THE 50:22 KICK – WAS IT AN EFFECTIVE TACTIC IN SUPER RUGBY AU?
The 2020 Super Rugby AU (SRAU) was the first competition to trial the 50:22 kick as part of an evaluation process for several proposed law amendments put forth by World Rugby. The 50:22 kick law amendment proposed:
“If the team in possession kicks the ball from inside their own half indirectly into touch inside their opponents’ 22 or from inside their own 22 into their opponents’ half, they will throw-in to the resultant lineout”
The rationale behind this tactic was “to create space via a tactical choice for players to drop back out of the defensive line in order to prevent their opponents from kicking for touch”. It did not appear that the kick from inside a team’s own 22 into the opposition half was enforced in SRAU, but the kick from inside a team’s own half into the opposition 22 was successfully executed by many teams.
An analysis of SRAU regular season data revealed that the successfully executed 50:22 kick is worth ~1.9 Expected Points (EP). Since we were dealing with a small data set (20 games) a simplifying assumption was made to pool all successful 50:22 kicks in order to determine an average EP to represent the value of this strategy. Thus, depending on where the kick originated, a successful 50:22 kick could potentially result in a tactical gain of between 2.07 to 3.11 Expected Points Added (EPA).
Given the significant tactical advantage of executing a 50:22 kick, did SRAU teams attempt to maximize the benefit afforded by this law amendment? Due to the global pandemic, the 2020 Super Rugby/Super Rugby AU seasons represent a unique opportunity to compare team performance for a “season” under one set of rules, and then take the same teams (albeit a subset) and see how they perform in a second “season” under a different set of rules. Thus, the questions we sought to answer were:
Was there a difference in the number of 50:22 kick attempts between the truncated 2020 Super Rugby season and the regular season of the 2020 Super Rugby AU competition?
Did the implementation of the 50:22 kick achieve its objective of creating space by forcing defenders to drop out of the defensive line?
In order to answer this question, we looked at all the “out of hand” kicks made in both competitions. After 7 rounds of the SR competition, there were 1888 kicks made - of which 133 kicks were classified as 50:22 attempts. By comparison, after 10 rounds, the SRAU competition had 948 kicks resulting in 91 kicks classified as 50:22 attempts. Please bear in mind that prior to the implementation of the 50:22 kick trial, the motivation for teams in Super Rugby to attempt a 50:22-like kick was based strictly on the gain in territory – they were not awarded an attacking lineout in the red zone. Thus, the motivation to attempt the 50:22 kick in SR may not have been as great as it was for SRAU. In the absence of reading the minds of all players we cannot truly know whether or not a 50:22 kick was attempted, but for the sake of this analysis, we will infer intent based on where the kick was initiated and where the kick landed.
A 50:22 kick attempt was defined as all out of hand kicks which:
Originated in a team’s own half
Landed within the opposition 22m between the 15m and touch lines
Kicks in play as well as kicks to touch (both direct and indirect) were included
Penalty kicks for touch were excluded
The average number of 50:22 kick attempts per game between the 2 competitions are summarized in Figure 1. From this figure we can determine that SRAU attempted more 50:22 kicks per game compared to SR and this difference is statistically significant. The orange error bars represent the standard error of the mean which in layman’s terms represents the uncertainty of our calculated average values for both competitions. Thus, since the error bars don’t overlap, we can say that the two means are statistically different.
FIGURE 1: Comparison of the average number of 50:22 kicks attempted per game in the 2020 Super Rugby and 2020 Super Rugby AU competitions.
So SRAU teams attempted more 50:22 kicks compared to SR teams, but were they more successful at executing 50:22 kicks? A comparison of the 50:22 kick success rates between the two competitions indicates that SRAU teams were less successful at making these kicks compared to SR teams and that this difference is statistically significant (Figure 2).
FIGURE 2: Comparison of the success rates of 50:22 kicks between the 2020 Super Rugby and 2020 Super Rugby AU competitions.
Given the tactical advantage of successfully executing the 50:22 kick, why did the SRAU teams struggle? Well, first of all, executing a 50:22 kick is actually pretty difficult. Consider the scenario of attempting a 50:22 kick at the 50m line from the centre of the pitch – a successful kick would entail a player being able to place a ball 44-60 metres through a 12 metre opening (Figure 3). In addition, most kick attempts will likely be from even further away since the previous phase needs to occur in a team’s own half and the ball will need to be passed back to the kicker. Now you add the fact that the player is in motion against a pressing defence with a back-3 player typically guarding against the kick and you get a better idea of the degree of difficulty in successfully executing the kick. Given that the trial was conducted for only 10 rounds of competition, it is also likely that teams are still trying to figure out how to best incorporate the 50:22 kick into their game plan and that with more games the success rates could potentially improve.
Another potential explanation for the lack of success for the 50:22 kick in SRAU is that teams are actively dropping players out of the defensive line and defending the 50:22 kick. This would be the desired effect that World Rugby would like to see with this trial as this would create more space for the opposition to attack. But is this what actually happened? Unfortunately we don’t have access to the wide angle game videos so cannot visually confirm that teams were dropping players out of the line. However, watching videos obtained from television feeds did provide some evidence that teams were defending with a traditional back-3 pendulum.
FIGURE 3: The geometry of executing a 50:22 kick from the 50 metre line and the centre of the pitch (34 metres from the touch line).
The creation of attacking space in the defensive line can also be implied in the data. An analysis of the total carry metres for all possessions which originated in a team’s own half should provide indirect evidence as to whether or not more space was created. If more space was created, you would expect total carry metres to increase as teams would be more inclined to carry out of their own half rather than kick. A comparison of the carry metres per game for both competitions demonstrated that there was no statistical difference between the SR and SRAU competitions (Figure 4). Thus, this result suggests that either extra space was not created by the 50:22 kick, or space was created and SRAU teams were not able to exploit it.
FIGURE 4: Comparison of the average carry metres per game for all possessions originating in a team's own half for the 2020 Super Rugby and 2020 Super Rugby AU competitions.
Based on our analysis of the existing data, we can make the following conclusions of the 50:22 kick law trial in the Super Rugby AU competition:
A successful 50:22 kick is worth 1.9 EP in SRAU.
SRAU attempted more 50:22 kicks per game compared to SR.
SRAU was less successful in executing 50:22 kicks compared to SR.
There was no statistical difference between SRAU and SR in carry meters per game for all possessions originating in a team’s own half.
These conclusions imply that SRAU teams were not proficient enough at executing the 50:22 kick to force defending teams to drop extra defenders out of the defensive line. Thus, it appears that the law amendment proposal by World Rugby may not have achieved its desired effect. Does this mean that 50:22 kick should be abandoned? Should Super Rugby AU keep the trial going in order to obtain more data before making a decision? Are there any other interventions that could achieve the desired effect?
The 50:22 trial was also supposed to be trialed in other competitions in 2020 such as the Americas Rugby Championship as well as the Varsity Cup in South Africa. Do you think the 50:22 kick is here to stay?