Best 'D' is still winning Sevens tournaments

(IRB.COM) Thursday 13 February 2014
 Best 'D' is still winning Sevens tournaments
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Seb Lauzier interviews the teams for broadcast after every match of the HSBC Sevens World Series. Watch the story of New Zealand's Cup win at the Wellington Sevens on the latest IRB Sevens World highlights show, out on broadcasters this week.

Once again at the weekend we saw a side hit peak form on day two, this time cruising through knock-out play without conceding a single point. The black wall descended at the Westpac, and nobody was going through it.

Gordon Tietjens has always set his stall out by it. The current South African side do the same, and it was the first thing that recently-appointed England coach Simon Amor worked on when he arrived: Defence.

For the all the flair and running rugby in Sevens, with the pitch effectively twice as big as normal given the number of players on the park, 'D' becomes all-important.

The players often say there's no hiding place out there when you only have six teammates for company. You miss a tackle in the wrong part of the pitch and more often than not you leak a try, and this season's tackle stats are intriguing.

As you might expect, tackle success mirrors success in the overall standings.

New Zealand have made 88% of their tackles, the highest ratio, while South Africa, Fiji and England are also in the top five in tackles made (%). Spain, by contrast, have missed 25% of their tackles - the highest proportion - and find themselves bottom of the 15 core sides with four rounds to play.

If all that is as you'd expect and relatively straightforward, then the number of tackles teams are making is more enlightening, because it starts to shed light on the way teams play.

For instance, you might expect Spain to have made the most tackles too - much as the under-fire goalkeeper of the worst soccer team usually makes the most saves - but here there's a surprise. Of the 15 core teams, Fiji has made almost 20% more tackles than anyone else this season, and that tells us that they don't want structured possession. In fact, they want the opposition to have the ball and they want to hit them hard and play fast and loose off scrappy, open-field possession.

That's where their brilliant forwards can find telling offloads, and where strike runners like Samisoni Viriviri (24 tries this season) and Benito Masilevu (21) can run amok and top the try-scoring charts.

Other measured stats bear this out too: in average passes per game Fiji are way down the table, while they've surrendered possession more than any other team too.

The key stats, though, are of course the number of matches teams are winning, and normally that follows on from the crucial contest for the ball at the breakdown. New Zealand and South Africa are right up at the top of the 'turnover table', so it stands to reason that, of their 30 matches so far this season, they've won 26 and 25 respectively.

And crucially for the Series table, their losses have all come after the Cup quarter-finals. Fiji have won 24 of their 30 games, but until last weekend all their losses had come in either Cup quarter-finals or pool games, which is why they find themselves 26 points off the lead.

Over the course of a tournament, or an entire season, it seems that success in Rugby Sevens comes from picking the right place and the right time to fail. If the big guns miss a tackle, they miss it in the right area, and if they lose a match they're losing it at the right stage in a tournament - at the death. Fall down on these key areas and no number of tries will win you the Series.

Watch the story of New Zealand's Cup win at the Wellington Sevens on the latest IRB Sevens World highlights show, out on broadcasters this week. Check local listings for times. Follow, or tweet your comments: @seblauzier and @irbsevens