Just how effective are ball carries made in the Six Nations?

There are almost as many statistics around in rugby as there are reasons to dislike Austin Healey.  However, the volume of statistics also means it’s very hard to see the useful ones among the bevvy of numbers being relentlessly thrown at us on social media.  One example was from round 4 during England’s surgical dismembering of Scotland when the RFU Twitter account told us that Maro Itoje had just carried the ball for his 100th metre in an England shirt.  Other than the fact that this is a nice round number what is this telling us?  Nothing of any relevance or insight, that’s what.

This useless Itoje stat reminds us of a quote that is often trotted out about statistics: that they are too often used like a drunk uses a lamp-post; more for support than enlightenment, or you want to piss all over them.  The overuse of carrying statistics and figures in the raw format is the perfect example of the latter.

For example, based on the raw figures alone, England fullback and winner of Europe’s Angriest Man, Mike Brown, is the leading ball carrier in the 2017 Six Nations with 370 metres (up to end of Round 4).   This is a statistic Mike’s defenders will use when anyone questions his place in the England team – “yes, alright, he might have all the attacking guile of a boiled carrot, look like a shaved Kray twin and pass like his hands are on the wrong way round, but he carries for 92.5 metres per game on average” .  Fair point you might think, but you’d be wrong.

Total carry metres at the end of a match are dominated usually by the fullback and wingers.  The reason for this is obvious: they field balls from long kicks and usually have some open pasture to run into before they have to worry about being tackled.  Effectively, they are given a number of metres for free, so simply adding up the metres the likes of Mike Brown run is a statistic of questionable value.

We asked Accenture, RBS Six Nations official technology partner, to do an analysis for us of effective carrying metres.  That is, of the total metres a player has carried for, what percentage of those carried over the gainline.  The player with the highest percentage score is therefore carrying most beyond the tackle after busting the line, these are the real players doing the damage.  Just in case you’re wondering, Mike Brown has a 25% effective carry score, in other words three-quarters of his runs stop at or before the gainline.  Compared to other fullbacks that is worse than both Stuart Hogg (33%)  and Rob Kearney (29%)

Using the qualifying criteria that the player has carried the ball more than fifty metres in total across the first four rounds of Six Nations competition some interesting patterns start to present themselves.    Five of the places in the top ten most effective carriers are scrum-halves, which isperhaps no surprise as given they pick up the ball on the gainline any carry forward, however small is an effective one by this measure.

Louis Picamoles is considered by all to be a carrying colossus and indeed his 302 metre total to end of round 4 puts him second behind Brown on the raw score, ahead of the likes of Vakatawa, Liam Williams and other backs.  However, his 54% effective carry score is just behind Sam Warburton’s 55%.  The difference is that Sam has half the number of carries and an overall total of 61 metres.  In other words King Louis carries more often – which is to be expected for a Number 8 – and his bullocking runs may be more eyecatching, but Sam is just as effective when it comes to getting beyond the gainline.

Looking at all the data, a good effective carry score for a forward is 40-45%, above 50% is very good to exceptional.

So who is the player (who meets the minimum 50 metres carried criteria) with the highest effective carry score?  Actually, its two players, both on 67% – England centre, Jonathan Joseph (from 167m total) and Scotland wing, Tim Visser (from 101m total).  And who is bottom of the heap? Scotland’s loosey, Ryan Wilson, who has carried for 61 metres with only a pitiful 17% being over the gainline.

Perhaps the most eye-catching stat of all is this: of the 172 players that have had some field time in the first four rounds of the 2017 tournament only 41 have an effective carry score greater than 49%.

To put it another way, when carrying the ball, nearly three-quarters of players fail to get over the gainline over than half the time they have a run.

If we didn’t know already, Six Nations defences are difficult to get behind.  Science* has now confirmed it.

*not science

About Lee

Owner, editor, not a fan of Haskell.


Lee, I think you are in danger of misusing the very statistic you have created to avoid statistic misuse. If the effective carry stat is % of total metres carried over the gainline then you cannot say that 75% of Mike Brown’s runs stopped at or before the gainline. Only that 75% of the metres run were run up to the gainline(s). Number of runs does not equate to number of metres.
I’m not sure it is a helpful stat to measure players like Brown with either. If he had 370m run and 0% effective carry stat that could tell us that he’s shit, or it could be that every ball kicked to him is run right back up to the gainline and Brown being Brown set up for an England ruck, thus possession has been reversed at the gainline. Almost as good as a turnover surely?
Don’t get me wrong, if he can’t learn to pass I think Brown is shit, I’m just not sure the effective carry stat is the smoking gun that proves it.

Probably wasn’t very clear about effective score, it’s based on number of carries over the gainline, not metres.

I’m not saying it proved Mike Brown is terrible, or anyone else, it’s more to point out that using raw metres carried as support for an argument about effectiveness should be challenged. Perhaps effective carries is a more relevant stat for forwards, whose job it is to get over th gainline when carrying. As I say, I don’t think any stat answer every question, this was more an attempt to dive deeper than the basic metres carried figures that are used every week as what I think is an unreliable measurement of effectiveness.

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