Stat Stupidity: Eight weird and wonderful numbers from the Rugby World Cup

As we wait in anticipation of the World Cup final, the rugby world grows restless. The comedown of semi-final spectacle quickly turns to final speculation, but when it comes to World Cup finals, numbers and history often matter little – we only need to look back to 2019.

Then, an English side coming off a dominant semi final performance against the All Blacks already held a transitive victory over the Springboks from their pool stage matchup. England, the deserving favourites, found that this title offered them little once the first whistle was blown, as the 43 points they had conceded through the whole tournament to that point mattered little once South Africa had put 32 on them.

Nevertheless, in the anticipatory excitement this week it is a good time to look back on the 8 strangest stats and facts of the World Cup, which reveal some of the more unusual aspects of this tournament.

1. Out of 46 games, eight teams that won had fewer 22 metre entries than their opponents

Interestingly, four of these were Fiji’s pool matches and two were quarterfinals.

22 metre entries are a consistent indicator of results. The team that dominates this stat very frequently wins the match. Yet, the outliers are the matches of most interest. In all of Fiji’s pool matches, the team who had fewer entries won. Wales had seven fewer entries than Fiji and were victorious by six, Fiji then had three fewer than Australia but won by seven.

Freddie Steward of England challenges Handre Pollard of South Africa. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

The then shaky performance against Georgia saw Fiji have one less 22m entry but still scrape a win, and then a seemingly more composed performance against Portugal saw them have two more but lose to Os Lobos. This topsy turvy pool stage will likely never be repeated. When Fiji seemed to dominate a game, it was not enough to win but could steal the matches when they weren’t at their attacking best.

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Interestingly, two matches of prominence fall in this statistical minority as well: the quarter finals of New Zealand vs Ireland and France vs South Africa. The northern hemisphere teams must have been left scratching their heads as their attacks seemed so potent, until they were in the zones to score!

2. Ireland threw 87 passes during their last passage against the All Blacks, Romania threw 48 in their entire match against Ireland

Further spotlighting the Irish misfortune in this quarter final, Ireland had an opportunity to win the match and attacked for an impressive 37 phases to try and keep their campaign alive. In these 37 phases, they threw 87 passes trying to stretch the New Zealand defence. To highlight how unique every rugby team is in their approach, when Romania played Ireland in the pool stage, Romania threw only 48 passes in the 80 minutes. Who knows how long it would have taken the Oaks to reach the figure Ireland did in five minutes.

3. Against Ireland, Tonga entered the 22m once and scored 16 points. Against Australia, Portugal entered the 22m 13 times and scored 14 points

To illustrate the need to be clinical, not just be in the right area of the field, Tonga and Portugal’s performance against tier one nations highlight different scoring outputs. Tonga kicked two early penalties against Ireland without getting within 30 metres of the Irish try line. They capitalised off the only opportunity they got to venture near the try line. Spending six minutes in Ireland’s 22 in their only visit, Tonga had a lineout and three scrums while five metres out from the line, before finally scoring their sole try of the match.

Ireland’s Bundee Aki after losing to New Zealand in the Quarter Finals. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Portugal against Australia in comparison, were left to rue their aim to score tries, as simply kicking a drop goal every time they entered the 22 would have proved more fruitful. The 39 points drop goals would have been enough to overcome Australia’s 34 that day. Instead, Australia got out of jail with 11 turnovers in their own 22 that day as the score line failed to capture what the match looked like outside of Australia’s 22.

4. South Africa will play all top six sides in this tournament

The imbalanced nature of the draw was well known, however, just how tough it could get was not immediately obvious. South Africa as the 1st ranked side in the world had to play Ireland (3rd) and Scotland (6th) in the pool stages, then knock out France (4th) and England (5th) in the quarter and semi. This leaves only New Zealand (now 2nd) in their way. In contrast to England’s semi final run, the rankings of teams they played were 7th, 12th, 23rd, 15th and 10th before meeting South Africa.

5. England are the only team to not record a line break in a match at RWC23

A much discussed stat from the weekend was that England fought so valiantly, despite not breaking the South African line once. This was an impressive effort but perhaps indicated that England’s attacking potency was being maximised in their kicking approach. The previous lowest figure at the World Cup for comparison was Romania recording just one line break against Scotland. They lost 84-0.

England’s Owen Farrell. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

6. England are the only team in the competition to have not received a yellow card and yet still had the longest time spent with 14 men in a match

England were the most anomalous team of the World Cup, with many of their statistical categories being either overwhelming or totally deficient. Their discipline was no different – they were the only team to not receive a yellow card in the course of the tournament. However, Tom Curry did receive a red card only three minutes into their opening game, making it the longest any team spent in a match with only 14 players.

7. England didn’t concede a tournament try in the first 20 minutes of matches

While many of England’s statistical categories do not paint a pretty picture, one that does was their defence. England did not concede a try in the first 20 minutes of any match. What makes this so impressive was that early tries seemed to be so many teams’ method to control and win matches.

This early defence meant that even though England scored very few early tries, they were able to still create pressure and control matches for long periods of time. To contrast this, New Zealand epitomised scoring early tries, scoring 11 in the first 20 minutes of matches throughout the tournament.

Aaron Smith celebrates with his All Blacks teammates. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

8. Players born and educated in New Zealand have claimed 28% of the ‘Player of the Match’ awards in this RWC

A testament to New Zealand’s rugby superiority is their reach through teams besides the All Blacks. In this tournament, New Zealand born players have dominated for a variety of teams. Despite being only 1 of 20 nations participating at the World Cup they make up more than 25% of the man of the match performances. The 13 players to receive the awards are by nation:

New Zealand: Cam Roigard (Namibia), Ardie Savea (Italy and Ireland), Damian Mackenzie (Uruguay) and Jordie Barrett (Argentina)Ireland: Bundee Aki (Tonga and South Africa) and Jamison Gibson-Park (Scotland)Japan: Amato Fakatava (Chile) and Lomano Lemeki (Samoa)Samoa: Lima Sopoaga (England)Tonga: George Moala (Romania)Wales: Gareth Anscombe (Australia)

As the tournament concludes this weekend, one team will earn the title of champions for the next four years. Yet, it’s enjoyable to look back on the more unusual moments of the tournament, those that might not be as memorable as thrilling quarter finals or historic upsets.

Let me know any of your favourite stats or facts that I have missed in the comments.

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