Last week there was a lot of reasoned debate/exasperated rage over who had the best back row in the Six Nations. Is it Wales’ much-lauded trio of Lydiate/Warburton/Faletau? Or is England’s increasingly established unit of Wood/Robshaw/Vunipola leading the way now? And how much impact has Peter O’Mahony actually had for Ireland?
These are all interesting questions, and ones we hope to answer below. Our friends over at Accenture have been kind enough to provide us with some handy statistics on the different back-rows’ involvements so far this Championship, and we’ve conducted some ‘analysis’.
Fair warning though – stats are not the be all and end all. As Scott Johnson famously said, “Statistics are a bit like bikinis – it shows a lot but not the whole thing.” So take these with a pinch of salt, of course.
N.B. ‘Total jackals’ refers to turnovers won, ‘Total turnovers’ refers to when the player has been turned over, ‘Turnovers after tackle’ refers to when the player has been turned over at the tackle area.
The theme here would seem to be a high defensive workrate. Dan Lydiate’s tally of 40 tackles is second only to Chris Robshaw, while Toby Faletau and Sam Warburton have 25 apiece.
However, they have not used their back-row to carry as much, or as effectively, as other nations. Faletau has carried 30 times, but has only returned 58 metres – compare that with the tournaments leading carrier, Louis Picamoles, who has made only ten more but has returned a whopping 194 metres.
England’s back-row has thus far seemed pretty well balanced, apparently having learnt the lessons of last year’s debacle with Tom Wood at eight. Vunipola has carried to greatest effect, making 136 metres from 39 carries, but Robshaw has also chipped in in this regard with an impressive 28 carries.
The figures do highlight the captain’s insatiable work rate – he tops the tackle stats with 43, and allied with that carrying figure and 22 passes made, his importance to England in the loose cannot be understated.
Peter O’Mahony’s tally of nine ‘jackals’ is what stands out here – it is six more than any other back row player, and highlights how effective he has been at the breakdown. He has, however, missed just under 20% of his tackles – not an attractive figure – and has been turned over a few times himself.
That is offset by the hard work of Henry and Heaslip, however, who between them have made 66 tackles and missed just two. Heaslip’s role in linking the forwards and the backs is also clearly highlighted by his 21 passes.
It is tough to analyse Scotland’s merry-go-round of a back-row, given how much it has changed. Dave Denton was dropped for the last game despite being comfortably their most effective ball carrier (88 metres made), while Ryan Wilson has weighed in with 29 tackles – although given that he has missed six, and made 14 fewer than top tackler Robshaw, his effectiveness should be questioned.
Chris Fusaro is one of the most accurate players of the tournament so far, having not missed a tackle or been turned over in the two games he has played so far. He has represented Scotland’s biggest threat at the breakdown, too, with two jackals to his name (and so, naturally, he has been dropped for this weekend’s game with France).
France’s decision to drop Louis Picamoles looks baffling when you consider his stats – he has made the most metres (194) from the second most carries (40) and beaten the most defenders (11) of any back-rower. Whoever replaces him at Murrayfield has quite a job to do.
Elsewhere Yannick Nyanga’s hard work can be seen in his number of tackles, although he has also been quite inaccurate, having been turned over three times.
Italy’s back row have been less successful individually on the floor than most, with only Roberto Barbieri managing to complete a ‘jackal’ successfully.
Sergio Parisse is often lauded as an Italian genius, and while he has been kept relatively quiet this Six Nations he still has some impressive stats, carrying 45 times for 153 metres, while also giving the most passes (26) of any back row player, highlighting his importance as a link player in open play.
So what does all this tell us?
Wales’ ball-carrying stats compare less favourably with France or Italy, but then they tend to use the likes of Jamie Roberts, George North, Richard Hibbard et al to get them over the gainline more than their Italian and French counterparts do, so do not rely on their back-row in that sense.
Peter O’Mahony is excellent at ‘jackalling’ and makes Ireland the most threatening at the breakdown, but can sometimes fall off tackles – that is a luxury afforded them by the presence of Chris Henry, who sweeps up what O’Mahony misses.
Would Ireland be as effective with Sean O’Brien at openside? As good a player as he is, possibly not – that was the back-row that featured prominently in last year’s Six Nations, when they looked no where near as good as they do now.
England have had the least presence at the breakdown, winning the fewest ‘jackals’ and being turned over the most – which is interesting, given that calls for a ‘true’ seven seem to have died down for now.
So the stats would suggest that France, England and Italy have had the most attacking return from their back-row, while Wales and Ireland have formed the best defensive units. Scotland, meanwhile, haven’t really excelled in any area – no doubt something to do with the consistent chopping and changing.
Would you agree with that? Which back-row do you think has been the most effective this Six Nations?
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Accenture, Official Technology Partner of the RBS 6 Nations, brings you deeper insight into the Championship. Follow @AccentureRugby for all the latest stats and analysis.