Six Nations, six charts, six paragraphs
Welcome to the second edition of Plot the Ball for 2023.
The 2023 men’s Six Nations starts on Saturday. Here are six charts and six paragraphs — one of each for each competing nation — to set the scene.
Averages presented are calculated on a 30-game rolling basis; for instance, the current figures quoted for each side are the average number of points scored and conceded over their last 30 games against Tier 1 opponents.
Six Nations, six charts, six paragraphs
France are the defending champions, and have the best attack of any team in the tournament: they have averaged 28.2 points scored per game in their last 30 games. Having oscillated between above- and below-average3 levels of performance for much of the professional era, their trajectory since the last World Cup in 2019 has been one of unambiguous improvement — in both attack and defence.
Ireland were last year’s runners-up, and have the best defence of any team in the tournament: they have averaged 18.6 points conceded per game in their last 30 games. They are the clearest success story of the professional era, having transitioned from a markedly below-average team to a markedly above-average one in the space of two decades.
England were last year’s third-place team — and have subsequently sacked their former head coach, Eddie Jones. They remain an above-average team, but have been in decline since the last World Cup and are back around the level at which they started Jones’ tenure in 2016: in the 30 games prior to his appointment, they outscored opponents by 24.5 points to 19.3 on average.
Scotland finished fourth a year ago. Not unlike Ireland, they have transitioned away from the markedly below-average level of performance at which they began the professional era — but, unlike Ireland, they have not been able to cement themselves as an above-average team. Their major improvement has been in attack, with their per-game scoring average peaking just below 25 points in early 2019.
Wales finished fifth in 2022 — and, like England, have subsequently sacked their head coach. Warren Gatland has been reappointed, and will hope to rectify a defence that has deteriorated since the end of his first stint in charge in 2019. In the professional era, it is that side of the ball which has dictated their success; their attack has remained stable around its current level for several years.
Correction: The chart originally published below erroneously included a postponed match which was scheduled to take place at the Rugby World Cup in 2019 as a 0-0 draw; this data and all graphics have subsequently been corrected4.
Italy finished in last place last year, despite defeating Wales for their first win in the championship since 2015. And, as the professional era progresses, their (relatively) successful period between the 2007 and 2015 World Cups looks more and more like an anomaly. Their current defence is nothing remarkable by their standards, but their attack has rarely (if ever) been this bad.
You can find the code for this piece on GitHub here
I have defined ‘Tier 1’ in the traditional sense: the six Northern Hemisphere countries which compete annually in the Six Nations, and the four Southern Hemisphere countries which compete annually in the Rugby Championship. While Japan’s apparent ascension to Tier 1 status has been reported, and some outlets (such as StatsPerform) treat them as such, I can find no official confirmation — it’s not mentioned on the JRFU’s website, for instance — and they are referred to as “a tier two team” in a World Rugby statistical report published less than 12 months ago.
Data from prior to 1996 has been backfilled as necessary in order to calculate each team’s rolling averages over their first 29 games post-1996.
‘Above-average’ and ‘below-average’ are used throughout to refer to periods when teams score more points than they concede, and vice versa.
Prior to this correction, Italy’s per-game averages over their last 30 games to the end of 2022 were as follows: 11.6 points scored, and 38.1 points conceded.