What Makes a Champion? Comparing the Winners Across the Top Four Leagues 2021-22
With the dust now long settled on another domestic season and certain players finally winding down from their mammoth celebrations, the attention of the rugby world now turns to the Summer International Tours.
But before it gets lost in the noise, there’s a chance to look back over the success of some of 2021-22’s Champions and celebrate what helped Leicester, Montpellier, Stormers and Crusaders stand tall over their challengers.
The quartet all had to navigate playoffs to eventually secure their respective trophies: Gallagher Premiership, Top 14, United Rugby Championship, Super Rugby Pacific, with only Leicester finishing top during their regular season run.
Each of the leagues exhibits a varying style of play, with the four champions excelling in different areas and applying their own blueprint to achieving success.
As an example, Leicester won by far the most scrum penalties in the Premiership, Montpellier achieved the best tackle success in the Top 14, Stormers made the most clean breaks and beat the most defenders in the United Rugby Championship and Crusaders racked up the most metres in Super Rugby. But what, if anything did they all have in common?
Winning the Kicking Battle
Ah, kicking. The rugby equivalent to marmite.
Much maligned by those who crave endless swashbuckling attacks and all-action displays. Generally appreciated by those with an understanding of its importance in gaining field position and applying pressure.
What all four aforementioned teams have in common is that they kicked more often, and generally more accurately, than all of their domestic competitors, in some cases by a huge margin.
Leicester led the way in any sort of kicking metric across the Gallagher Premiership you can think of: kicking metres, long kicks, short kicks, finishing streets ahead of the second placed team in each of those categories whether by total across the season or on an average per match.
Whilst the Crusaders either topped or ranked in the top three for the same statistics over in Super Rugby, Montpellier and the Stormers heavily focused on a specific length of kick.
Both still outkicked the rest of their divisions in terms of total kicks, but Montpellier were 13th for the average number of long kicks in the Top 14 yet top for short kicks, whilst Stormers were first for the average number of long kicks in the URC yet 11th for short kicks.
The two teams showed there is more than one way to successfully utilise the kicking game.
It’s all well and good to look at the quantity of kicks, but what about the quality? The ultimate aim of kicking is to create opportunities to win the ball back in advanced areas.
One way of measuring this is by looking at the number of kicks retained by each team, i.e., kicks that were either regathered or caused the opposition to concede a turnover.
Unsurprisingly these champions again excel in this area, underlining the importance of kicking not only often, but also accurately.
Montpellier retained 124 kicks across the season, the most of any team across all four leagues, with their total of 16.1% kicks retained the highest in the Top 14. That’s perhaps the greatest indicator of why they chose to employ a shorter, more contestable kicking game.
Leicester’s % of kicks retained was down to 12.7%, which was only seventh-best in the Gallagher Premiership, owing to the sheer number of kicks they made, but their total number of kicks retained at 118 was comfortably highest, suggesting they were more prepared to endure bouts of kick tennis before finding a breakthrough.
Stormers ranked third in the URC for total kicks retained with 78 for a retention rate of 15.0% which was fourth best, the lower total reflecting their penchant for looking to release their backs. Crusaders had the highest number of retained kicks in Super Rugby at 57 and the third highest retention rate with 13.3%, playing fewer than the other three winners and showcasing a desire to eat up metres with ball in hand.
Varying styles, but similar strengths. Win the kicking battle, (generally) win the game.
Defending Their Lines
As the old adage goes, defence wins championships,
Despite Harlequins proving last season that it is possible to simply try and outscore every opponent on the way to a title, more often than not a team won’t find ultimate success without a rock-solid defence, and this has been proved by the title winners across this latest season.
Both Leicester and Crusaders conceded the fewest points in their divisions, with Stormers and Montpellier ranking third and fourth in their respective leagues, but let’s dig a little deeper than that.
By looking at the number of 22 entries made by their opponents on average per match and the average number of points conceded in each of these games, it shows how miserly each defence was in coughing up points and good territory to their opponents.
Leicester allowed the fewest entries into their 22 and the fewest points per entry of any team in this season’s Premiership, whilst the Stormers were second best in both categories across the URC.
Four teams allowed fewer entries into their 22 than the Crusaders in Super Rugby yet they still conceded the fewest points per entry, whilst Montpellier were only seventh best in terms of 22 entries by their opponents in the Top 14 but third best in terms of average points conceded per entry.
Ultimately the best teams allowed their opponents fewer chances at scoring and defended their lines more staunchly than almost anybody else.
The final area to assess is the discipline of each of the four champions. Essentially a look at how many penalties they concede and whether they give away fewer than their opponents.
Each of Leicester, Montpellier, Stormers and Crusaders are fairly middling within their respective leagues when looking at the raw number of penalties they conceded throughout the year both on average and as a total for the season.
However, looking at the penalty differential – the difference between how many penalties they were awarded (conceded by their opponents) and how many they conceded themselves – provides a clearer picture of how they stacked up against their competitors. All four champions recorded a positive figure on this metric.
Leicester were awarded more penalties than any other team in the Premiership with 338, conceding 292 for a penalty differential of +46 which was second best in the league.
Montpellier managed a differential of +35 which was third best in the Top 14, whilst in the URC Stormers ended up +22 which was bettered by just three of their rivals.
Crusaders are the slight outlier in this category owing largely to the number of penalties they conceded across the season.
They were awarded the third-most penalties in Super Rugby with 172 but conceded 167 for a differential of just +5. That’s in large part because they gave away the most offside penalties of any team in their league, showing that they weren’t afraid to live on, and often over, the edge in terms of line speed and shutting down their opponents.
There are of course many more facets to succeeding in rugby than kicking well, allowing as few opportunities as possible for your opponents and conceding fewer penalties than your opponents, but as can be seen from the success of Leicester, Montpellier, Stormers and Crusaders, performing well in those key areas is something winners tend to have in common.
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