QU’EST-CE QUE C’EST?!? CHRIS ROBSHAW DECIDES TO KICK TO THE CORNER IN RWC 2015
Here is a special flashback Friday version of “Qu’est-ce Que C’est?!?”. In the 2015 Rugby World Cup England played Wales in the pool stages of the competition. In a tightly contested battle, England was trailing Wales 25 to 28 late in the game until this pivotal moment:
You may recall that England’s captain, Chris Robshaw made the dubious decision to kick to the corner with the intent of winning the game, rather than attempting the penalty kick which would have tied the game. Ultimately the decision didn’t work out in England’s favour and Robshaw received a great deal of backlash for his decision. Recently on the RugbyPass Offload podcast on YouTube, he reminisced and shared his thoughts on the decision and how much it weighed upon him:
In the segment, Robshaw hints that he thinks he got the decision wrong and, if he could go back in time, he would “go for the posts”. We thought it would be a fun exercise to look back and evaluate the decision retrospectively using our Win Probability Model as well as data from the following competitions (which have games that are considered international tests):
World Rugby fall and summer international tests (2012-2020)
Rugby World Cup (2015, 2019)
Six Nations (2014-2021)
The Rugby Championship (2016-2020)
Given the specific game states for that important lineout (e.g. time remaining, field position, score differential) and given that a 5m lineout at the test rugby level is worth 2.01 expected points (EP), by making the decision to go with a lineout England had a 41.4% chance of winning the game. If England was successful in kicking the penalty goal, they would have had a 49.9% chance of winning the game (NOTE: this makes sense because the game would have been tied), however this had to be balanced with the possibility that they could also miss the kick. If they missed the kick, England’s chances of winning would drop to 28.5% due to the combination of not scoring the points and the fact that the resulting 22m dropout is worth 0.05 EP.
The break-even conversion probability (x) for the decision to make it worthwhile to kick the penalty goal can be found by setting the value of the lineout equal to the total value of the penalty goal attempt:
WP(5m lineout) = WP(kick made)x + WP(kick missed)(1-x)
0.414 = 0.499*(x) + 0.285*(1 – x)
x = 60.3%
Thus, if Owen Farrell had a better than 60.3% chance of making the kick, England should have attempted to kick the penalty goal. Alternately, if Owen Farrell had a less than 60.3% chance of making the kick, England should have kicked to the corner and gone for the try.
Figure 1 summarizes all of the penalty kick and conversion attempts by Owen Farrell at the club and test levels (e.g. Aviva/Gallagher Premiership, Fall/Summer test matches, Rugby World Cups, Six Nations, and Heineken Champions Cups). The circled area of the figure identifies where Farrell would likely have taken the kick within a 5m radius.
FIGURE 1: Summary of all penalty goals/try conversions attempted by Owen Farrell at the club and international test rugby levels (2013-2020).
Farrell’s accuracy for the past 8 seasons in and around the penalty area is ~48.3% (31 made out of 64 attempts). If we limit the data to only those kicks attempted prior to the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Farrell’s accuracy falls ever so slightly to ~46.7% (7 made out of 15 attempts). In either case, Farrell’s historical accuracy does not meet the threshold of 60.3% to justify attempting to kick the penalty goal to tie up the game.
It is important to note that based on these calculations, kicking to the corner to set up a 5m lineout represents the option with a higher probability of winning the game, it does not guarantee that England wins the game. And since hindsight is 20/20, we know England didn’t win the game, but if that scenario were to play out multiple times, England would be expected to win more times by going for the lineout compared to if they attempted to kick the penalty. If we were to evaluate this scenario using the good/bad decision versus the good/bad outcome matrix, we would classify this as a good decision with a bad outcome.
I found it quite compelling that Chris Robshaw points to this decision as the one thing from his England career that he would try to change and how it’s a scar he will always wear. Whether or not he reads this analysis, we hope he can find peace in knowing that the numbers support his decision. Perhaps the better question to pose was why England chose to throw to the front for that pivotal lineout, but for now we’ll leave that analysis for another time.
If you were the Captain of England and was faced with the same scenario in a World Cup, would you still go for posts or would you kick to the corner?