What do the numbers from the opening three rounds tell us about Ireland and England’s tournaments?

Statistics often attract too much attention in rugby. It’s a game that is so heavily analysed in such minuscule detail that people often start looking for trends that do not exist. It’s easy to be guided by the numbers when there are so many to choose from. One incident that stands out in my memory was when we were going through a difficult period at Munster and simply could not to get things to click.

We were looking under rocks and down the back of the couch for a magic formula that would somehow flick a switch and solve our problems. One of the coaches pulled up a stat which said teams that kicked 25 times or more in a game had a higher chance of winning matches at the time. I think we were averaging 22. A perplexed feeling filtered around the room as people wondered what we were supposed to do with this information.

Eventually, one of the out halves asked: “So, you’re saying we should kick three more times and we’ll win?” It was a good example of how on paper, stats can tell you something that seems to make sense, but which is totally impractical in reality. The idea that going out with same game plan and kicking the ball three more times would turn our fortunes around was obviously ridiculous, but that is what the numbers suggested.

That’s the extreme end of the spectrum and despite the potential they have to send people down a rabbit hole, statistics are still the best objective measure of performance we have. Ahead of today’s clash in Twickenham, what do the numbers from the opening three rounds tell us about Ireland and England’s tournaments over the past month?

When it comes to possession of the ball, Ireland are top of the league virtually everywhere, though the figures are skewed somewhat by the drubbing they gave a 13-man Italy two weekends ago.

With 2,828 metres made with ball in hand, they sit just above England at 2,612. Their 425 carries to date are comfortably the most in the competition and 50 clear of England in second place.

This tells us that both sides are comfortable being in possession of the ball for long periods, something particularly notable when you compare these numbers to those of tournament leaders France. Prior to last night’s game, France lay fifth in both metres made (almost 1000 behind Ireland at 1,900) and number of carries (just 300, 25% less than Ireland).

This seems a bit counter-intuitive; after all, we have been raving about how brilliant France have been to watch. I rarely miss an opportunity to underline how much I love the adventure they show in going for it, backing their skills and trusting one another to be in the right place at the right time.

Are they simply throwing the ball around more while other sides are carrying? Not really, it turns out. Ireland have made a staggering 673 passes in the competition to date – comfortably the most of any side. This is close to 200 more than England, and exactly 300 more than France, who had thrown 373 passes before last night’s game.

In terms of line breaks, Ireland have made 22 compared to England’s 14, culminating in 16 tries versus England’s seven.

We have seen a clear shift in Ireland’s approach in the last year, something that has been well documented in this column and in the wider rugby media. I think most people would be surprised at the scale of the transformation indicated by a figure like 673 passes in three games, however.

With more carries, more passes and more tries than any other side, Ireland can be pleased with everything on the offensive side of the ball, particularly in light of how much criticism was levelled at their attack in recent years. While they won’t be carving open the English defence at will today, the ease with which they are holding and moving the ball is something that will be invaluable against a side that will seek to dominate them behind the gain line.

Defensively, the sides are well balanced. There are two main pillars of defensive success, each of which has two dimensions. The first is tackle completion and missed tackles; the second is dominant tackles and forced turnovers.

The first measures the general competence of a defence, while the second measures how much damage it does.

For tackle completion, Ireland top the charts once again with 89.5%. They will have been aiming for 90% or more prior to the start of the competition and are within touching distance of that. This indicates much greater accuracy than England, who are nearly 3% behind on 86.8%. That may not sound like a significant difference but trust me, the closer you get to the mid-80s on any measure in rugby, the more mediocre you start to look and feel.

Similarly, Ireland have missed 38 tackles compare to England’s 47. Again, this might sound trivial, but an average of three more missed tackles per game is something that does not go unnoticed in test rugby. It indicates a permeability, an inaccuracy, and opportunities to exploit.

Where England make their mark defensively is in that second pillar. With 21 turnovers, they are joined highest in the tournament alongside France and are getting much more reward for their endeavours than Ireland, who have the lowest number in the competition with 12. The difference in dominant tackles is not as stark but England also have the upper hand here with 18 compared to Ireland’s 14.

We know that Irish and English sides will always be well structured, strong at setpiece and execute the basics well. What all these numbers tell us is that there is an interesting contrast between the styles of rugby exhibited by each team to date this year. While both teams are comfortable in possession, Ireland are reaping more reward in the shape of line breaks and tries.

That will give them confidence against a side that is less consistent in defence than they usually are or should be. England have relied heavily on penalties to get scores on the board, something that was clear against Wales where despite their dominance, they only managed one try and failed to move fully out of sight.

Ireland are the best disciplined side in the competition thus far with just 25 penalties conceded. If they can limit the number of opportunities Marcus Smith has to kick at goal, they will neutralise much of England’s scoring threat. The big challenge for Ireland will be retaining the ball to the level they have done in the last three matches while ensuring England don’t get the chance to use their defence as a potent weapon.

Having the ball all day is fine, as long as you’re not going backwards and getting turned over repeatedly. If Ireland can avoid that and once again, bring the ambition to move the ball into space we are happily getting used to seeing, there is no reason they can’t turn over the English in their own back yard and keep their title hopes alive.

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