Possession is not everything

2010-03-16 14:21

Ross Tucker

At the elite level of competition that is the Vodacom Super 14, the margins between victory and defeat are impossibly small, requiring that every avenue be explored in pursuit of success. 

In preparation for matches, coaches, analysts and players will spend hours pouring over video and statistics in an attempt to identify opponents’ strengths, weaknesses and style of play, searching for those elusive advantages.

Similarly, they will conduct post-match “post-mortems”, looking for half a dozen areas that may bring victory in close matches. 

For coaches, analysing specific incidents and players in isolated matches is enormously valuable – insightful analysis helps craft game-plans and strategies to neutralize opponents and maximise chances of victory.

For scientific purposes, however, a collection of matches provides more value, for it reveals global trends that affect the outcome of close matches.

The latest research on rugby performance has evaluated results from 95 close matches in the Super 14 since 2003 to identify what factors are associated with success. 

These matches are won or lost by fewer than 11 points – any smaller than this and it becomes impossible to find differences, so fine is the line between success and failure. 

The findings, while predating the introduction from the ELVs, are interesting, somewhat contradicting the “prevailing wisdom” about rugby. 

It turns out that the winning team in close matches will have:

· Kicked the ball more in open play.  Teams who win average 15.7 kicks per match, losing teams kick 13.6 times per match
· Made more tackles than the losing team (113 tackles for winners compared to 99 for losing teams)
· Had fewer rucks and mauls (60 for winners, 68 for losers)
· Completed fewer passes (81 per match compared to 90 per match)
· Conceded more turnovers (24 for winners, 22.4 for losers)
· Made fewer errors (Winners make 11.7 per match, losers 13)

The first five points may seem counter-intuitive, but they throw up an interesting implication, which is that the team that has less of the ball is more likely to win close matches. 

Review that list again – in close matches, the team who has: kicked the ball more, made more tackles, had fewer rucks and mauls, and completed fewer passes, has won close matches. Looked at differently, it says that teams who keep the ball in hand, pass it more often, and who force the opposition to tackle are less likely to win. 

Again, this was before the ELVs, which were designed, in part, to change this. It will be interesting to see their effect. My initial observations are that not much has changed, apart from ball in play time, which has increased. But victory, at first glance, still seems to belong to the team that has had less of the ball. 

The causes of this are likely numerous – increased size and speed of players, which favours defence; increased defensive organization courtesy game analysis and the introduction of ideas from rugby league; and increased athleticism of players, which enables defending teams to compete for and slow the ball down at breakdowns, reorganize better and render the opposition’s possession less effective. 

Remember also that these are trends over 95 matches, and represent averages, which means that they don’t guarantee the outcome of every match.  For example, kicking is not guaranteed to win matches – the chase, the defence and the tactical awareness of a team must be superior in order for this strategy to be effective. 

Knowing when to kick, and doing so effectively is key. Similarly, a defence that is poorly organized will lose if they adopt this strategy.  However, if these aspects are superior, then this team is more likely to win than the team who control possession, take the ball through more phases and pass more.

Certainly, much of the success of the Springboks and our Super 14 teams in recent years has been built around a style of play that capitalises on this phenomenon, which is actually not new to coaches, who have taken advantage of it for a few years. Possession is certainly not gold in modern rugby – defensive pressure is.

The possession paradigm remains, however, and commentators and analysts often look at possession and territory statistics during broadcasts and comment with surprise on the statistic that the team winning the match has had so much less of the ball, and has made so many more tackles than the losing team. The latest research suggests that they should not be surprised at all.  Whether the game should be concerned is another matter – few sports favour the team without the ball, but rugby appears to be growing more and more in this direction.

Ed's note: However, it seems not everyone is in agreement that attacking rugby wins matches. Famed schoolboy coach, Basil Bey, provides an alternative argument in his column HERE.

Ross Tucker has PhD in Exercise Physiology from the UCT Faculty of Health Sciences and is currently a member of Paul Treu's SA Sevens management team.

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

Stormers finding the Super 14 thirsty work (Gallo Images)


  • stormers4ever - 2010-03-16 17:03

    hey ouens eks bang...hey ouens ek is bewerig!ons stormies speel mooi ma ons is glad ni ini selfde klas as d BULLE!hulle is man vir man net amazing!ek bedoel, bh het sover net 3 driekies gedruk terwyl dai rocker hougaard en wille vd Heever elk 4!!! gerook het.moet erken WOW!verder onse ou jaque-kie is biekie 1 demensioneel stadig en visieloos en sonder JdV 'n 0...terwyl daai blonde superster 12 v hulle kringe hardloop om ons stompies?!eina al di dinge maak ons bang.verder SPIES ek bedoel SPIES bring 'n nagmerrie elke oomblik in onse diepste gebeente...praat ni eens v BAKKIES ni-hy's 'n TROK!!!ouens dis tyd om stil te word en te dink...wat doen ons wat besiel ons?Matfield, Gary, potgieter, Stegman,..ens ens self hulle reserwes sal ons stukkie vir stukkie afslag eina!ma ons sal diepo moed moet skep en as ons kan di game skip.hey ouens eks bang...stormers4ever eina

  • Mongrel - 2010-03-16 17:30

    For me I would think its the better team still pulling out a win even though they played badly. Is there anything on the teams that won those close games and there final standing in the logs? But then you also see some games where a team will bearly have the ball, But when they do get it (and run) they can run through the defense and score the tries that win them the games by big margins

  • Boerseun - 2010-03-16 20:30

    Mindsets of Refs,Linesmen,and other "Officials" are even more important.Can swing a game anyway they feel fit.They generally regard themselves above the game,which is a shame. Whistles was introduced to referees in 1885,a mere 52 years after the game itself had been invented.........

  • die yster - 2010-03-17 08:52

    I am exstremely glad to see that these sorts of excercises and investigations are conducted and that SA is in the forefront. I'll be following your articles more. Rugby is dynamic and mostly seasonal. If rules pressure the gameflow, some other area be strengthend. I also strongly believe that with the new rules, which allow for a fast running games, suits the Bulls with the high altitude. I'll test my theories on their away games.

  • Alan - 2010-03-17 13:12

    Although I wouldn't argue with the base statistic that having less possession means you are more likely to win, I would argue that if a team goes out to play with the intent of having less possession will likely lose. What I see from the stats, and generally what I see in the game is that the team who is ahead does not need to keep possession of the ball to win, all they need to do is defend well - which is probably the easier of the two tasks. This results in a case of the team behind spending long periods of play with the ball in hand trying to catch up, which in turn means that the winning team tackles more has fewer rucks and mauls, will also kick the ball when they do get possession to get out of their territory and which in itself results in fewer passes. The trick then is to actually get on the score board early and get ahead, so the easier task of defending the try line can be yours. For that you need to initially play with the ball in hand, with all the knock on effects that would entail! Unfortunately too many teams kick the ball ball from the get go, and end up trailing to the team who is willing to attack early and therefore falls foul of the above statistics. Definitely a disease afflicted by certain SA teams who are at the wrong end of the log!

  • FaanRoetz - 2010-03-17 15:22

    The Ball-in-play period in test rugby in the period 1995-2003 was just less than 38 minutes. In 1975 to 1995 this was 19 minutes. From 2003 to 2009 it remained the same. (The 1981 Bok tour of NZ is played repeatedly on dstv channel 231 and we can clearly see the lack of play and speed versus modern times). Location therefore, over decades of RFU test rugby, seems to have been much more favored than possession. This was clearest before kicking limits were introduced in the 60's, 70's and 80's. Tucks is therefore stating the obvious and fails to explain it. When turning a few pages in the book "On War" by Sun Tzu as translated by Erich von Lustbader, we can get a few clues from the ancient strategies in games of atrocities, or if you like, war. The book is held as the most significant book ever on military strategy. Do however not expect perfect clarity to jump at you as the booklet is complex and meant for military strategists. Aspects that we can take note of are the following: 1. When attacking, let it be like a river flowing, First small and then bigger and bigger, until it consumes all around it. 2. To know yourself, is to be able to defend. To know your enemy, is to be able to attack. 3. Attack can only be based on opportunities given to you by your opponent, not by your own doings. 4. No attack is without deception. 5. First divide or disrupt your opponents defensive positions of strength, then consider attack. These are not life changing ideas. They only prove that possession never will be everything. It is only one aspect of a very complex process.

  • @stormers4ever - 2010-04-23 08:51

    sien jou op die spoorweg paviljoen oor n saterdag of wat of gaan jy eerder in pretoria agterbly?

  • jrftzgb - 2010-04-23 19:35

    Your analysis is limited and biased by limited sampling from one league. How would this analysis hold up in other pro leagues, at the international level? At the amateur level? Interestingly enough, I don't actually see any measurement of time of possession, does more tackles and less passes actually mean less time of possession? Why wouldn't you do this measurement when pouring over this game film? If I were a reviewer at a peer reviewed journal I would probably assume you had a conclusion prepared based on preliminary perception or data and then designed the variables measured to support it. Perhaps there are more passes etc. because the losing team is getting kicked off to more after tries and kicks. Perhaps in lopsided scores the winning team scores quickly, the losing team is forced to try and become creative and passes more. Finally, and I say this because I hate pop-sci, you show correlation but have no proof of causality. I will say that again, correlation is not causality.

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