Changes made around five key areas of play – the tackle, scrum, offside, ruck, and maul – over the past three seasons have begun to have an impact in shaping the game that SANZAR wants to see played in Super Rugby.
The progress made in these critical areas – collectively known as the ‘Big 5 Priorities’ – is supported by comparative statistics gathered between 2009 and 2011.
There are also some critical areas of the game that require attention and which will be addressed during the 2012 tournament.
SANZAR began with the ‘Big 4 Priorities’ in Super Rugby 2010, after the 2009 competition attracted a significant amount of criticism from coaches and fans alike.
“Our game was suffering, especially around the scrum, the tackle, and the amount of kicking, due to players shutting down space from an offside position,” said SANZAR Game Manager, Lyndon Bray. “We were also determined to allow the maul to be an integral part of the game, but it needed to be formed correctly and be capable of being defended”.
In 2011, these became the ‘Big 5 Priorities’, with the offside line at the ruck added as a critical priority, in the interests of attacking space.
The “Big 5 Priorities” aim to produce quicker ball after the tackle, more contests at scrums with reduced free-kicks, more space to attack through better application of the offside law at the ruck and on kicks in open play, and a fairer contest in the maul.
“The ability to get ‘ball in and ball out’ at scrum time is critical to good attacking ball and for the set up of the tackle from the scrum. The speed of the ball availability at the tackle and ruck is vital, if teams are to be confident about attacking off front-foot ball. Lastly, offside play has a further effect on the space available to teams to attack from their ruck, and also to counter-attack from kicks,” Bray said.
Statistics gathered during the 18 Rounds of the 2011 Super Rugby regular season prove how critical the ‘Big 5 Priorities’ have become to the game.
In 2009, teams had the ball available to use within 3 seconds of the tackle taking place, 42% of the time. This meant that 58% of their ball took longer than 3 seconds to clear.
In Super Rugby 2010, ball availability within 3 seconds jumped incredibly to 72%, and it has been maintained at 73% in 2011. This is directly attributable to the attention referees and players have paid to the tackler releasing the ball carrier and getting away from the ball.
“This is quite a phenomenal change in the game, turned around within one year,” Bray said. “It helps refute the argument during this year’s competition that the defensive approach of teams has slowed the ball down. This is, in fact, not true when you look across the entire competition”.
Bray added that there had been similar significant improvements at the scrum.
“The huge improvement at scrum time is the amount of scrums now getting to the contest stage [once the teams have engaged and the ball has gone in],” Bray said.
“We have greatly reduced resets due to the engagement process, and we have reduced the free kicks awarded (eg early engaging) by less than half the amount awarded in 2009. We have more penalty kicks being awarded, which is a good trend, as it means that referees and teams are dealing with the contest of a scrum, rather than the set up phase of the scrum.”
Bray said the offside line at ruck and players in front of the kicker were more difficult priorities to measure, but one statistic that helps prove the confidence of teams to attack with ball in hand, is the amount of kicks made in general play.
“In 2009, teams kicked on average 31 times during the game. In 2011, that amount of kicking has come down to an average 20 per game. The main reason for this is that teams have the perception of more space from which to launch their attack. That is some 22 less kicks per game and 22 times more that the team receiving the ball are running it back.”
Two key areas have ben identified for improvement – the offside line at the ruck where defenders close to the ruck are too often offside, and the technique of props and the front row after the ‘hit’ where much work needs to be done to both the props’ technique and referee decision making.
Bray is confident that the ‘Big 5 Priorities’ will continue to protect the game SANZAR wants: strong attack, with good flow to the game.
“Our focus is on the ‘shape of the game’ and preserving both the contest and the ability of teams to attack with possession. The pleasing thing for Super Rugby is that the majority of the statistics measuring the ‘Big 5 Priorities’ continue to demonstrate improvements to the game,” Bray said.