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If someone is going to end Cal’s run at the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship next year, they will need to match Cal’s technique and strength in the tackle. And as much as they might make us cringe, poor passes that don’t go to hand hurt a team less than poor tackles.

The plan this past Sunday was to keep some stats from as many matches as possible from the CRC. Then, use the numbers to write some kind of interesting analysis. Do you know what you get from tracking some statistics for one day at one sevens tournament? A mess.

I knew that from a small sample size, any meaning drawn from the numbers would be anecdotal rather than really quantitative. Still, there was hope in my heart that some trends would emerge that would allow me to go, “Aha! So that area of the game is what separated the quarterfinalist from the champion.” Or something like that. Instead, there was only a jumble of information from which no meaningful conclusions can be drawn.

Each match can be decided by something different, so no obvious trends jump out from one day’s worth of matches. I should’ve seen that coming; I didn’t.

My thinking heading into the day was that teams with a high number of passes completed would be winning teams. Turns out, not necessarily. For example, in the quarterfinal match between Arkansas State and Cal, Arkansas State had close to twice as many passes completed as Cal, and Dartmouth had more completed passes in their loss to Kutztown in another quarterfinal.

Sevens teams scoring tries and winning matches without necessarily needing to rely on more successful passes in not unique to this year’s CRC. According to World Rugby’s report on the 2014-2015 Men’s Sevens Series, 47% of tries were scored with between 1 and 3 passes in the build up. 11% had no passes in the build up.

When adjusted for time of possession, the team with the highest passing rate last season was Japan; the team with the lowest passing rate was South Africa. England, USA, New Zealand, and Fiji were all clumped in the middle. This is more evidence that making lots of passes is not correlated with winning.

With my initial thinking not holding up, and having watched the matches, I had a new thought.

My new thinking was that Cal did well at this tournament because they won so many tackle situations. That is, a ball-carrier is able to increase the likelihood of a missed tackle, or is able to exert some level of control over how he goes to ground while being tackled. On the flip side, the defender(s) makes the tackle in a way that limits the attacking options during and immediately after the tackle.

Unfortunately, because of the assumptions I had going into the day, I didn’t keep stats on what happened during attempted tackles. So I went back and reviewed the three Cal matches that were televised: the pool play match against Arkansas State, the semi-final against Arizona, and the final against UCLA. In those three matches, I counted 111 tackles made and missed. If a defender had a hand or two on the ball-carrier when a pass was made, I did not count that as an off-load in the tackle. However, I did count if the player off-loaded while going to ground.

Each tackle was categorized as a win for the attacking team, a win for the defending team, or even. If a player was tackled, but then able to pop a pass up from the deck, that is a win for the attacking team, for instance.  A missed tackle is a win for the attacking team. If a player was driven backward in the tackle and/or the tackle resulted in slow ball, that is a win for the defending team, for instance. If neither team gained an advantage from the tackle, it was counted as even.

Of those 111 tackles, Cal won 57. That is 51%. Their opponents, combined, won 22 tackles. That is 20%. The remaining 29% of tackles were even.

When carrying the ball into a tackle, Cal “lost” the tackle only twice in those three matches, both against Arkansas State. That is dominance. By my accounting, Cal missed 3 tackles, all against UCLA. They made 36 tackles, “winning” 9 of those.

These numbers seem to provide the anecdotal evidence that Cal’s success this weekend was built on winning tackle situations, especially in attack. Everything is easier when the tackle situation is “won.”

Before this weekend, when I thought about sevens skills, I first thought of the ability to deliver a sharp, long pass. No longer. While accurate passing is a critical skill, no team is going to stop Cal’s CRC run next year by out-passing them. 

Cal Won5751%
Opponent Won2220%