Welcome back to Breaking It Down, The Analyst series that goes beneath the surface of some (seemingly) simple rugby metrics, and proves that even the most basic data point can tell a variety of stories.

Our first two instalments of this series looked at the humble offload and the importance of rucking data. This time, we’re building up a full head of steam and charging headlong into carries.

Carries is perhaps the most basic metric in rugby, but it still remains one of the most important. But while utilising total carries on its own can indicate who the most possession-heavy teams are, or who a team’s go-to man is, at the aggregate level it doesn’t help us assess the type of carry or its impact. For example, Exeter Chiefs averaged the most carries per game in the big four leagues last season (Premiership, TOP 14, United Rugby Championship, Super Rugby Pacific) while Zach Mercer made the most carries per 80 minutes of any player.

But what about the type and quality of these carries?

Carry totals by type 2021-22 big four leagues
Percentage of team carry totals 2021-22

Breaking down the different types of carries it’s perhaps no surprise to see Exeter Chiefs topping the charts for three different carry types – pick and go, one out drives and other carries – given they made more carries overall than any other team last season.

However, these carry types can also be viewed as a percentage of total carries, which can give us a flavour of the carrying profile of teams. For example, compared to the average team in the big four leagues, Bristol Bears make fewer one out drives than the average team, likely preferring to use tip on passes or getting the ball wide earlier, while also making more support carries – ‘a carry where the player has supported a previous ball carrier on the same phase of play, for example receiving the ball from an offload or following an initial break’.

Bristol Bears vs League average for carry %

In terms of the top players, Tyrone Green (Harlequins) was the king of the kick return, making 120 last season, while Castres’ Tom Staniforth made the hard yards by topping the charts for both one out drives (208) and pick and go carries (96). Billy Vunipola returned the most restart kicks (42), while another Premiership player, Alex Mitchell of Northampton proved himself as a top trail runner by making the most support carries (23). For all ‘other’ carries, André Esterhuizen was the go-to man, making 124 carries that didn’t fall into any of the previous categories!

We’ve covered different types of carries, but what about their impact? Many rugby fans will be familiar with the concept of gainline success. Opta record whether a player was tackled before, on, or after the gainline, with gainline success % being the latter of these as a percentage of total gainline carries.

Gainline Success big four leagues top 10

Looking at the teams in the big four leagues last season, the top 10 teams for gainline success were dominated by Super Rugby sides, with the Blues topping the charts. In fact, the only non-Super Rugby side to make it into the top 10 was Leinster, who were the top team in any of the European leagues. There is more European representation when looking at specific players, however. We’ve broken the top performers down into the top five backs and forwards, as it’s often ‘easier’ to make it across the gainline as a back, particularly for the outside backs where there’s more space available and players can sometimes make it over the gainline before facing any defenders. The Crusaders’ Leicester Fainga’anuku was the top performer in this category, just ahead of Northampton Saints’ Juarno Augustus who was the top ranking forward.

Gainline Success By Player - Forwards Only
Gainline Success By Player - Backs Only

However, gainline success doesn’t always tell the full story. As previously mentioned, players may get over the gainline before meeting any resistance, so looking at whether a carry was dominant can provide extra context on what happens when carrier meets tackler. Again, it’s Super Rugby that provides much of the top 10, with the Rebels top of the pile. In fact, the top 10 is dominated by the Southern Hemisphere, as the only representatives from any of the European-based leagues are the Sharks and the Lions, 50% of the URC’s South African contingent.

Dominant Carry % big four leagues 2021-22

Again, we see a little more variation when looking at the top players in this ranking. The exciting young Reds back rower Fraser McReight showing he has a strong ball-carrying ability to go with his jackal threat. It’s the backs who lead the way in this category once again though, Alivereti Raka topping the charts, one of two Clermont players in the top five backs.

Dominant Carry % split by player - forwards only
Dominant Carry % split by player - backs only

What about the teams and players who aren’t as dominant in the carry because they draw in multiple tacklers, which helps free up space in the wider channels? We also collect data on how many tacklers a ball carrier committed. It was the two newest Super Rugby franchises – Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika – who topped the charts for percentage of carries that committed at least two defenders, while Premiership champions Leicester Tigers were the top dogs (or should that be cats…?) when it came to committing three or more tacklers.

Carries that Commit 2+ Tacklers
Carries that Commit 3+ Tacklers

Looking at the players most adept at drawing in defenders, Worcester’s Kyle Hatherell committed two or more tacklers to almost three-quarters of his ball carries, his rate the best of any player in the big four leagues, while Stuart McCloskey showed why he’s so important to Ulster, topping the charts amongst the backs.

2+ tacklers committed with carry
2+ tacklers committed with carry (backs)

For such a simple data point, there are a multitude of ways we can look at a single ball carry. Totalling them up gives us a picture of which teams and players get their hands on the ball a lot, but we now know we can also assess what type of carry players make and what sort of impact it had, in terms of its dominance, gainline success and how many defenders it tied in.

Going beneath the surface gives us more context than ever before and helps us understand the value of carries for analysts, the media and fans alike.

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