Six Nations 2013: England know possession is overrated

Everyone knows how this year's Six Nations will be won and lost.

Keeping hold of the ball and winning more possession than the other lot will be critical. Er, no actually. All that stuff about possession being nine-tenths of the law is increasingly as relevant to modern rugby as four-point tries and heavy leather bladders. "It's about four-twelfths of the law, to be exact," murmured England's head coach, Stuart Lancaster, having crunched the numbers from the past calendar year.

England's analysts, not to mention everyone else's, can be even more precise if required. They have pored over the Four Nations tournament won by New Zealand last year, as well as the autumn Tests at Twickenham, and reached some intriguing conclusions. It will come as no surprise to those familiar with top-level rugby to learn that field position, statistically, currently counts for far more than the length of time a team have the ball. "The kicking duel is what it's all about," says Mike Catt, England's skills coach, matter-of-factly.

The figures conclusively back him up. Territory is king, to a far greater extent than possession. When Toulouse played Leicester recently in a crucial Heineken Cup pool game, the French champions lost despite having 57% of the ball. It was a not untypical outcome. Collate the statistics from the November Tests and the Four Nations and more than two-thirds of tries were scored from three phases or fewer. Well over one-third were scored off first phase and nearly three-quarters started life in the opponents' half.

This raises several questions, many of them uncomfortable if you have shelled out £83 for a Twickenham seat this weekend. If everyone is fixated by stat-based efficiency, the risk of stalemate is likely to increase. If it keeps raining and the grounds stay soft, the likelihood of more collapsed scrums and knock-ons multiplies. More reason than ever for players to put a hefty boot to ball, thump it up the other end and invite the opposition to play under pressure in their own half. Everyone is doing it, darling.

Remember last season. England beat Scotland and Italy in their first two games largely thanks to kicks charged down by Charlie Hodgson. Only in Paris against France did they play something akin to an all-court game, and last autumn's victory over New Zealand was, at heart, a reward for their physicality at the breakdown and collective hard graft.

Primarily the secret of modern victory is to keep it simple, kick often, compete like mad for restarts and get in the faces of the opposition backs.

So where, precisely, does this leave skills coaches such as Catt? He confirms that far from concentrating solemnly on retaining possession "the opposite" is now true. "The game has changed massively but I don't look at it as a negative thing," he argues. "If we're in the right position and we pressure the opposition, it means they are more likely to kick poorly and give us an opportunity to attack in their half. It loads our counterattack, which is what we're very good at. For me that's brilliant."

England players are also now being urged to wrest control of the "energy flow" of games, which basically translates into not piling mistake on mistake and stitching together several positive actions in a row. Some would call that simple game management but England's 'sequencing' against the All Blacks, allied to their opponents' frequent mistakes, was straight out of the required textbook. "The trick is to keep going at them rather than doing something extravagant because you think you're on top," says Catt. "That's what New Zealand have been exceptional at for years."

All of which helps explain why the notion of introducing bonus points to the Six Nations has not been instantly lobbed into the nearest reservoir in a brick-filled sack. The idea would clearly have been rejected out of hand had the unions involved been totally confident in the entertainment value of the spectacle.

There could yet be a compromise proposal: what would happen if each win were worth five points and four tries earned teams a further bonus point? If two sides finished level at the top, they would be separated, crucially, first by number of matches won, then tries, then points difference. Any chance of a side winning all five games and not securing the title would thus disappear. It is an equation which may just sooth traditionalists if it encouraged slightly more collective ambition.

All we do know on the eve of the championship is that the title will, categorically, not be won by the side which throws out the fanciest passes. The most efficient sides at the breakdown, particularly those with a decent goalkicker and a tight defence, will be far harder to beat.

Spectators will just have to hope England's Andy Farrell has it right. "There are innovative intricacies about breaking teams down being thought up every week, depending on who you're playing," insists Farrell. "The imagination still runs wild." The statistics, as he is fully aware, suggest something very different.

Powered by article was written by Robert Kitson, for The Guardian on Tuesday 29th January 2013 22.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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