it was the same issues that keep coming up time and time again, that prevented them from pulling off a huge upset. In this article we will look at 3 aspects of the game; the Welsh lineout, the contribution from Steff Evans and the Welsh midfield defence.

Wales Lineout

The last time we wrote about the problems with the Welsh lineout was during their Summer tour to New Zealand in 2016 – (article here). 18 months on and the same weaknesses are evident.

Against Australia the lineout was a relative success with Aaron Shingler providing a useful source of ball, indeed Wales won 14 of their 15 lineouts.

The officials statistics say that against New Zealand, Wales won 9 of 11 lineouts but looking though the footage this isn’t correct (or the assessors have a loose definition of a lineout “win”).

Here are a couple examples of Wales not securing good lineout ball.

(1) 3:37 – The lineout is 30m from the New Zealand line, but the ball is thrown to Falateu in the middle. New Zealand contest and the ball ends up on the All Black side (see below)

lineout 1.jpg

(2) 10:50 – Once more Wales are in a good attacking position on the New Zealand 22m line, but again they fail to secure the ball as the New Zealand lifter gets up in front of Falateu.  It’s almost as if the All Blacks know the lineout calls.

(4) 33:48 Wales are on the New Zealand 10m line. The lineout is in disarray and Owens ends up throwing the ball in to the lineout, with no Welsh jumper even getting in the air. New Zealand steal the ball.

The first two examples in particular, were crucial to Wales not being able to convert their territory and possession advantage in to points. A solid lineout, with an attacking maul as another attacking option would bring about a material improvement in the Wales game.

 

Steff Evans

There is no doubting the attacking talent that Evans has at his disposal and this was to the fore in the Scarlets’ impressive run to the 2016/17 Pro12 title.

In his two Autumn international fixtures against Australia and New Zealand, we have seen glimmers of what he does best, which is to attack disorganised defences, usually when he strays off his wing and picks the ball up in midfield.

Against Australia, he showed strength and balance to finish off a sweeping Wales move in the 16th minute and there were a few positive runs when he had possession in space.

On the flip side the question marks over his defence at the top level have resurfaced.

We don’t often quote official statistics because they usually fail to show the full story but against Australia, Evans conceded 5 turnovers (only equalled by Faletau), made 2 tackles and missed 1.

One turnover (shown below), was a rip by Kurtley Beale which resulted in the Aussie fullback having a clear run in to the try line.

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Against New Zealand he made 5 tackles and missed 7 (as a comparison, no other Welsh player missed more than 2 tackles).

The first All Blacks’ try came from a strong run from Rieko Ioane, with Steff Evans falling off the tackle (see below).

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

To Evans’ credit, after missing this tackle he continued to track back to the corner flag, where he made a last gasp attempt to stop Waisake Naholo from scoring (below).

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

If we look at the point of contact in the tackle and take a freeze frame, we see one of the technical errors in Evans’ tackle technique.

evans tackle naholo.jpg

As Evans’ reaches Naholo, he should be looking to get his head behind Naholo’s body and use his left shoulder to drive him towards the touchline. In reality he does the opposite – he turns his body away from the contact and doesn’t get his shoulder in to the New Zealand winger.

Later in the game, Evans finds himself defending one of the inside channels when Sonny Bill Williams runs at him. The New Zealand centre runs across Evans but we again see the Welsh winger adopt the same technique as per the Naholo tackle, namely he puts his right shoulder in front of the carrier and doesn’t use his correct shoulder (see below).

It’s as if he doesn’t want to make a conventional tackle and is relying on his body to halt the carrier.

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Although his defence has improved over the last 12 months, the game against New Zealand did bring to mind some of the poor technique that blighted his game a season or so ago, with the heavy defeat against Glasgow in 2015 being the nadir (see below for an example).

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

 

Wales Midfield Defence

Evans wasn’t helped in defence by some weak organisation by those inside him. Wales suffered hugely from the loss of Jonathan Davies, not just in attack, but in providing a strong outside blitz in defence.

Traditionally, Wales’ centre field defence relied on a strong push from 10, 12 and 13 to close down the opposition’s space, with the outside centre moving ahead of his inside defenders so cutting down space outside.

This still (below) is taken from the Wales – England 6 Nations fixture earlier this year. It shows the Welsh midfield trio (including Jon Davies) pushing as a single line with the outside centre creating the umbrella shape to cut off the outside channels.

fox pish 1

Let’s now go back to Rieko Ioane’s break, where we highlighted Steff Evans missed a tackle. If we freeze the footage and look at the shape of the midfield defence in the lead up to the break we see a completely different shape to the one in the England game.

nz defebce 1

This time it’s Biggar who is the most advanced of the 3, with Scott Williams about 2 metres behind him (contrast that with Jon Davies’ position in the England example). If we move the picture on another second the alignment becomes even worse (see below).

defence 2.jpg

Biggar is now directly infront of Owen Williams at 12, while all 3 players cover a lateral area of about 4 metres. Scott Williams, who is usually a 12, hasn’t pushed up and by the time he does push up the pass has been made to Ioane coming in the channel between 13 and the wing.

In this last example, we look again at the alignment of the Welsh midfield as Ioane strolls in for a soft try. As the ball is played out to the New Zealand backs we have the following defensive shape.

dfence 3

As we move the play on we see Biggar and Roberts form a pretty strong 10-12 wall (the benefits of playing together so often), but look at Owen Williams position (now playing in the 13 channel).

defence 4.jpg

He is about 2 metres short of his midfield colleagues and about 4 metres short of where he should be. If Williams had been in a Jon Davies position for this play, Ioane would not have had the clear run through the 13-wing channel (again).

 

An Evolving Approach from Wales?

On one hand we have identified the same forward weaknesses that have blighted Wales’ game for years, which don’t seem to improve. You would think that a maul and a lineout are two areas that could be coached to a decent standard, but this is an area Wales have regressed in.

Wales have tried to implement a more creative approach and changed personnel as a result, which will obviously bring with it a period of bedding in as players get used to different team mates. This could be the explanation for the positional lapses we saw in the New Zealand game.

Steff Evans deserves his shot at the Wales jersey given his domestic form, but the problem he needs to urgently address is his defence. A suspect defence seems to be a common trait with Wales back three players over recent years with Cuthbert, North, Amos, Liam Williams and Halfpenny all having moments of weakness (Halfpenny’s more for the safety of his tackles rather than the effectiveness!).

 

To follow theblitzdefence like us on Facebook here.

Wales v Georgia – a replacement controversy

The 2017 6 Nations saw arguably one of the most controversial incidents in professional rugby’s history, when France met Cardiff.

Late in the game, as the French were attacking the Welsh tryline, the French prop Atonio was replaced by the starting prop (Slimani), who had earlier been substituted in the game. The change was made under the Head Impact Assessment (HIA) protocols; brought in to protect players in the event of suspected head traumas, and not as a means to bring stronger players back on to the field at crucial moments of the game.

At the time it seemed pretty clear what had gone on, and we tweeted:

The timeline of the controversial prop replacement was covered in a popular blog article at the time.

Someone who also felt the French had done something wrong was Rob Howley, who said this at the time:

howley slimani quote.jpg

Pretty strong words and an unequivocal stance.  Fast forward 8 months and we now find Wales embroiled in similar controversy, but this time the accusing fingers are pointing at Wales.

 

What happened?

Let’s look at the key developments in the controversy:

55 mins: Wales replace their loose head prop (Nicky Smith) and their tight head prop (Leon Brown), who had endured a difficult game in the scrum on his test debut. Tomos Francis replaces Brown.  Both replaced players seem to walk and jog off the pitch without any evidence of injury.

81.23 Georgia, trailing 13-6,  attack the Welsh line, just metres out, when the referee (Reynal) penalises the Welsh tight head Tomos Francis and issues him with a yellow card. Wales should ordinarily bring back on their starting tight head, assuming he is not injured.

81.27 The camera cuts to the Welsh coaching box. Rob Howley is inside the room while the other coaches are looking at the screen or the pitch. There is no discussion at this point.

81.52 We see both Welsh props standing on the touchline with their kit off, alongside Wales’ Performance Manager Paul Stridgeon with the ear piece.

As the footage shows, Stridgeon suddenly turns around and seems to look up towards the coaches box. His right hand then goes to his microphone as if he is going to communicate and he then walks in front of Brown but continues to look up towards the coach’s box. Brown then looks at Stridgeon as he talks in to his microphone.

Frustratingly the producer cuts away from that picture and shows us the Francis infringement again. Even more frustratingly, we can hear the odd word from the referee but Jonathan Davies talks over the top of him.

81.52  The camera shows the Welsh box again, but this time there seems to be a couple of conversations going on. Howley seems to be the only one of the management team with an ear piece, we assume to communicate with the bench.

The referee calls a scrum. Incidentally, the Georgian starting tight head prop returns to the field. How has this happened? Has the reserve prop been injured? He seems to limp off but have Georgia also tried to manipulate the rules by bringing back on their first choice tight head?

Again we see the Welsh box and Sean Edwards talking in an animated fashion to Howley. Robin McBryde has now put his head set on as well.

The referee tries to form the scrum but realises that Wales are still a prop down. He then starts to look back towards the touchline. He must receive some information from the 4th official because we can hear him say, “so it’s uncontested scrum”.

This time we can’t hear the referee’s important words because Eddie Butler talks over the top of him. Reynal seems to suggest that Wales will play with 13 (perhaps he is thinking of the French league where if a prop can’t be replaced, they forfeit that player).

The Welsh coaching team are now looking impassively at the pitch. The referee informs the Wales’ captain Lydiate that they don’t have enough props, and that the game will move to uncontested scrums, although he still wants Wales to move to 13 players.

Wales’ replacement hooker Dacey seems ready to come on and there is again chat in the Welsh coaching box, but this seems linked to the issue about the referee wanting Wales to go down to 13 players, rather than the replacement of Francis.

It’s pretty incredible that an elite referee doesn’t know the test match rules around replacements but that’s another issue.

 

Post-match comments

Warren Gatland told us after the match that Leon Brown had been taken off as a tactical change and not as an injury replacement, but he added that “…we knew he was cramping up a little bit”.

Gatland also stated that: “I can promise you there wasn’t anything from our point of view in terms of trying to manipulate the laws or anything like that. If Leon had have been fit, he definitely would have gone back on the field.”

Gatland attended today’s presser where he added a few more details about the incident:

“…from the box we said Leon is to go back on, and the message came that he couldn’t go back on, he’s been cramping up..”. Gatland also said that there were a number of occasions in the game where they could see Brown cramping and stretching, but it wasn’t an injury replacement because:

“we were hoping that if he does…if he is cramping, and he’s got time to recover he can get out there. They just said, look he hasn’t recovered from that”.

 

Did Brown have cramp?

If we look back at the footage we can see that in the 54th minute of the game Brown comes together with a Georgian player and he seems to be in some discomfort as a result. With around 53.49 on the clock, Brown seems to be hobbling alongside the referee.

Here he is holding his foot in a manner consistent with calf cramp.

brown cramp

 

Questions to ask

If Brown did have cramp, why wasn’t he taken off as an injured player, rather than a tactical switch?

If Brown did have cramp at the point when Francis went off (nearly 30 minutes later), why did he stand on the touchline seemingly ready to play?

What did Gatland mean by this – “we were hoping that if he does…if he is cramping, and he’s got time to recover he can get out there.” ?  Get out there, when? As another impact player late in the game?

Who made the call to tell the box that Brown had cramp? The player himself as he stood on the touchline?

How did Georgia’s starting tight head also come back on to the pitch?

What was the sequence and content of the discussions between the box and Stridgeon? The limited camera views seemed to suggest that the box first made contact with Stridgeon as he was with Brown, but Stridgeon replied without speaking to Brown. Had Brown already said to Stridgeon he was suffering from cramp?

 

The rugby authorities needs to look in to this incident and with more urgency and application than it did with the French farce. The game’s integrity is rapidly eroding at the professional level and we need to do what we can to retain it.

 

To follow theblitzdefence on Facebook like us here