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Statistically insignificant

There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

So said Mark Twain, or was it Benjamin Disraeli.

We’ve had enough of the first two floating around in rugby over the years, now we have statistics.

They’ve become an industry in sports.

It’s been that way for ages in some codes, particularly in the USA where it’s taken to extremes, with offerings along the lines of “Joe Blow has now won more third quarter offensive rebounds than any other player with a middle name starting with B and born while the moon was in Aquarius”.

Media outlets, increasingly desperate for new ways to lure readers/viewers, are now turning to stats on which to base stories. I know one major company in Australia has an entire section dedicated to reviewing the sports they cover to generate stats for their audience, and fodder for their reporters/commentators.

In Super Rugby I make use of the stats provided by Opta, as well as Three N Rugby. Opta come up with some very useful figures for use in commentary and writing work, whilst Three N do an admirable job putting stats into context, telling a story behind the numbers.

I start glazing over however, at the lengths people in the media are going, in basing judgements purely on stats.

At least a couple of websites I read regularly have in recent years taken to naming Teams of the Week based almost entirely on numbers, and some of them beg the question whether the writer/selector actually watched the game or just pored over the spread sheets.

If memory serves, a season or two back there was a prop selected for a TOTW on an Aussie site. I recall the fellow spending much of the game picking dirt out of his nostrils after getting frequently face planted at scrum time, and yet he made the team because he made 15 tackles. Had the guy been doing his core job a little better he might not have HAD to make all those tackles.

Another one that tends to bridle a bit is “metres gained”.

This is a category dominated by wingers and fullbacks, who in the first five to ten metres are usually confronted with little but thin air. Compare that to props and locks, who usually get about half a metre before they crash into a human concrete truck. It’s like comparing apples with hand grenades.

Having said that, when Damien McKenzie has made almost 200 metres more than any other player so far this season, then that is a remarkable number, even more remarkable when put into a context that no stat will tell you…that so much of the ground he has made has been in traffic.

You can bet your bottom dollar that the list of most penalised players will be dominated by props and loose forwards, because they operate in the most penalizable corners of the game, and are probably, for that matter, subject to the most guesswork by the refs!

And you show me a bloke who’s made the most tackles and I’ll guess that his team is spending most of the season on defence, and can probably be found near the bottom of the log.

For what it’s worth, my philosophy on stats is to pick through them until you find something interesting, something that helps tell a story. Random, continual spouting of stats, to me, equals a bit lazy. Someone’s put them on the plate for you, that’s 5 minutes less game prep you have to do for yourself.

I did spot one intriguing set of numbers this week that I’ll happily share.

They are the work of a colleague of mine in New Zealand, Nigel Yaldon, a very fine radio commentator, who with nothing good to watch on TV, spent his evening working on a formula to see who had the toughest run through to the playoffs in Super Rugby.

He tallied up the number of wins achieved by the teams each side will face between now and the end of the round robin and divided them by the total number of games played.

So the Sharks, to take one out of the hat, will play the Force, Kings, Sunwolves, Stormers, Bulls and Lions.

The combined winning percentage of those teams is 44.2 percent.

Compare that to the Bulls who play the Crusaders, Highlanders, Lions, Hurricanes, Sharks and Stormers, a combined rating percentage of 73.4…suggesting a much tougher run.

It doesn’t take into account travel, or home and away, injuries, suspensions and form….and if you can come up with numbers to quantify those sorts of things, then you are giving Stephen Hawking or Isaac Newton a run for their money.

But it’s very interesting, and it does reflect degrees of difficulty, and when you add to your team current position on the table, and the number of points they need, then you start to get a pretty good idea of your prospects.

For the record, and with thanks to Nigel for happily allowing me to replicate his work, here are the rankings…who has the toughest run in. I have added in some relevant (I think) points.

1) Bulls 73.4% 14 points out of Africa wildcard

2) Crusaders 65.0% Lead NZ by 4 points, Lead Lions by 4 points

3) Hurricanes 63.9% 3rd in NZ 8 behind crusaders, 11 clear in wildcard

4) Sunwolves 56.5% 22 out of Africa wildcard

5) Chiefs 52.8% 2nd in NZ 4 points behind Crusaders

6) Cheetahs 50.9% 18 points out of Africa wildcard

7) Brumbies 50.0% Lead Aus conference by 5, 10 points behind wildcard

8) Kings 50.0% 13 points out of Africa wildcard

9) Rebels 50.0% last in Aus, 11 points out of 1st. 21 out of wildcard

10) Force 49.2% 9 points out of 1st Aus, 19 out of wildcard

11) Waratahs 49.0% 5 points from 1st in Aus, 15 out of wildcard

12) Reds 47.1% 7 points from 1st in Aus, 17 out of wildcard

13) Stormers 45.2% 12 points clear in Africa 1

14) Sharks 44.2% 8 points clear in Africa wildcard, 9 out of 1st Africa 2

15) Blues 40.7% 6 points out of Australasia wildcard, 19 off first NZ

16) Highlanders 40.4% 6 clear in Australasian wildcard, 13 off first NZ

17) Lions 37.5% 9 clear in Africa 2, 4 behind Crusaders for top ranking

18) Jaguares 26.0% 17 behind Lions Africa 2, 8 points out of Africa wildcard

It’s not good news for Bulls fans, and it means that there’s still a lot of hard work ahead for three of the high flying New Zealand teams in particular.

Even when you take out the factors I mentioned above, such as travel, I think we can make a couple of judgements.

Firstly, that whoever makes the Super Rugby final, or even wins it will quite probably have to win a game in Johannesburg.

The Crusaders are unbeaten, and playing very well, but they are 36 percentage points up on the Lions in terms of their remaining opponents. 4 of the Crusaders remaining 6 games are against NZ teams with a winning record. Of the Lions opponents, only the Sharks currently have a winning record.

Therefore, the numbers favour the Lions getting pole position.

Even despite their difficulties in NZ, the Stormers should coast home in Africa 1. The Bulls are too far behind, with too much to do.

The Sharks have the Africa wildcard right now, but the Jaguares cannot yet be discounted. They have a string of games at home now and every one of their remaining opponents currently has an inferior record.

The Waratahs and Reds may not be playing very well, but they’re not out of it in Australia, and neither are the Blues in New Zealand.

It’s all just numbers, mind you. It’s performances on the field that will count, and some of those fringe teams aren’t playing well enough to inspire confidence.

Having said all that, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a play-off draw featuring the same 8 teams we see on top now, being : Crusaders, Lions, Stormers, Brumbies, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Highlanders and Sharks, but possibly in a different order, with the Lions on top and maybe the Hurricanes and Chiefs swapping places, which would leave a quarter final lineup of :

Lions v Sharks/Jaguares

Crusaders v Highlanders

Stormers v Chiefs

Brumbies v Hurricanes

It’s a story that will be told by time, and by deeds, but the numbers provide a fascinating side issue.

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