Why are rugby teams trying to lose?

The opening round of the World Cup was scrappy, boring, and thrilling across a bunch of different games. England looked unconvincing, Wales got even more injured, Ireland were clinical, New Zealand are still inevitable, and South Africa… well, the South African Rugby Union has probably called in a crack legal team to try and annul some contracts.

Obviously, pulling large scale trends out of so few matches, when teams have only played once, is a bit suspect. The high ball seems like it might be more of a factor. Competition at the breakdown looks to be in an interesting spot, with referees aiming to encourage more open play. Video ref interventions are far more frequent, to the point that they’re causing a touch of controversy.

One point in particular that caught my eye from the opening weekend, though, was a bit more obvious. A couple of incidents where the attacking team chose to kick a penalty in the opposition 22 highlighted some serious shortcomings that still linger in the collective rugby consciousness. The problem is that it’s not really a tactical or strategic trend or change; in fact, it’s a marked absence of change, a stasis in thinking.

That’s why the decisions by a couple of teams in particular stood out, because in rugby’s difficult straggle into professionalism, some aspects of received wisdom have gone unchallenged. Having money to pay for match analysts and video experts and stats people and all the other glitter and baubles that go with professional elite sport should mean that teams aren’t consciously turning down chances to win games. But some of the biggest names in the sport still do exactly that.

To illustrate with a couple of examples: South Africa were tied with Japan at 29 with fewer than ten minutes to go. They were on the attack inside the Japanese 22; their forwards were making ground, they were getting quick ball, and the Japanese defence looked exhausted. They’d already scored a try earlier when the Japanese defence simply fell away after a multi-phase attack. It looked inevitable that the mighty Springbok pack would eventually grind their way in. Japan, in a desperate effort to slow the ball down and give their defence a chance to recover, gave away a penalty inside their 22. South Africa, seeing as the game was tied, went with the traditional thinking that they had to take the safe points that were there, to get a lead and win the game. They kicked the penalty to go up 32-29, and set up to receive the kickoff in their own half.

They didn’t touch the ball in the Japanese half for the rest of the game, and lost 34-32. The winning Japanese try was scored after a period of intense pressure and possession in South African territory.

Argentina came out for the second half against New Zealand up 13-12; compounding that, the All Blacks were down a man thanks to a yellow card. Argentian kicked off into New Zealand territory, took the predictable exiting kick around the halfway line, and mounted an attack. They worked their way into the 22, and with about 2 minutes of the second half on the clock, were awarded a penalty. Their forwards were carrying well and enthusiastically; their scrum was marching the New Zealanders back at every opportunity; their backs, on the front foot and in space thanks to the extra man, were finding gaps. However, again they judged that the best thing to do was to take the points. They kicked the penalty, went up 16-12, and set up to receive the kickoff in their own half.

Argentina neither had the ball in the New Zealand half for the remainder of the game, nor scored a single point in the last 35 minutes. They lost 26-16.

It would be reductive to say that the decisions to kick for goal rather than going for a try were the reason those teams lost. Japan were incredible in outplaying South Africa, while New Zealand’s replacements changed the whole tenor of that game. Nonetheless, the fact that the losing teams in both games turned down opportunities to maximise their points total in obviously favourable situations definitely didn’t help.

That fairly bold statement has its origins in some of the statistical analysis being done on American football, of all things. For the unaware, American football is divided into discrete units of action; each play starts at a defined point, gains a certain number of yards, and stops when someone is tackled. After the tackle, there’s a stoppage before the next play. The intermittent action makes it a bit boring to watch. For the mathematically inclined fan, though, those stoppages are a godsend.

Stopping the game between what a rugby person would call a phase, and having each phase gain or lose a measurable amount of ground, allows each phase to be a single unit of measurement. When you’ve got discrete units, those can be collated and coded into statistical models. Using this data, someone can state as mathematical fact that in the past, team X has run the ball Y% of the time in situation Z, and gained an average of n yards. Or indeed, someone can state how often teams have scored touchdowns when inside an opponents territory and what the average number of points from a trip inside opposition territory is.

Surprise, surprise, that’s already been done. And a serious coaching choice in American football exactly mirrors the one I’m highlighting in rugby, about whether to kick a goal for 3 points or try for a touchdown worth 7. The difference is that the yanks have numbers to look at, and the results are relatively surprising: if you’re in the opponent’s half, kicking a goal is, from a statistical perspective, almost always a failure.

Why? Well, partially because the gap between 3 and 7 points is enormous. Given that a try in rugby is worth 5 and the conversion isn’t anywhere near a certainty, this particular reason doesn’t quite make it across the pond in one piece. It still holds some value, though, since, using advanced mathematics, I can definitively say that 5 points is still more points than 3 points.

There are other reasons. A kick isn’t an automatic three points; the assumption that it is is apparently a fallacy universal to both sports. Going for goal results in a miss (and nothing at all) a non-negligible portion of the time, and so the decision to kick for goal might not be the safe option. If your kicker is having a bad day, or it’s at the end of a match and he’s exhausted, those odds are even worse.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s assume that your top-secret research program has produced a Replicant Jonny Wilkinson who never misses and never breaks down, meaning that any kickable penalty is a guaranteed 3. After all, in the examples from the weekend, both the kicks were successful.

The main reason that even a successful kick can be disastrous comes down to field position. When kicking a goal inside the opponent’s half, you’re immediately sacrificing the extremely favourable position you currently occupy in return for the 3 points. Pressure on your opponent is relieved, and you’re pinned back in your own territory. Working the ball into scoring position from there is incredibly difficult, since you’ve got the length of the pitch to go. Instead, your first priority is probably an exit play to clear your lines, thus giving the opposition ball on the halfway or so. There’s a reason teams commit penalties when they’re close to their own line – in that situation, giving up 3 allows for an escape with minimal damage.

Conversely, going for the try is an opportunity to get more than double the points you would have had from the kick. If you succeed, then congratulations! You’ve immediately achieved the best possible outcome for that particular attack. And the best thing is that, even if you fail, the opposition will get the ball back stuck on their own line with little option other than to kick it back to you. Barring some monumental catastrophe, you’ll regain possession on about the halfway line anyway, in good attacking position and with an opportunity to earn another penalty.

Of course, blanket statements like that don’t take into account context or how the rest of the game has played out to that point.

Which is what makes those two decisions already described quite so infuriating. Some situations might be arguable – a game that’s particularly low scoring, a team whose attack has been stifled all game by a suffocating defence, or an attacking team that’s been struggling to retain ball and is continually getting turned over all might be situations that provide some justification for kicking.

But the Argentinians were up a man, had a dominant scrum, and were about 5 metres from the New Zealand line! The South Africans were making ground at will and had already driven a maul in from a lineout! For both teams, a try might well have broken the opposition mentally, and in the South African case, would have meant a loss was effectively impossible. For both teams, the worst case scenario of failing to score and getting turned over would most likely have resulted in their regaining possession on the halfway, with the opportunity to build another attack. More importantly in the South African case, if they failed the Japanese would have had to go 90 metres to win, rather than the 40 they ended up being handed. In the end, the two point losing margin just serves as a potent reminder of their cowardice and conservatism.

Parroting analysts still repeat the endless cliches about taking the points and keeping the scoreboard ticking over. It’s accepted that the kick for goal is the safe option, and often the only choice. Trying to actually score and win the game – the whole damn point – is the preserve of rash, intemperate hotheads.

On the contrary, kicking for goal is all too often the refuge of innumerate dullards. The optimal, rational move is far more often one of calculated aggression, something that a lot of teams don’t seem to recognise. Teams are kicking for goal and essentially throwing away points.

In so many ways, rugby remains frustratingly bound by traditions and power structures and attitudes that persist for reasons of tangled and ridiculous privilege. The game as played on the field should be the one area where change and innovation are embraced. Unfortunately, the twenty years that have passed since professionalism was formally introduced apparently haven’t been quite enough.

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