Are Boks really the form team?
WORLD CUP SPOTLIGHT: This World Cup is shaping up to be the closest ever, with no team emerging as a clear favourite.
There is no more a straightforward sign of this than how the No1 spot in the world rankings changed hands three times in a month.
With that in mind, any area of the game where one team can get an edge over the other becomes all the more important.
Traditionally, one thing that has proven to be crucial in splitting fairly even teams is their experience, with the team with the most caps often coming out on top. However, when looking at the form teams in the game currently, that trend may be bucked this year.
Although Ireland may nominally be the best team in the world in terms of rankings, it is hard to convincingly argue that they are the form team currently. They have beaten Wales in successive weeks, but they were hammered by England at Twickenham and were comprehensively beaten by both teams in the Six Nations this year.
Purely looking at results in 2019, South Africa must be seen as the current form team having drawn with the All Blacks in New Zealand and having won the Rugby Championship. But they have the least caps in their squad out of the top six teams, averaging 34 caps overall (with 41 in the forwards and 26 in the backs).
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The two form teams in the Northern Hemisphere this year are probably Grand Slam winners Wales and England, but they both average 35 caps, which is the second-fewest out of the top six.
Meanwhile, the weakest team in the top six – Australia – are quite considerably the most capped, averaging 45 caps per player. What’s more incredible is that they average 50 caps in the backs, which includes the uncapped Jordan Petaia in their World Cup squad. Likewise, Ireland is the most capped team in the northern hemisphere, averaging 37 caps.
This raises an age-old issue in sport regarding the selection of players based on form or experience. Australia has clearly opted for the latter, much to the dismay to some of their fans, particularly as the 118-cap, 35-year-old Adam Ashley-Cooper was selected ahead of four-cap Tom Banks despite the Brumbies fullback being one of the form players in Super Rugby this year.
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Ireland may also be suffering a similar problem and while they may not have necessarily overlooked some form players, their experienced ones are being questioned. Their 120-cap captain Rory Best has been under huge scrutiny this year, as Ireland’s line-out has been well below par.
With the halfback pairing of the 74-cap Conor Murray and the 84-cap Jonathan Sexton put under a lot of pressure in the Six Nations as well, it is clear that Ireland’s troubles may be a result of their more experienced players underperforming.
It was inconceivable that Joe Schmidt would have dropped any of these players, but with Best now aged 37 and Sexton 34, they are no longer in the prime of their careers which makes the number of caps slightly deceiving.
On the other hand, with the decision to select the uncapped trio of Jack Singleton, Lewis Ludlam and Willi Heinz at the beginning of the summer, Eddie Jones clearly prioritised form over experience in some areas.
Jones opted to omit Dylan Hartley (although he had an ongoing knee injury), Chris Robshaw and Danny Care for the uncapped three, spurning a potential 246 caps for zero – and the Harlequins duo certainly did not have bad seasons domestically.
This choice by the Australian may be an indication of the strength in depth of the England team, as Schmidt may not have had the luxury of having so many players at his disposal, but it nonetheless shows Jones’ approach.
Ireland coach Schmidt did make a similar choice with the selection of the three-cap Jean Kleyn over veteran Devin Toner and subsequently faced a torrent of criticism.
It is hard to determine which is the correct option until looking back retrospectively on the World Cup. While some veterans may be out of form, their experience helps them return to their potential.
All players suffer slumps throughout their careers and returning to their peak is part of the maturing process. Ireland’s Best may have received some flak, but no one doubts his class. Then again, in such a short period of time, it can be a risk to take struggling players to a World Cup.
Of all teams, the All Blacks may have struck a good balance between form and experience. They are the second-most experienced team in the top six, despite overlooking 108-cap Owen Franks. Equally, Steve Hansen did not select the in-form Ngani Laumape, who only has 15 caps.
However, it has also been said this season that some of their more experienced players are now a step behind what they used to be in their younger years.
In the past year, their experience shone through at Twickenham when they fought back after an early onslaught from England. However, they failed to do the same a week later against a slightly more experienced Ireland team in Dublin.
Of course, stats can also be misleading. While the Springboks have the least experienced team in the top six, only New Zealand average more caps in the pack. South Africa is a pack-orientated team, so this experience in the forwards may be noticeable in Japan.
What is also apparent is that seventh-placed Scotland average 30 caps overall, which is quite a bit lower than any other team above them. This could prove telling in the World Cup, particularly in a group with Ireland. Although the least-capped teams tend to be the form ones currently, there may be a tipping point.
There is now little more than a week remaining before these questions will start to be answered regarding the balance between form and experience. While caps have always been a priority in Test rugby, the build-up to this World Cup has shown that they can be misleading.
RWC 2019’S MOST EXPERIENCED SQUADS
1. Australia – 1,405 caps (forwards 705, backs 700);
2. New Zealand – 1,213 (forwards 706, backs 507);
3. Ireland – 1,139 (forwards 630, backs 509);
4. Wales – 1,090 (forwards 562, backs 528);
5. England – 1,074 (forwards 584, backs 490);
6. South Africa – 1,053 (forwards 691, backs: 362);
7. Scotland – 923 (forwards 489, backs 434).
- Averages are rounded to the nearest whole number
By Josh Raisey, RugbyPass