Category Archives: Rugby Union

Aviva Premiership 2014-15 Preview Part Two: This Season

The last post looked at how tremendously mediocre (and that is being generous) last season’s predictions were. But in terms of assessing data for predictive purposes, one season does constitute a sufficient sample. Yes, I should have backtested the accuracy of at least the Pythagorean method to determine whether it is worthwhile, or what weighting it should be given, but – and here is the honesty – I forgot! I will try to do that during the season.

So for 2014-15 I have effectively repeated the process from last season, but with some amendments. Last season’s summary came at predicting a team within 2 places of its final position on average, but the variation was large at times, and in a league of only 12 teams it is hardly something to shout about. Nonetheless, let’s see what the components say.

Pythagorean

Unsurprisingly this reflects last season very closely, although the model does allow for Bath to pip Harlequins to 4th place. Given that this final play-off position was so close last season it is no real surprise. Mid table is still close, but rather worryingly Gloucester actually appear to have over-achieved last season, and now have a predicted points total of only 41 compared to the dismal 44 they had before. From a personal perspective, I am hoping that this will be countered by the dramatic changes in personnel at Kingsholm!

The bottom three provide a difficulty, as it is not possible to compare the data for the promoted London Welsh team. However, looking at last season’s data things don’t look good for Newcastle who ‘should’ have finished bottom on 19 points. The gap between them, Worcester (22 predicted) and London Irish (40 predicted) shows a clear gap, and no reason to assume that the relegation battle won’t be between Newcastle and London Welsh this year.

Bookmakers and Media

As before, these represent a combination of ‘market’ and ‘expert’ opinion. Creating a bookmaker summary leads to a top four of Saracens, Leicester, Northampton and Bath, which is the same teams as the media, but the press appear to favour a Northampton repeat. All predict the same bottom three of London Irish, London Welsh and Newcastle, with the latter two some way off the pace, but the media ‘favour’ Newcastle to finish bottom whilst the bookies have London Welsh sharing that dubious honour.

Gut Call

Of course, the gut call can’t differ dramatically from the other analysis above. However, in addition to Northampton, Saracens and Leicester I favour Harlequins (actually I placed them third, above Leicester). Two underperforming seasons are likely to see a fightback from that team. I actually placed Northampton at the top of the table; their performance in the final last year (which I was fortunate enough to see first hand) was excellent, and they just seem to have that little bit more in the tank.

Mid-table will be mid-table. My admitted personal bias sees a great improvement in Gloucester, heading up to fifth, whilst I feel that Bath’s results last season were more of an exception than a rule. The bottom three remain the same, with London Irish someway clear in 10th, but I am giving Newcastle the benefit of the doubt in terms of experience in the Premiership, and the difficulty London Welsh might experience in integrating all the player changes. But this will not be the case if Newcastle can’t score more tries – their total of 23 last season was dreadful, and scoring only 281 points was the worst in a decade.

Summary

So how was the data used? In this case, for the Pythagorean approach, the press and the gut call a simple points value was applied to the predicted final position; that is 1st place ‘scored’ 12 points, 2nd place 11 points etc. down to 1 place for 12th place. The exception to this rule was the ‘bookie’ predictions, whose scores were weighted to account for their increased accuracy last season (increased by 33%). Each team’s total score was then totaled, with higher scores better (range of 51.96 down to 4.33).

201415 RU Table

This would appear to indicate a safe bet for the top three, but this time Bath just edge out ‘Quins for the last play off position. And by ‘just’ I mean ‘just’, although my prediction of a good ‘Quins season may have distorted it. Although Gloucester should do better, it won’t be enough (yet) to break into post season action. The bottom two appear clearly adrift, but really too close to call.

Time will tell, but I will be surprised if any team is as far out as Gloucester was last season!

Next on the list is match betting (or match predictions if you prefer). I did try an Elo system for the football last season, but was overwhelmed by the maintenance. Perhaps with 12 teams (rather than 20) it might be easier to manage – at least until I work out how to automate the whole thing!

 

Aviva Premiership 2014-15 Preview Part One: Last Season Assessment

Before the last season started I made a prediction of how the final regular season table would look. This post will revisit that to see how well things panned out.

First of all, a look at the predicted table compared to the final table. Note that the difference relates to the final position achieved by the team in the predicted table. And yes, it could have been laid out better.

2013_14 Rugby Tables

With the average being 1.83 places off where predicted, I can hardly call this a success. In fact, the sum of the positional differences for each method were:

  • Pythagorean – 24
  • Bookies – 16
  • Press – 22
  • Gut Call – 24
  • Overall – 22

But that belies some important considerations. The summary table did predict the play-off contenders correctly, which only the Bookies did in isolation. Similarly the bottom three were correctly identified, although that will be of scant consolation to fans of Worcester as they effectively swapped with London Irish. The mid-table is where the damage was really done, as no model predicted the calamitous season that Gloucester endured, whilst others such as Exeter, Bath and Sale all exceeded or failed to meet expectations.

What conclusions can come from this quick review? Well, not many unfortunately. This is my first attempt at applying various models to the Premiership, and there is a long way to go. It appears that for 2014-15 a degree of weighting (to favour the Bookies assessment) would be the best option, but this is something of a dark art for me and I am unsure as to how I should apply it. Comparing their success rate with the others, increasing their weight by 33% would appear to be logical – although applying that might be interesting.

Similarly even at the outset some elements looked wrong. I would like to claim great foresight when I said that I felt Worcester’s predicted 10th place was too generous, but that would be to ignore the other ‘feeling’ I had that Gloucester’s predicted 5th was too low – how wrong I was!

So for the next post we’ll repeat the process carried out before last season, but with a slight amendment to cater for Bookie weighting (if I can work it out). I am hoping to pay more attention to the season as it is underway, and in particular I am looking to identify any ‘rules’ that might offer an edge in match betting – calculating the home advantage figure might help.

2014 Six Nations Review

So the 2014 6N has finished, with Ireland running out the Champions in a closely fought finish. It is worth having a look back over the tournament, both in general terms but also looking at the numbers.

The Review

The teams of 2014 naturally fell into three groups. The top two of Ireland and England were a cut above the rest. Both only lost once, and only narrowly at that. All elements of both teams seemed to perform well, from the forwards, through the playmakers to the backs. In offence and defence both teams showed a composure and ability that will serve them well. Neither team looked like the finished article; there was nothing there that would cause the Southern Hemisphere nations to start trembling in their boots, and whilst England will need to refine some elements (discipline and underutilised wingers) whilst Ireland will need to address personnel changes in losing BOD, both teams will see themselves on an upward path in preparation for next year’s RWC.

Wales and France formed the next band, and both teams will leave the 6N with more concerns than when they came in. Wales appear to be declining, but this may have been a glitch. The changes in squad members for the tour mean that it will be the Autumn before any real assessment can be made as to whether they just stumbled this year, or are falling. France remain the enigma of international rugby. Undoubtedly talented in terms of players, they just seem to self-destruct when things move against them. When taking the initiative from the start they are a threat to anyone, when falling behind at the start they can lose their way. The discipline of the players is often at a knife edge, and this year went across the line (although was managed well for the benefit of the sport).

As usual, Scotland and Italy provided the foundations for the table. Italy will feel hard done by with their wooden spoon, as they put in some good performances, at least until the last two matches. Scotland will point to their win, and their near win against France, but this masks a greater concern. The club game is clearly not able to support a quality international team, but my greatest issue was with the Murrayfield pitch. I appreciate that that is not something within the team’s control, and the usual caveat of both teams playing on the same surface applies, but at what point does a pitch become unacceptable for an international match?

So at the end of the tournament Ireland and England will no doubt sleep best. The performances were good, and are heading in the right direction. Wales and France will be concerned about their ability to put their talent onto the pitch, but they are clearly not bad teams. Scotland and Italy will be concerned, as the repeated presence of such a gulf between those two teams and the rest of the 6N will increase calls for a review of the competition in light of the European Nations Cup.

The Numbers

This was the first year that I looked at the numbers behind the performances in any detail. With limited experience in this, I kept things simple by looking at a few parameters (in addition to the obvious ones about the scores!). Tries and conversions, metres made, penalties conceded and possession were the elements reviewed to look for any patterns.

The issue with any analysis over such a small sample of games is that data can be skewed, especially in the late games that Ireland and England had against Italy. But just looking at the points average there is a clear gap between the top four (20 to 28 points per game) and Italy (12.6) and Scotland (9.4). If there was a target for those two, getting more points on the board would appear to be the main objective.

England made substantially more metres with the ball, nearly 100 more per game than second places Ireland. The fact that this only resulted in an average of one more point per game though would suggest that England can control the possession, but can’t exploit it for the points that are needed. In terms of possession alone, Ireland dominated with an average of 59% per game, but England slightly edged them in terms of points per 1% of possession with 0.51 to 0.45. Scotland’s 0.18 was a dreadful return on an average of 51% possession per game, and supports the idea that their issues lie in what Americans often call ‘the red zone’.

The penalties make for interesting reading. Ireland gave away the fewest with 36, whilst Italy, Scotland and Wales gave away the most. But cross referencing this with the number of points conceded through penalties gives a better indication as to the penalty impact on the final score, and in this case the average was from 6 points (Italy) to 7.2 (England, Scotland and Wales). But Ireland really stand out by losing only 4.2 points per game – that is 21 points to England’s 36 – enough points to determine the destination of the title! In a very simplistic fashion, Ireland’s discipline when under pressure secured them the title.

So the numbers didn’t seem to show anything particularly exceptional or revealing. Italy did better with less possession, Ireland’s discipline helped and England controlled the ball. But these are to be expected with the results, in other words they were not really causal factors in the performances. For the future, more ‘in game’ items that aren’t necessarily directly related to points should be looked at – in particular the scrummaging performances and line out success may give a better indication.

Title Decisions

Being an England supporter, naturally my first impression was that as England beat Ireland they should have won the title! But that led me to consider the impact of dividing teams based on head to head (H2H) record rather than points scored. There are two distinct interpretations:

  • If the teams are level on points then to split them the most logical decider is the match between the two – clearly the better of the two teams would have won
  • The H2H record will always favour the home team (as home and away doesn’t come into play), and this is a Championship of five games and all five games should be used as the decider

Looking back over the history of the 6N since Italy joined in 2000, there have been five times when the top teams shared the same number of points, and each time only two teams.

  • 2001: England beat Ireland +149 to +40, but lost the H2H (England away)
  • 2006: France beat Ireland +63 to +34, and won the H2H (France home)
  • 2007: France beat Ireland +69 to +65, and won the H2H (France away)
  • 2013: Wales beat England +56 to +13, and won the H2H (Wales home)
  • 2014: Ireland beat England +83 to +73, but lost the H2H (Ireland away)

This shows that 80% of the time the team topping the title in a tie also won the H2H. Of the other two times, the title winners who lost the H2H were playing away.

What this does show is that there is not a problem with the eventual 6N winners frequently having lost the H2H fixture. There is therefore no overwhelming case for a change, especially without both a home and away fixture. And this fits in with a more general assessment – the Championship is awarded to the best team over all matches, and to start introducing single match elements would overemphasise the importance of an individual match in such a tournament. It may be more appropriate for a tournament rather than a Championship, but any sudden claim for a change would be unfair.

Still, I had to look at it to see if my gut call after the disappointment of 2014 had any basis in fact. It didn’t!

Attention will now move to the tour matches (often tricky to assess), the Autumn Internationals and, naturally next year’s events. England and Ireland have every reason to be optimistic, Scotland and Italy less so – and would the real Wales and France please stand up?!

Six Nations Predictions – Round Five

So week four saw all three winners predicted. Not really a stretch there. Woefully underpredicted Ireland’s win over a poor second half Italy though, but England’s 11 point triumph was a lot closer to the 6-10 predicted. France’s 2 point win wasn’t quite 21-25, but I shouldn’t be surprised as this was the surly version that turned up rather than the talented and exciting French team that lurks somewhere. Recommended bets weren’t any better, with all three failing (who knew Wales would be so poor or that England would constantly give away penalties?!). With that in mind, onto the final round.

Saturday opens with England taking on Italy in Rome. England should be able to beat an Italian team that will probably be looking to draw a line under this year’s campaign which started promisingly, but has petered out. England also know that there chances of a 6N triumph are likely to rely on points – and 50 will be the minimum target in that case. Two things stand in the way; England’s inability to get it out to the wingers whilst they are in space and the somewhat traditional forward game. England are 23 point favourites, and I think that may be low, but they won’t break the 50 mark (especially as they are due their misfiring, poor game).

Wales face Scotland in the ‘let’s go out and do the shopping now’ game. At least it won’t be on that travesty of a pitch at Murrayfield. Seriously, how does an international organisation let things get that bad? Anyway, this one should be clear. Wales will want to exercise some demons, and Scotland will still be deflated after throwing away a chance to beat the miserable French last time out. Wales are 14 point favourites; again I’d think a wider margin is likely.

Finally the game it all hinges on, Ireland taking on France in Paris. Ireland know that a win will most likely win them the title (and will know for sure what is required by kick-off). That they will be utterly committed to that is without doubt. But this is France. This is the team that was quite good (but lucky with the mistakes by the opposition) against England, ok against Italy, utterly dreadful against Wales and poor against Scotland. What is missing from that list? It is the one spectacular display of Gallic flair and aggression that can sweep across almost any other team in the Northern Hemisphere on its day. Whether this France is capable of it is another matter, but there likely to be as many French players looking to ‘stick it’ to PSA as there are looking to raise their profile as a regular player. It should be a tough game for both teams, and I can see a single moment of brilliance from a winger deciding it. That said, France rely on those wingers (4/7 tries) whilst Ireland seem to be able to get over the try line with almost any position (albeit skewed by the Italy game). This really is going to be close to call (as indicated by the fact that Ireland are only 2 point favourites), but in my mind’s eye I can see Huget running 80 yards in the 80th minute to take the win and break Irish hearts.

So to summarise for the last time in this 6N competition:

  • Italy – England
    • Result: England to win by 36-40 at 10.00
    • Bet: As above
  • Wales – Scotland
    • Result: Wales to win by 21-25 at 7.00
    • Bet: Buy Wales supremacy at 16
  • France-Ireland
    • Result: France to win by 1-5 at 5.50
    • Bet: Ireland-France as the Double Result (Half time-Full time) at 8.00

Six Nations Predictions – Round Four

The last round was a bit of a bust. One winner correct, and all the bets way off. I didn’t expect France to pretty much fail to turn up against Wales, nor for England’s win to be so low scoring. The Italy-Scotland game was a bit closer, but there are no prizes for close (well, there can be in some betting, just not the one I predicted…).

Can round four be any better? I am not so sure; these games are likely to be very tight, as it will almost certainly rule out one potential team from the title, whilst Ireland and France need to put as many points on the board as possible in case it comes down to points difference.

Ireland take on Italy in the first match, and it is difficult to see anything other than a solid Irish win. But the spread is +24.0, and that might be a bit high. Ireland are only out-scoring Italy by just over six points per game, despite being the highest scorers in the 6N so far. Changes to both teams won’t help Italy, with the talismamic Parisse out, and Ireland’s notoriously tight defence won’t allow for many try scoring opportunities for a team that simply can’t rely on kicking points.

Scotland will be on a high after winning in Italy, and have the advantage of one of the worst pitches in international sport. But France will be highly motivated to make amends after a dreadful performance against Wales, including some unfortunate loss of discipline in a sport that rightly prides itself on the relationship between the players and officials. France also know that they need to win ‘big’ as their Italy match is behind them, and I think this will be too much for the Scots and their bog. France are 8 point favourites for the game, and this seems low to me when they average 11 more than Scotland in each game. A combination of the teams and the pitch might see a market favouring penalties work.

The ‘highlight’ game (no offence intended) will see Wales take on England at Twickenham with the loser effectively out of the 6N running. This has every chance of being an excellent game, despite the gutter dwelling, knuckle dragging element of the media trying to foster some concept of nationalistic hatred (clearly jobbing football writers marking time before the World Cup and some witty reference to Mussolini and coffee….). England are 4 point favourites, which seems about right to me. Home advantage will help, but their performances have generally been solid if not spectacular – only the first 15m in France costing them so dearly. I am still not convinced about a number of players (and admit I pay more attention to the English players – that’s bias for you!); Nowell has been no better than, say, Sharples who only got the one game, Farrell is not as consistent as one needs from a fly-half, the scrum looks vulnerable. But there are some excellent reasons to be confident with Brown arguably the player of the tournament thus far (happy to receive other nominations that I may well have omitted!). Wales present a solid attacking threat from all backs, have a solid scrum and will be bolstered by Davies’ return whilst England will be all the poorer for the lack of Billy Vunipola. This one is almost too close to call, but I’ll go for England simply out of personal bias!

So to summarise:

  • Ireland – Italy
    • Result: Ireland to win by 11-15 at 7.50
    • Bet: Italy +24.0 at 2.00
  • Scotland – France
    • Result: France to win by 21-25 at 10.00
    • Bet: Buy France on supremacy spread of 6-8
  • England – Wales
    • Result: England to win by 6-10 at 5.50
    • Bet: Under 36.5 points at 1.90

 

Six Nations Predictions – Round Three

The week off in the 6N always throws me. Combining that with a Friday night game is just plain unreasonable! The predictions for the last round were acceptable, if not spectacular. The worst was the Ireland-Wales match where a predicted win for Wales by 1-5 was thoroughly humiliated by an Irish win by 26-3. The implications of that match will be widespread; Wales, who didn’t look overly convincing beating the Italians, no longer appear as strong as they did before the tournament started, whilst Ireland now have a chance to prove that they can play away as well as at home.

England’s victory over Scotland by 20-0 (falling within the prediction) was no surprise, but the sheer atrocious nature of the Scottish performance was. I expected a 30-10 sort of win, but no points, no real danger of points and all on a pitch that was a disgrace to international sport. Yes, I know Scotland had problems with worms etc. But that pitch was not up to standard for international rugby, and the game should have been moved to England. The round four game at home to France should also be moved as combining a dreadful team and a dreadful pitch calls into question Scotland’s very presence in the Six Nations. As I have said for some time, the bottom 6N team should play the ‘holders’ of the European Nations Cup for the final 6N place (in a home and away play-off). Scotland would, I am sure, beat Georgia, but the Georgians deserve a chance to see how far off they are from the top table of international rugby, and shouldn’t be denied that chance due a historical glories.

France’s 30-10 victory over Italy was by a wider margin than predicted, but it was not the most commanding of performances. But what France have done is ensure that they made the most of their opening two home matches (as did Ireland), and they are still in with a chance.

As for this week, I had hoped for more data (or time to analyse data), but made a mess of that by forgetting about the Friday game. So the analysis will be more of the heart than of the head.

That pesky Friday game sees Wales host France in what will probably be the game of the weekend. Wales will certainly be determined to return to winning ways after the Ireland debacle, but that will be difficult with a number of injuries taking their toll and resulting in one of the best wingers in the world having to fill in as centre for the game. France’s injury woes have abated during the week off, but they will know that despite the two victories the team has not yet performed to the level it will probably need to for maximum points this evening. The lack of form, injuries, out of form players (even if dropped) and out of position players will, I fear, be too much for Wales in the face of a very solid French team – against almost any other 6N team the home advantage would be enough to compensate, but not this time. Add to that the penalty count thus far and it all just favours France. Bookmakers have Wales 2 point favourites, but that is effectively an even match up. I don’t see a margin such as that enjoyed (or suffered) by these two teams last time out, and maybe a match odds bet would be better. On that score, the match odds of 2.30 are better than the handicap odds of 2.00 – the spread is only 2 points which is less than a single score; the chances of France losing by 1 point are just too small.

Italy-Scotland is likely to be the battle for the Wooden Spoon, and for that reason alone it would be a vital game for both teams. Italy performed well with no real reward in their two opening games away from home, and history shows the Italians to be a difficult team to beat in Rome. Scotland desperately need a good performance at least (a win would be nice) after the lows of two weeks ago. Another capitulation could have dire consequences for the future of the very game in a country with effectively only two club teams. The form and home advantage will make the difference here; a closer game that Italy will win.

England at home to Ireland will be a crunching game, although it may not be pretty. Ireland may have 2 wins to England’s 1, but arguably the overall performances of England have been better (Ireland seemed very flat in their opening match against Scotland). England have dominated possession but haven’t turned that into points as effectively as Ireland, and the Irish are the 3 point kings of the 6N at the moment. Bookmakers have England as the 4 point favourites here, but I find it very difficult to call. There certainly isn’t enough difference to warrant a bet on fixed odds (as always, in-play the exchange markets are likely to offer far more opportunities).

Overall my previous ‘prediction’ (with 0 confidence) was Fra-Wal-Eng-Ire-Ita-Sco. I would have to change that to Fra-(Eng-Ire)-Wal-Ita-Sco, but England and Ireland are so close it is difficult to call; I am going with England in what I am sure is a demonstration of complete bias!

So to summarise:

  • Wales – France
    • Result: France to win (if pushed, by 6-10 which is odds of 7.00, but I wouldn’t back it)
    • Bet: France to win (no handicap) at 2.30
  • Italy – Scotland
    • Result: Italy to win by 11-15 at 7.50
    • Bet: Tie-Italy for the HT-FT market, at 17.00 just seems to call out in a game where 0-0 is quite possible after 40m
  • England-Ireland
    • Result: England to win (if pushed I would have to say by 1-5, but even at 5.00 it is too close to justify a tip)
    • Bet: Over 43 points at 2.70 on the 3-way total (alternative) at Bet365. Failing that, the simple 3-way total odds of 2.05 for Over 39 would do.

Six Nations Predictions – Round Two

A quick post this time as the week has got away from me and so no real analysis other than looking at the last set of matches. And they were a mixed bag. England almost snatched a win in France, but once again were shown up defensively. In fact, both teams seemed fairly evenly matched, and arguably England were more dominant throughout the ‘normal’ play, but made far too many mistakes. Of course, a thumping England win would have been secured if May hadn’t had his nose broken (is a Gloucester bias showing?). The impression I got was that either team could have won, and could even win the whole thing still. But not a Grand Slam – too much evidence of poor play for that.

Wales against Italy was meant to be a relatively easy start for the favourites, but Italy really gave them a game. It is difficult not to like Italy and their 100% effort in every game, and they certainly kept the Welsh honest. Italy aren’t going to win the title, but Wales have every chance. They kept their head and did what was required to secure the win, but whether this was a solid performance against an inspired Italy or a scrappy, lucky win against the Wooden Spoon contenders will be clearer after this weekend.

Ireland secured another uninspiring victory against Scotland. From a completely arbitrary viewpoint is seemed a very ‘flat’ match; is the Aviva really as soulless as it appeared. The overall (personal) impression was of an Ireland team that may have won, but didn’t look like title contenders, and a Scotland team that seems to be waiting another year for the ‘breakthrough’.

Ireland at home to Wales should be a real battle, and I imagine the Aviva will be louder this time. It is very tricky to pick a winner in this one, but my heart tells me that Wales will have enough to take the win, although it might only be by a penalty.

Scotland at home to England always sees the Scots raise their game. Perhaps if they had played with such passion and ferocity against other teams they wouldn’t be European Nations Cup candidates. But despite that level of ferocity, and the pitiful excuse of a pitch, I still think England will have enough to beat them. The early stages will be vital, but only to the extent of the eventual winning margin. A larger win for England here.

France at home to Italy should be straightforward, but recent history has shown that isn’t the case. France certainly looked good for a lot of the match against England, but not all of it, and Italy weren’t anyone’s fools. But I still think that France will be focused to make the most of the opportunity that the win against England gives them. A win by a couple of scores.

Overall I think we can be sure the Italy/Scotland game will determine the wooden spoon/bottom place. Of the other four, Wales and France have to be favoured by their opening wins, but I am not sure that will be enough. The bottom line is ‘were France more impressive than Wales, and what about Ireland’? At this point I favour the French to win, but not with a Grand Slam. Followed by Wales, England, Ireland. I have 0 confidence in that though, so not worth backing.

So to summarise:

  • Wales to win by 1-5 (5.50)
  • England to win by 16-20 (7.00)
  • France to win by 11-15 (6.00)