Lies, damned lies, and statistics… An Aviva Premiership Team of the Year

You might have been asked your opinion. Pick a team they said, from everyone you’ve seen in the Aviva Premiership this season. It’s too difficult, isn’t it? So many options to fill each shirt. Discussion flows back and forth, it’s a bar room topic to while away many an hour.

But I’m not one for opinion unless it is based upon fact. Some might say that is the only opinion worth listening to. So, lucky as I am, I have the rock solid facts of the official Opta statistics at my finger tips. They’ve monitored nearly every movement on a Premiership pitch. Let’s pick a team with their help.

Of course there are issues. Statistics without context are misleading. I’ve tried where possible to avoid those. I’ve given criteria to readings; players must have played a certain amount of minutes or games. It isn’t definitive. There are some areas of the game with which stats won’t help: scrummaging, high ball security, passing accuracy. Another issue is players moving positions. Often I had to go with where Opta had them listed but there were some noticeable anomalies. Playing in a different area of the park can take numbers up and down. As I say, this isn’t definitive. But wherever possible I’ve tried to remain positive. Some of the findings are still surprising though. And some shed light on why certain players are viewed by coaches as outstanding, even though, whenever you’ve seen them play, you couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about.

Where to start? Maybe in the middle. A back row. Possibly the hottest potato being passed around; get this trio right and they can win matches on their own. Let’s start more specifically with the flank. They must be able to tackle, it’s the staple diet of a loose forward. Let’s look at tackle completion of all those players who made 100 tackles or more in the Prem this season. Saracen Kelly Brown tops the list – 97% tackle completion. Pretty impressive. But something else catches your eye – the Wasps collective. Of their eight listed back rowers, who have made a minimum of seven appearances, all but two have a tackle completion over 90%. And those two are their most feted – George Smith 89%, Nathan Hughes 85%. Incredibly, Thomas Young has made 137 tackles this season and missed only 4.

What about a ball pinching flanker? Two names jump out; Gloucester’s Matt Kvesic (29) and Quins’ Luke Wallace (24) are turnover kings. Both these boys have tidy tackle completions too (90% and 93% respectively). Kvesic does well offloading with 18, two behind the league’s best George Smith. The best try scoring flanker is Nili Latu from Newcastle with 9, but Thomas Young isn’t shabby with 6; tackles and tries from the young Wasp. So maybe that’s the flanks sorted. What about the jam in the middle?

As far as metres gained from No 8, two names top the list – Nathan Hughes (Wasps) and Thomas Waldrom (Exeter) have travelled nearly a kilometre each with ball in hand. They have also beaten the most defenders (Hughes 52, Waldrom 47). One other name pops up nicely. Saints’ Teimana Harrison carries the ball an average of 3.82m every time he picks it up, has a tackle completion of 93% and has forced 15 turnovers, more than any other No.8. For all his tries, Waldrom has only managed 4, for instance. Hughes offloads the ball better than anyone else, maybe he should get the nod.

Behind them at scrum half, I have no stats on passing accuracy so perhaps how busy they are might give some insight. Passes per minute on the field can be worked out and Will Chudley at Exeter does well for someone who has played in every round. He threw 0.87 passes for every minute he played. Ben Youngs (Leicester) and Francois Hougaard (Worcester) were slightly busier at 0.9 and 0.88 but Chudley surpasses them in tackle column (86%) – impressive as he played twice as many matches. Chudley made 14 clean breaks, 2 behind leader Dan Robson (Wasps), and threw try scoring passes 7 times (the most equal with Robson). Hougaard played less than half the games of Chudley and beat an impressive 16 defenders, threw 3 try assists but only made 4 clean breaks. Danny Care (Harlequins) beat 8 defenders in 13 games, making 10 clean breaks but his tackle completion is a low 60%.

This is getting tricky. Maybe wingers will be straight forward. Surely you want try scorers? Wade (Wasps) and Rokoduguni (Bath) have 12 each. End of argument? Maybe not. Tim Visser’s strike rate for Harlequins was 9 in 11 appearences; that’s tidy. As is Charlie Walker’s (also Quins) 10 in 12. Visser and Wade are leading ball carriers (9.04m and 9.21m respectively); Leicester’s Telusa Veainu beat 68 defenders in total (so did Roko) but Veainu’s average metres gained is higher at 8.05 to 7.83. Rokoduguni’s pretty good at stealing ball though; 15 turnovers is twice as many as most others (Sale’s Will Addison gets close with 12). Defensively no one beats Anthony Watson (91%) and he too has excellent average metres gained with 8.99. Maybe both Bath wingers could stake a claim? I like a good strike rate though, Roko and Visser for me.

And a fullback to complete the back three? Perhaps the stats let us down here as there aren’t many that represent the presence of a good fullback. Nothing to say whether any are good under a high ball, the closest we get is restarts claimed – Quins’ Mike Brown leads the way with 19 (0 dropped). Alex Goode (Saracens) has made more clean breaks than anyone else, but only just; he has 20 whilst Rob Miller (Wasps) and Mike Haley (Sale) both have 19. Goode’s average gain is a very good 7.52m but it’s not the best. That accolade belongs Ross Chisholm (Quins) with 7.98. The best tackler at 15 is Haley, running an impressive 85% completion, especially as fullbacks find themselves covering and exposed. Goode and Chris Pennell (Worcester) assist the most with 7 and Pennell pilfers well, 8 turnovers for the man from Sixways. Perhaps Goode just sneaks it overall. All of those mentioned above played at least 1000 minutes of AP rugby.

Let’s head up front – our beloved prop forwards. Again, my stats leave these boys exposed. I have nothing on scrummaging prowess or the amount of penalties won at scrum time. I have an unfortunate number for concession though – the most penalised of props in the Prem is Nic Schonert of Worcester (I have no doubt it was the other man every time though Nic). Some interesting numbers as regards turnovers (useful to have another man with his hands in at the breakdown); Val Rapava Ruskin of Worcester tops the charts with 18 turnovers; Taione Vea of Falcons has 17, Alex Waller of Saints 13. And of all those props that made 100 tackles, it’s Wasps again who steal the show. Matt Mullan (97%) and Jake Cooper Woolley (94%) have very high completion percentages. If you like your props at a canter, don’t look any further than Kyle Sinckler – 15 defenders beaten and from 80 carries, an average of 2.93 metres. Trucking good.

I haven’t graded hookers since cousin Terry’s stag do in Amsterdam but we’ll give it another go. How are their arrows? Of those that threw into atleast 100 lineouts, three young Englishman stand out – Leicester’s Harry Thacker (94% success at 114 lineouts), Exeter’s Luke Cowan-Dickie (92% of 122), Sale’s Tommy Taylor (92% of 214). Dave Ward of Quins is way out front with 21 turnovers (Taylor is notable with 13). Tackling sees Taylor once again in imperious form – 97% completion from 220 tackles attempted. Jamie George (Saracens) managed 91% in his 10 appearences. Best hooker on the hoof? Schalk Brits (Saracens) clocked an average 3.94 metres but Thacker is not far behind with 3.54 (perhaps due to his position changes).  As comparison, the man keeping the England hooker out of Northampton’s line up, Mike Haywood, has an 83% tackle completion, hits 89% of his lineouts and has stolen 10 turnovers. Taylor for me is the No.1 No.2.

Into the engine room of a Premiership second row; we need a blend of marauding enforcers and languid, safe hands at the lineout don’t we?. Nobody in the second row has won more set piece ball than Sean Robinson at Newcastle (93 times lineout wins in 16 appearences). Sale’s Bryn Evans is close with 87 from 21 matches. Fascinatingly, the best lineout operator is Jamie Gibson (usually a flanker), he out jumps them all to take 112 in 19. It is worth noting that Don Armand has stolen opposition ball 14 times at lineouts, no wonder he is popular in Devon.

If you are looking for lock forwards to eat up the ground with ball in hand, Exeter Chiefs’ Damian Welch is a good option (3.72m per carry) as is Dom Day from Bath (3.24). The turnover king in the row is none other than Maro Itoje. His stats (18 in 13 games) compares favourably with the likes of Wallace (24 in 18) and Kvesic (29 in 22). Nobody tackles better than Callum Green of Newcastle (96.4% tackle completion in 13 appearences) but once again, a pattern emerges out of Coventry. Green made a tackle every 6.26 minutes he played. One might argue his team might have to make more than Wasps. But Joe Launchbury made a tackle every 6.22 minutes he was on the pitch, even with his back row getting through all of their work. His colleague Kearnan Myall made one every 7.3 minutes in the 17 games he appeared in. Compare this to the likes of Lawes (Saints) 9.69, Itoje 8.39 and George Kruis (Saracens) 7.86, and you might start to see where Wasps’ success lies.

Centre is one of Aviva Premiership’s most studied positions. Perhaps the most eye catching performances again come from Wasps. Charles Piutau (although not always a 13) made more metres on average (7.83), beat more defenders (37) and found more clean breaks (19) than anyone else. Wynand Olivier of Worcester was closest to Piutau with a 6.07m average, 16 clean breaks and 30 defenders beaten. Elliot Daly (Wasps) made 14 clean breaks and assisted scorers 7 times. Close behind him is Sam James from Sale with 16 clean breaks and 6 assists. The best try scoring ratio also belongs to a Sale Shark, Johnny Leota scored 6 in 10 appearences (Piutau had 6 from 14). There was no better wall of defence than George Lowe of Harlequins. He attempted 114 tackles and missed just 5 in 13 games (95%). As a point of reference Brad Barritt (Saracens) was 136/13 (90%) from 15 games and Luther Burrell (Saints) was 96/18 (81%) from 19 games. As a turnover operator, Ian Whitten at the Chiefs was the leader with 11 secured; Bill Meakes (Gloucester) snaffled 9.  The offload king was Sam James with 21; Burrell (18) and Whitten (17) also worthy of note. So perhaps Piutau and James would be a deadly combination.

And lastly, fly half. Perhaps seen as the keystone. From the kicking tee, Nick Evans from Quins slotted 88% of his kicks. Myler from Saints (81%), Gopperth from Wasps (77%) and Gareth Steenson from Exeter (74%) lie in second, third and fourth. Danny Cipriani (Sale) and Tom Heathcote (Worcester) have thrown the most scoring passes (7) but their kicking % are down in the 60s. Heathcote and Gopperth both tackle well, completing 87% and 88% of their tackles respectively but they aren’t the best. That title belongs to Craig Willis at Newcastle. He played 474 minutes (11 apps) and reached 91%. No fly half scored more tries than Gloucester’s James Hook (5) but in all the other stats, Gopperth stands out. He has beaten most defenders (36), made 15 offloads (compared to Steenson’s leading 17) and even grabbed the most turnovers (8). The only area he comes out poorly is in turnovers conceded, he handed the ball over 23 times. Tom Heathcote has the misfortune of coughing up the ball the most (26 times).

So there we go, a team of the year from the Aviva Premiership. It is not one I would have picked. Having commentated on every round this year, I feel I could have a say on what I have seen. But these statistics highlight performances in a different way; perhaps those not so obvious to the naked eye. Admittedly, the team looks biased but that is only what the information gave us. It’s offensively minded; I haven’t picked the best tacklers in the back line but with the work rate of the pack, I’m hoping they might be able to cope. There’s a lot of English qualified players in this team, especially in the forwards. Perhaps these are wonderful times for Eddie Jones and the national team.

        15. Alex Goode (Saracens)
        14. Semesa Rokoduguni (Bath)
        13. Charles Piutau (Wasps)
        12. Sam James (Sale)
        11. Tim Visser (Harlequins)
        10. Jimmy Gopperth (Wasps)
        9. Will Chudley (Exeter)

  1. Matt Mullan (Wasps)
  2. Tommy Taylor (Sale)
  3. Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins)
  4. Maro Itoje (Saracens)
  5. Joe Launchbury (Wasps)
  6. Thomas Young (Wasps)
  7. Matt Kvesic (Gloucester)
  8. Nathan Hughes (Wasps)
  1. Harry Thacker (Leicester)
  2. Val Rapava Ruskin (Worcester)
  3. Jake Cooper Wooley (Wasps)
  4. Damian Welch (Exeter)
  5. Teimana Harrison (Northampton)
  6. Francois Hougaard (Worcester)
  7. Ian Whitten (Exeter)
  8. Anthony Watson (Bath)

Sam Roberts © 2016. (Text only). All Rights Reserved

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One Response to Lies, damned lies, and statistics… An Aviva Premiership Team of the Year

  1. Pingback: Lies, damned lies, and statistics… An Aviva Premiership Team of the Year | penarthian

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