Six Nations 2016: Who is most effective at the breakdown?


Falling in the post-World Cup, David Pocock era, this Six Nations has seen the focus, more than ever before, centre on the breakdown. The tackle area is undoubtedly one of the most important areas of the game, given the value that quick ball can have in attack.

So with the help of the good people at Accenture, we thought it prudent to look into the top performers at the breakdown in the opening two rounds of the Six Nations.

So much of the debate when it comes to the tackle area is focussed on the back-row, but using the stats further down in the article, it’s fair to say that in the modern game, the breakdown is a collective effort. Certainly in the forwards, every player has to be effective there – it is not just the responsibility of one, or even three, players.

Thinking back to the World Cup, it was David Pocock that stole the headlines, but why was he able to be so effective? Yes, his limpet-like technique made him insufferably tough to remove from the ball, but so often he had that opportunity because the likes of Kane Douglas (one of the best players in that Wallaby team, in my eyes) had first made a positive intervention on the ruck area.

What do we mean when we talk about ‘positive intervention’, or being effective at the ruck? When compiling the data for the first two rounds of the Six Nations, the guys at Accenture used the following definitions – and it is worth noting how many ways a player can be ‘effective’ at the ruck, without actually turning the ball over himself.


Given the fascination around Eddie Jones’ team at the moment, and all the clamour for a ‘genuine’ openside to be played, we asked for England’s top 10 breakdown performers from the opening two rounds as per the definitions above, alongside the top three performers from every other nation to give context.

Here are the results – the number on the left is number of rucks hit, and the percentage on the right represents how many of those they were effective at.


It makes for fascinating viewing, whichever way you look at it. Justin Tipuric – often lambasted for not getting his hands dirty enough – has arguably been the best at the breakdown so far, ranking in the top three for both number of rucks hit and effectiveness. He is the only player to rank that highly for both.

Loosehead prop Jack McGrath leads the way for Ireland, which is hugely impressive when you consider that he also puts so much effort into scrummaging. Second row Devin Toner’s work rate is also notable.

For England, Dan Cole’s work-rate is high but his effectiveness is low – both James Haskell and George Kruis have been more effective overall.

Above all, though, the data proves that it is the work of the collective that allows scavengers like Pocock – or, closer to home, Hardie, Tipuric, Warburton etc. – to clamp on and actually turn ball over. Without other players doing the basics effectively at the ruck area, they would not have the chance to shine.

By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

39 thoughts on “Six Nations 2016: Who is most effective at the breakdown?

    1. Initially it was going to be an article about England’s breakdown work, with other nations included for context. But the breadth of player included in the eventual stats made me rethink – I just decided to leave the original table in there as I’m lazy…

      So it’s the top 10 performers from England & the top 3 for every other country (apologies for the slight bias, wasn’t deliberate).

  1. Hurrah finally some statistic that prove my assertion that Dan Cole is not good at the breakdown.

    It would be interesting to see the full stats table.
    Jamie is this something which is published on the web somewhere or did you have to beg, borrow, steal it?

    1. Just asked for it from Accenture. Takes a wee while to process but if there’s anything you ever want to see, pop it in a comment somewhere and I’ll see what I can do.

      I’ll see if I can get top 10 from each country.

      1. Thanks Jamie
        Will be interesting to then compare these with the official match stats so you can calculate the average rucks per minute played and %age of total rucks attended (might have to make some assumptions there where players didn’t play a full 80) that would give you a better idea of work rate…
        … I wonder if Accenture are hiring this sounds right up my street

    2. That’s my view also, his breakdown work is over rated. Often there, but also often on the floor and not contributing.

  2. I would love to see how other backs stack up against Farrell’s 82% success rate. I suspect Roberts would possibly be quite high?

  3. Can you get the same stats for the southern hemisphere. If all the hype is true then their top 3 will all be above even Tipuric

    1. I’ve mentioned this here before Col and I do hope Jamie won’t mind if I do so again, but if you go onto the Green and Gold blog (strong Aussie focus suprisingly), you’ll be able to find these stats for the Wales v Eng game and the Eng v Aus game in the RWC

  4. Interesting that none of the Scots back row make their top 3

    Jamie – would be interesting to have the stats broken down by attacking and defending rucks

    (and beyond that, broken down into the categories listed above – eg. of the defensive rucks Tipuric was effective at, how many were turnovers, how many pens won, etc, etc. It would be particularly interesting to see why players weren’t effective at rucks….But I may be asking a bit much there)

  5. Thought it was quite interesting to see that out of the three teams that haven’t won in the first two rounds – between them only one back row player out of nine listed.

    Most teams tend to make the most impact off the first few phases in a game of rugby, especially when there is a turnover. I wonder if there is a link between how well a team attacks, and how effective their back row are at the breakdown, considering they’ll be the guys attending first phase ball in particular. Looks as though Ireland and Scotland have a back row that aren’t doing such a great job in that area, and for the most part both teams have struggled to get an attack going.

      1. They obviously have a very good back row when it comes to breakdown work. But I wonder how much they owe to having powerful runners regularly getting them over the gainline? It is certainly a hell of a lot easier to ruck on front foot ball. Particularly Roberts off first phase must give them a good chance of having a positive effect on many rucks.

        1. Indeed. That’s the danger with these types of statistics isn’t it? Attributing too much influence to single players. Rugby is such a collective effort that I find it hard to accept that.

  6. Looking forward to seeing England’s stats improve when Nathan Hughes joins the mix. Nathan, Itoje and and real 7 could make England’s backrow look very different.

    1. Just saw a stat on the Tigers/Quins game. The most turnovers after round 12 of the the AP were Kvesic (16) and Itoje (14). Pretty sure Hughes ended last season with 30+.
      Considering the age of Haskell and Robshaw we should really be centering our back row around Ewers, Itoje, Kvesic, Clifford, Vunipola and Hughes.

  7. Fascinating.
    Jamie have you inadvertently put paid to Robshaw and Cole’s international careers?
    I’m sure not as EJ is presumably ogling the same data as this on his laptop during the match (assuming he’s not lost interest in the game altogether and put on a dirty movie instead to take his mind of the dire drudgery of NH rugby)

    1. Well, he could of course be more constructive than that. In Cole’s case, he could simply be told not to worry so much about hitting every breakdown but when he is involved find a way to be more effective.

      There’s also the lies, damned lies and statistics point here. Robshaw’s effectiveness number is pretty respectable, it’s the relatively low number of rucks hit that raises eyebrows, presumably? But if you’re making the initial tackle, it’s less straightforward to get involved in the subsequent ruck. Having said that, I think Haskell and Kruis topped the tackle count as well as dominating these stats, but you get my point.

      1. Top 3 tacklers across both games according to ESPN scrum are:

        1. Kruis 29 tackles 83% success
        2 Haskell 26 tackles 100% success
        3= Robshaw 20 tackles 100% success
        3= Farrell 20 tackles 75% success

        Would be interesting to see differences across the 2 games

  8. Really interesting stuff. On the telegraph site I read that two of the top three players for turnovers won were kruis and wait for it…jack Nowell.

    Is the whole open side fetcher a myth? Is it a team effort? I’m confused.

    1. Selection wise he was never too far off the mark it was just that certain players became undroppable even when their form went out of the window (Robshaw, Barritt, T.Youngs & Wood)
      His biggest failings for me were always tactics. Slow ball, predictable backs, focus on scrum penalties when the ball is still sitting in the middle.

    2. Lancaster got quite a lot right. But unfortunately when it came to the WC, he bottled it.

      Selecting a centre partnership that was completely blunt against Wales and then playing JJ against Aus when he clearly wasn’t fit (the poor guy had an op on it when the WC finished). Picking a light front 5 that gave away our scrum advantage. Picking Morgan when he wasn’t fit.

      1. It wasn’t so much that the front five were light but that Marler wasn’t remotely fit after his shoulder op added to which Youngs can’t hook so if its not going your way its pen against every time

        You look at the scrum now and what has changed since then
        1. Marler is fit again
        2. Hartley hooks

        1. Think it was a combination of a Lawes/Parling lock partnership too – both really more line out men that lumps. Compare them to Kruis and Launchbury in the scrum department and it certainly would not have helped.

          Of course, selecting Parling was mainly born out of his inexplicable decision to leave out Hartley, ignore George’s form and end up with Youngs starting.

          1. Thing is that the scrum had been working fine in the past with a Parling, Lawes lock partnership. The famous 55-35 vs France was Lawes and Parling to start last 30 mins of the Scotland game before that and countless other examples over the previous 3 years

            1. Most of the time under SL, Launchbury was in there though. I don’t think the France game had too much of a scrum focus to be fair to it!

              Initially it was Parling/Launchbury before there was a time when Lawes/Launchbury made a strong pairing.

              Against a good Aussie scrum, a combination of Youngs, Lawes and Parling, not to mention Marler being off form – led to a serious demise. Even with Marler off form, I think with Hartley and Launchbury in there it would have been significantly better.

      2. I think you are being very kind Jacob. The things he got right were not that difficult to get right!

        He was OK as a selector, we’ve certainly had worse, but nothing special, i.e. squads usually roughly in line with general fan/press consensus. He did pretty well at bringing some young players through. But that’s where the on-field achievements ended.
        – Useless coach (only good for the off-field work). No game plan identifiable. Undermined the traditional areas of strength.
        – Did non compensate for his own shortcomings and inexperience by hiring quality and experience underneath him. This is poor leadership and he can talk about how it shouldn’t be done on the after-dinner circuit.

        I thought the 2011 vintage were better than the 2015 vintage. I’m pleased Jones hasn’t resorted to going on about the mess he’s inherited in the same way Lancaster the spin doctor talked down the state we were in when he got the job.

        1. I agree with everything you’ve said, but I do think the left English rugby in a pretty good state.

          He was the nearly man. 16 wins from 20 6 nations fixtures is right up there with any other head coach in history as a percentage – but no titles tells a story of a coach that just didn’t quite have the quality to be the best.

          He also had good wins against Australia, a draw away in SA and obviously the famous NZ win.

          Agree that England didn’t ever discover an identity under him on the pitch though – he seemed more bothered about off the pitch stuff than the rugby.

          I don’t think he did a great job, but pre-WC he had gone ok I thought. His biggest errors, particularly selection wise, was there.

          1. 12 professional clubs, good broadcast income, well funded and profitable RFU, decent relationships and reasonable cooperation between RFU and clubs, some excellent academies at the clubs, etc

            We aren’t in a bad state, were never in a really bad state and should never be in a bad state. I don’t think he deserves too much credit for leaving us in a reasonable state.

            I started out quite negative on his appointment, 2012 AIs and start of 2013 6N I thought we had turned a corner and I was wrong, but it’s been more negatives than positives past that point.

            Time will tell how good an appointment Jones is, at the moment I’m finding him a breath of fresh air, I like the absolute clarity on what he wants from his players. Gone is the repressed management consultant speak of “credit in the bank” and “layers of detail” and the artificial “what it means to play for the shirt”. I prefer the approach of “wanting to put you body on the line for your mate next to you”, recognising the guys need to know each other off the pitch as well as on it ….. and team building/bonding doesn’t need to be treated like a school trip.

            We’ve had worse coaches in the past, and probably will again in the future …. but if you’ve had the reigns for 46 tests not being the worst coach ever isn’t the point for comparison. I reckon we would have done better under MJ for another 4 years.

            1. Agree 110% with Matt here. Detested Lancaster’s attempt to paint himself as some sort of saviour of the English approach to rugby – as if there even is such a thing. He was incredibly well supported and took a decent team, in a home world cup, to 2 wins from 4, none against top-level opposition. No better than Johnson but he needed to be given his constant management account BS.

  9. Without a comparison v the SH, these stats only tell 1/2 a story.

    As England, e.g., play with 2 No.6’s, do they suggest that Haskell is more effective than say Pocock?

    The Oz tour may reveal the truer story.

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