By the numbers: Analysis of the Blues
As we get set for another round of Super Rugby, Scotty Stevenson looks at one stat that may just be the secret to the Blues hopes for a turnaround, and why sometimes letting the opposition make the play is the best way to win.
The Blues are back at Eden Park this week which, according to their team press release, is a motivating factor to defeat the Sharks, a team they have often struggled to defeat across the history of Super Rugby. Home advantage may be a boost to the Blues’ chances but perhaps a bigger boost would be for the Auckland side to simply make the Sharks play some damn rugby.
The Sharks hate playing rugby. They hardly have the ball (they have the lowest time in possession of all teams in the competition) and when they do have it they don’t really do much with it. At last count, they barely take it in to 50 rucks per game, which is near half the competition average. In short, the Sharks could happily just pay for a ticket and get a more elevated view with fewer bruises.
But, this is just the kind of team the Blues hate playing. Why? Because the Blues play enough rugby each week to last two games, and they are still not making it count. The Blues are in a sense the Sharks’ polar opposite on possession. They hold the ball longer than any team bar the Jaguares (I know – what?). The problem is, not all possession is good possession and the longer you hold the ball, the more mistakes you are likely to make.
Consider this: The Blues (as a team) this year lead the competition in defenders beaten and clean breaks and yet they consistently fail to capitalise on those half chances. Could there be something in the style of play that is counting against the Blues? Well, yes: they are turning the ball over more than any other New Zealand team. And they are doing that because they are trying to do too much.
Let’s break it down.
Most of the turnovers in the game (unforced or forced areas and dropped balls) are courtesy of the backline. That makes sense because the backs naturally get more touches per game than the forwards. If we discount the halfbacks and look at the Blues top six backs in terms of minutes played this season – Michael Collins, Sonny Bill Williams, Bryn Gatland, Melani Nanai, Matt Duffie and Reiko Ioane – we can count their offensive output like this:
Metres made: 1,195
Defenders beaten: 59
Clean Breaks: 28
It’s a good set of numbers until you consider the fact that combined, these six players have made 40 turnovers this season. If you think that number is high, it is. I wanted to see how that compared to other teams from the New Zealand conference, all of whom currently boast a better win record this season. Here’s what I found.
The Highlanders most-played six – Sopoaga, Thompson, Naholo, Li, Smith and Walden posted these numbers:
Metres made: 1,000
Defenders beaten: 69
Clean Breaks: 32
Yes, the metres are slightly down on the Blues but as an average per carry, they are pretty similar. What really stands out with the Highlanders is how many fewer passes the players have made, while still gaining more traction on half chances and breaks. It comes as no surprise that, as this signifies their willingness to hold the ball in contact, the Highlanders group has made just 25 turnovers this season.
It is replicated among the other New Zealand teams. The Hurricanes, via Savea, Proctor, Laumape, Lam and the Barrett brothers, have made far fewer carries than the Blues, yet have still posted a good metre count and a comparative number of breaks and beats. In fact, the Hurricanes are beating the defender or breaking the line more in a proportional sense than the Blues. That is crucial to the way they play the game. Here are their numbers in full:
Metres Made: 827
Defenders beaten: 51
Clean Breaks: 21
While the Hurricanes pass more than the Highlanders (and got the result against them in week six courtesy of some wonderful play in the wide channels) the real secret to their efficacy as a backline is their retention of possession. The Hurricanes in the list of players looked at for this study combined for just 17 turnovers so far this season. That is a staggering 23 fewer than the Blues, and 8 fewer than the Highlanders.
Defenders beaten: 61
Clean breaks: 51
Like the Highlanders and Hurricanes, the Chiefs top six – Alaimalo, McKenzie, Faauli, Lienert-Brown and Wainui, make more breaks as a proportion of carries and have made more than 50 fewer passes than their counterparts at the Blues. Their turnover rate is slightly higher than the Highlanders which may go some way to deciding the blockbuster in Hamilton this week.
The Crusaders, meanwhile, with Bridge, Mataele, Hunt, Tamanivalu, Goodhue and Havili counted, have posted these figures:
Defenders beaten: 49
Clean Breaks: 24
The Crusaders are another team that likes to play with the ball and they have put up the second highest number of turnovers this year which has cost them results against the Hurricanes and the Highlanders already this season. The Crusaders know they have been guilty of playing too much rugby this season and you could sense that adjustments were made against the Bulls in the last round. They may want to keep the ball in hand against the Lions this week though, given the Jags ran the Lions off the park last week.
While it is only right that every team plays with its own certain style to match the strengths of the squad or the traditions of the region, it is hard to see the Blues succeeding with a high tempo plan if they cannot execute, and based on the numbers they are simply not doing that at the moment. Maybe there is an element of fool’s gold at play here; the fact they are making the breaks means the pass has got to stick at some stage. I don’t know if that is right, but I am betting the Blues keep on trying.
Perhaps this week is a chance to see the best of Bryn Gatland’s kicking game. He could sure use some help in this department, too. So far this season, The Blues halves combination has kicked just 44 times (and halfbacks have been responsible for just 15 of those kicks). To add perspective, the Chiefs halves have kicked 73 times (halfbacks 25), the Hurricanes, 66 (halfbacks 24), the Crusaders, 61 (halfbacks 31) and the Highlanders, 52 (halfbacks 32).
Addressing the lack of a kicking game out of the halfback may help add some balance to the attack. Then again, the Blues are currently making the fewest tackles per game of any side and yet boast the worst tackle percentage, which puts a lot of doubt in the minds of the guys who would prefer to play a kick and stick game.
Maybe that’s why the Blues just keep on running. Maybe that’s the only way they know how…
Thanks to OPTA Sports for the statistical dump.