Sunday 23 June 2013

Wide Right. How The Lions Hung On In Brisbane.

It is always tempting to isolate individual incidents and speculate on how a more favourable outcome would have changed the outcome of a sporting contest. A debatable disallowed goal or a goal prevented by a miraculous last gasp intervention can be retrospectively added to the ledger in football, but the conclusions are often unsatisfactory. Goals are relatively rare events in football and their arrival changes the game dynamic, so post game insertion of "what could have been", even if we can accurately assess how often a player might have successfully scored from an enticing position will inevitably leave us mired in subjective speculation.

The conundrum is less severe in rugby. Scoring is more commonplace, 20 points per side comprising a variety of tries, conversions, drop goals and penalty kicks, each worth different amounts of points is around the average expectation for a single side. And kicking, be it via a two point conversion or a three point penalty, provides an ideal modelling subject. In the midst of one of the ultimate games of team cooperation, kicking provides an isolated, repeatable challenge, where a single player pits his talent to a task while the opposition stands quietly in the wings.

Weather and ground conditions (or choice of footwear) are significant minor contributing factors, but the likely success rate at kicking a ball through two uprights can be relatively easily calculated with sufficient data. Such a model is described here.

The first Lions test took place on Saturday morning. A close match was expected and the British and Irish Lions were narrow three point favourites, making them a six point superior side to Australia if the game was taken to a neutral venue and superficially the pre-game opinion was accurate. The Lions won by two points.

The sides shared four tries and with try scoring models in rugby a long way in the future, we can speculate how a different distribution of successful and unsuccessful kicks might have changed the final outcome.

The Lions had Leigh Halfpenny as their kicker, statistically the world's best current kicker, both from distance and from more conventional areas of the pitch and in reserve they also had an equally above average talent in Jonathan Sexton. By contrast, Australia had riches in quantity, but not quality. Christian Leali'ifano was stretchered off after 37 seconds, James O'Connor kicked poorly until he was relieved of the kicking duties by Kurtley Beale, who came off the bench to attempt the last four of Australia's nine kicks.

In recent years, neither of Australia's preferred options have broken par for kicking expectation. While Halfpenny has kicked around 25% more kicks that an average kicker would achieve once kick position is accounted for, Beale, O'Connor and Leali'ifano are each about 10% below the return expected from an average kicker.

On the day, with tries shared, kicking was to decide the result and Australia's deficiency in kicking ability should have been more than compensated for by a combination of winning more total kicks, a number of which were relatively straightforward. Above I've simulated the net points outcome for each side for each of the 15 kicks that were awarded on Saturday (nine to the Wallabies and six to the Lions).

The most likely outcome was a nine point win in favour of the host side.

If we assume unrealistically that, regardless of kick outcome, 15 kicks would always have been awarded, we can see how "lucky" the Lions were to win, given the pitch position of the kicks and the relative qualities of the kickers. Hardly any of the kicking simulations see the Lions gaining more points than the Wallabies.

Beale, quite naturally attracted most of the headlines by missing two relatively simple kicks inside the final five minutes. Especially the penultimate attempt that he pushed wide right, when conversion rates of well in excess of 90% could be expected. But his kicking partner, O'Connor was equally profligate.

The Lions' chances of avoiding defeat in such a numerically lopsided kicking contest barley reaches 2% and as many have pointed out, it is to rugby's credit that supporters of both sides were sympathetic to Beale's misfortune.

A lucky Lions win ? Possibly, although as in football, it is easy to imagine a concerted Lions onslaught should they have found themselves trailing even as late as the 76th minute. Scores change every sporting contest. Beale's "wide right" moment and unfortunate slip at the death when attempting a 40+ yards attempt from a central area, made for a dramatic finale to a hugely entertaining match, but for the ultimate, potentially game winning, missed kick, revisit the unfortunate Don Fox in the last minute of a Wembley Challenge Cup final.

The second test is on Saturday, 11-05 am UK time.

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