A contest for possession?

This post was originally published on rugbyreloaded.com on 6 May 2010.

Former Scotland rugby union coach Jim Telfer's grumpy dismissal of last week's Murrayfield Magic contained one of the classic myths of rugby union:

Some aspects of rugby league are worth noting such as good passing, angles of running and organised defences but rugby union has far more variety especially in the contesting of possession such as scrums, lineouts and ruck and maul.

Of course, if you don't think that the essence of rugby is passing the ball, running with the ball and tackling the player with the ball, then endless stoppages for the ball being kicked out of play or for set-pieces to formed possibly do offer an attractive form of 'variety'.

But, like beauty, rugby aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder. The real problem with Telfer's statement is that the 'contest for possession' in rugby union is essentially a myth.

This is confirmed by a 2005 statistical study - 'Changes in the Playing of International Rugby over a Twenty Year Period' - that compares union international matches played between 1982-4 with those in 2002-4. The report demonstrated that in the 2000s:

  • 13 out of 14 times the side in possession retained the ball at the breakdown.
  • 9 times out of 10 the side in possession retained the ball at the scrum. 
  • 8 times out of 10 the side in possession retained the ball at the line-out.

The report's authors conclude that 'the contest for possession is largely predictable if not almost wholly guaranteed' [my emphasis].

It also finds that the 'contest for possession' didn't amount to a huge amount in the 1980s either. Then, the side in possession retained the ball at 88% of scrums, 83% of breakdowns and 58% of line-outs.

Ironically, the report found that in the 1980s, sides with the ball turned it over on average once every six breakdowns - pretty much in line with league's turnover after every six tackles! But in the 2000s, the ball was turned over only once in twenty-three breakdowns, suggesting that possession is more evenly distributed in 'one-dimensional' league than in 'ball-contesting' union.

Typical rugby league propaganda, you might conclude. And indeed it does confirm league criticisms of union rules. So who was the author of this report?

None other than the International Rugby Board.