Winning the numbers game
March 30, 2010
Dan Parks slotted the winning penalty at Croke Park © Getty Images
It was the great man Albert Einstein who stated the following: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts." It was his plea for us not to bask in numbers, to not rely upon statistics which are soft and pliable, open to interpretation, able to mean whatever a true artist wants them to mean.
Well, what did Einstein know about rugby? Let's look at the Scottish game in numbers.
Spring has brought rain, hail, snow and the sort of wind that would put Mary Poppins into orbit but still the mood within Scottish rugby's ranks is remarkably upbeat for a country that won just one Six Nations match for the fourth season in succession. That is the first number of them all, four seasons, one win each time, scant reward for players, fans and coaches alike.
At least the victory came against the reigning champions Ireland rather than the Italian whipping boys, or so we console ourselves, and there was that draw against England at Murrayfield to take into consideration, when Dan Parks hit the post twice, which makes this season exactly 50% better than the last three (I told you numbers could mean anything) and never mind that it was the worst England team to appear at Murrayfield in over 20 years.
Here are a few more numbers. According to the official stats Scotland lost just one scrum all tournament (England lost three) and Andy Robinson's men boasted the best lineout by far, losing just three throws all series when the next best teams (England and Ireland) lost ten each. Scotland also topped the tackle completion percentages at 93% and only Ireland missed fewer tackles that the Scots, one fewer to be exact.
The Scots also made 75% of their kicks at goal, which was in the middle of the stats, but then the peerless marksman that is Chris Paterson sat out most of this tournament while his damaged kidney recovered. Astonishingly, Parks is the second-choice kicker, which you would not have thought as he struck that nerveless touchline penalty in Dublin. Truly there is more than one type of courage and if he lacks one sort, the Aussie fly-half makes up for it with oodles of the other.
What we are left with at the end of the statistics is a Scotland side that have taken the first step on the road to recovery, they are now difficult to beat because even France only managed to win by a nine point margin. It is the easiest step to make for a Test team but absolutely vital all the same; without tightening up the defence nothing else can follow.
The Scots conceded eight tries, they boast an excellent set-piece pack and a breakaway trio that is the equal of anything in Europe. Add into the mix a kicking fly-half who ensures that his side play in the right parts of the field and suddenly you have many of the ingredients for a successful World Cup campaign. Remember the Springboks won France '07 because they boasted a big set piece pack, a dynamic back-row and a kicking fly-half in Butch James. I am not suggesting that Scotland will win the World Cup, just that they are better placed than some believe.
Admittedly the Scots will need to magic up some tries from somewhere, especially from the backs. Three in five matches is nothing to boast about and two of them came from forwards John Barclay and Johnnie Beattie, but Robinson was missing first choice strike runners like Paterson, Thom Evans and Rory Lamont from the second match onwards.
The coach needs to settle on his midfield, inside-centre Graeme Morrison was probably the most improved player in the entire Championship, and then play them all the way to New Zealand. His biggest headache is over the No.13 shirt. Max Evans, Ben Cairns and even Jim Thompson could yet come into consideration but, with the World Cup in the back of everyone's mind, Nick De Luca is the better defender and probably the favourite at this stage of proceedings.
But before we get carried away with the idea of numbers backing a renaissance in Scottish rugby let's finish with one last set of figures. On the Thursday evening ahead of the final round of Six Nations matches, Leinster hosted Glasgow at Dublin's RDS in what was effectively a second team fixture.
The match attracted 11,840 paying punters through the turnstiles. Eight days later Edinburgh hosted the Scarlets at Edinburgh. Rob Moffat's team are going well, they scored five tries against the Ospreys last time out and they are fighting for a play-off place. The match was watched by just 2,762 fans and even those numbers were boosted by a small crew from West Wales who had made the long trek.
The inability of professional rugby to capture the imagination in a city that has always been considered a "rugby town" is far more problematic to the long-term health of the game in Scotland than the number of tries scored or tackles made.
Iain Morrison is the rugby correspondent for The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday newspapers