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Rugby World Cup 2015: Kick Fest or Try Fest

Another Rugby World Cup is upon us. Will we be in for another yawn fest of penalty goals or free running rugby?

I’ve looked at the 2291 games of international Rugby between top tier nations (1890 – August 2015) to see how scoring has changed over the years. Up until the 1950’s about 70% of points were scored from tries and 10% from penalties. By comparison, the modern game is a penalty kick fest with around 35% of points from penalties and 45% from tries.

I’m no rugby expert. In fact I have hardly watched a game in the last 12 years. This is because Jonny Wilkinson broke my heart in the 2003 World Cup. For those who don’t remember the 2003 Rugby World Cup, England not only beat Australia in the final (extra time field goal!) but the competition seemed to be dominated by the dour approach epitomised by Wilkinson’s outstanding skill and England’s raison d’etre. Whereby the most successful strategy seemed to be by boring the opposition (and the spectators) into submission through penalty goals rather than scoring tries. For purists, a Rugby game where no tries are scored can be beautiful to watch, in much the same way as a nil all draw in football (soccer) or a draw in test match cricket can be an enthralling encounter. I’m no purist and I reckon that open running rugby is better to watch than a penalty kick fest.

Background

The word ‘try’ for scoring a touchdown originated in Rugby. By scoring a ‘touchdown’ this gave you the opportunity to ‘try’ and kick a goal.

I’ve collated every international Rugby game from the ESPN Rugby database and then extracted every game between the top tier nations . I removed the first 12 years (1877-1889) when there wasn’t actually a scoring system for Rugby – the winner was the team with the most goals. Hence from the outset, Rugby has been about winning via the boot, so I shouldn’t really moan.
There have been about 2,300 games (from 1890 to August 2015) between top tier nations (a hiatus during each of the world wars). There were five (now four) different ways of scoring points in Rugby:

  1. Try (5 points): score a try by placing the ball over the opposition’s end line.
  2. Conversion Goal(2 points): convert a try by place kicking the ball through the goal posts.
  3. Penalty Goal (3-points): place kick the ball through the goal posts after being awarded a penalty for a rule infringement by the opposition.
  4. Dropped Goal (3 points): drop kick the ball through the goal posts in general play.
  5. Goal from Mark (was 3 points): Kick A goal after taking a clean catch – discontinued in 1977 .

 

The scoring system has changed a bit through time . Notably, through increasing the number of points you get for scoring a try from 1 point originally to 3 points in 1894, then 4 points in 1971 and finally to 5 points in 1992.

Where are the games won in Rugby

Firstly lets look at how the scoring has changed. The average total points scored in a game has increased dramatically (Figure 1) from around 10 points per game to around 40 points per game.

 

Figure 1: Average of total points per game for top tier nation Rugby

The breakdown of how these points are scored is well shown by considering the relative percentage of each of the scoring methods (Figure 2). Up to the 50s, around 70% of points scored came from tries. This dropped to nearly 30% in 1984, and then picked up again with the introduction of the 5 point try in 1992.

 

Figure 2: Percentage of total points by scoring method (top tier nations)

Too many penalties

So why have we had the massive increase in points through penalties since the 60’s (the big yellow bit in Figure 2)? The answer is two part, firstly I suggest (although I haven’t checked) that more penalties are awarded in the modern game. Secondly, the players are getting more accurate at their kicking. Whilst I don’t have stats on how many penalties are awarded. The number of penalties scored per game has clearly had a huge increase (Figure 3). We have gone from less than 1 penalty goal per game on average up to a peak of 6.8 per game in 2001.

 

Figure 3: Penalties versus Tries – evidence of the kick-fest over running rubgy.

Improved kicking accuracy

Australian Rules Football players have clearly improved their kicking accuracy , so I thought it worth a look for the same trend in Rugby.

Whilst we don’t know how many penalty shots there have been (only how many have been successful). We do know how many conversion attempts there have been – one attempt for every try – as per the definition of a try created by the game of Rugby. Over 70% of conversion attempts are now successful (Figure 4). Compare this with around 35% in the early years. So modern Rugby players are now twice as good at banging the ball through the sticks.

 

Figure 4: Kicking accuracy has improved dramatically with over 70% of conversion attempts now successful (compared to around 35% in the early years).

Rugby is a sophisticated game with many methods of scoring. My personal favourite is seeing tries scored. The clear trend in improved kicking accuracy coupled with my untested suggestion that more penalties are awarded these days has resulted in a kick fest. I cannot see how this trend is going to change unless penalties become less attractive.

To make penalties less attractive they could be worth less (i.e. 2 points) and while I’m at it, drop goals can also be cut to 2 points so that they don’t dominate. An alternative is to make it harder to kick a goal by moving the sticks closer together, although I cannot see much support for retrofitting every community sports oval in the southern hemisphere.

Enjoy the Rugby World Cup and the comprehensive thrashing that New Zealand is sure to dish out on the rest of the world. If you want to see some tries being scored rather than a penalty shoot out I recommend watching some early pool games.

This dataset is available in Truii – just log in and join the ‘Example data’ library and look under ‘blog data’. The tools I used to wrangle the data (e.g. summarise to annual averages) are part of the Truii data wrangling functionality.

 

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