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Newsflash! Fiji are still the masters of the offload.
While Fiji have stayed true to their DNA in keeping the ball alive at every opportunity in the early rounds of the men’s and women’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2023, statistical analysis of the season so far reveals some insights that might not ordinarily be apparent to fans.
World Rugby’s game analysts have poured over the data from the three men’s and two women’s tournaments to date and come to the conclusion that this Series is not only shaping up to be the most competitive yet but also one where kicking and restarts have become increasingly crucial to the outcome of games.
Eight different teams have medalled across the first three men’s tournaments in Hong Kong, Dubai and Cape Town with three different gold medal winners, three different silver medal winners and three different bronze medal winners.
Only New Zealand have medalled twice, while Cape Town winners Samoa, South Africa and the USA have made the semi-finals twice.
While Australia and New Zealand have dominated the start of the women’s Series, the occurrence of close encounters where teams are separated by one score or less, is on the up, as is also the case in the men’s.
With more and more teams capable of beating each other on their day, there has been a five per cent increase in the number of women’s matches settled by seven points or fewer (34 per cent compared to 29 in the 2022 Series).
The average winning margin has come down by a couple of points too, to 15.7.
In the men’s competition, 39 per cent of matches can be classed as ‘cliffhangers’ – up four per cent from the previous Series.
With matches so tight, taking the points on offer has become much more of a ‘thing’. Already this season five penalty goals have been kicked, which is one more than last season in its entirety.
Kicking to compete
One constant in sevens is that possession is key. You cannot score without the ball and retaining it, or winning it back, is a massive part of the game.
Restarts are like a third set-piece in sevens and more than three-quarters of restarts on the men’s Series have been short/contestable (77 per cent) compared to 66 per cent on the women’s.
Similar to defence in general play, many teams are lining up with seven players in the frontline, to enable them to better defend a contestable restart. This is a risk-reward ploy though because by positioning players in such a way, it leaves the back field open.
As with all rugby tactics, an element of surprise keeps the defence guessing and it is the same with restart kicks.
While the majority go long, defending women’s Series champions Australia and 2021 men’s champions South Africa like to mix things up, kicking long and keeping the opposition pinned down inside their own 22 with a well-organised kick-chase and defensive line.
Stopping the opposition scoring is one thing but sevens remains a game of thrills and spills and attacking rugby, whether the ball goes through the hands or a player gets on the end of a well-executed kick.
With defences becoming more organised and often defending as a line across the pitch without a sweeper in place, teams are having to be even more inventive in how they make line breaks and score tries.
Offloading in contact, or attacking kicks in behind the line, are becoming more common and the stats from this season show that.
Unsurprisingly, Fiji lead the way in the former with 54 per cent of their women’s tries coming by way of an offload and 46 per cent of the men’s. France’s men are bringing plenty of flair to the Series, too, with offloads accounting for 44 per cent of their tries.
Current joint leaders Samoa (12 per cent) and South Africa (15 per cent) know all about the value of attacking kicks in terms of creating tries in the men’s Series, while Fiji and Ireland are the most successful in this respect in the women’s competition with 10 per cent.
With the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2023 set to resume in Hamilton on 21 January, it will be fascinating to see whether any new tactics have been adopted over the Christmas break.