With guest writer - The Rugby Analyst - a Professional Rugby Analyst.
Mike Brown - divisive yet consistent - has probably been England’s best player over the past 4 years. On the other side of the popularity scale there is Stuart Hogg. If Brown is a marmite character, Hogg carries Leicester City style favouritism. 'Would he get into other national teams?' is a question pondered in virtually every match he plays, but luckily Scotland appear to be moving in the right direction and Hogg has certainly been a driving force behind the rise.
With Leigh Halfpenny not present in this year's competition a Lions shirt is up for grabs, it will take something special to hold off Halfpenny, especially if Warren Gatland takes charge again.
In order to try and put some perspective on both players we will compare to the other British and Irish full backs in the competition, Wales’ Liam Williams and Rob Kearney of Ireland, the 2009 Lions starter who appears to have dropped off slightly in the last few years.
Kearney especially has not had the same game time enjoyed by the others, so statistics have been adjusted for minutes played. For a full back, non negotiable criteria is certainly not clear cut, some coaching regimes prefer a “solid” kicking and defensive full back. Leigh Halfpenny is the flag bearer for this style full back, he kicks at goal, makes last ditch tackles and diffuses most high balls that are sent his way.
Israel Folau represents the holy grail of an attacking full back, with the ability to beat defenders, break the line and brings moments of magic that change a game. Ideally a team will find someone who is a blend of the 2 aforementioned - and without wishing to jump on the New Zealand band wagon - Ben Smith generally appears to provide this balance. Firstly we will statistically look at the “solid” element of the full backs role, for this we will explore the tackle success percentage, solely focusing on the number of tackles made would be unfair on the players that play behind strong defences.
It could also be argued that success percentage will also be effected if the full back is constantly dealing with clean line breaks giving plenty of space for onrushing players to attack. Another element that is crucial is the ability to dominate the air and claim any high balls that come their way. A skill that is becoming even harder with the new rules essentially protecting the player who jumps highest, they are likely to be the victim taken out when higher in the air.
Modern players with outstanding explosive jumps are able to get high and create a real problem for full backs, think of Anthony Watson’s success at chasing kicks.
As the charts indicate along with Rob Kearney who has only half the game time of his peers, Mike Brown is yet to miss a tackle in this years competition. It is certainly an area that he stands out over the more attacking minded Williams and Hogg. Hogg fell off a tackle early against France, on Guirado which maybe others would have made. However when catching a high ball Hogg has been perfect so far dealing with every ball kicked his way. All 4 players also possess the ability to kick long offering an outlet to their team, however only Brown and Kearney have the sought after left foot, which gives their side the option to kick in the wider channels when playing right to left. Having seen how solid the British and Irish players are, we will now look to see who has the ability change a game, break the line and generally give excitement to the onlooker. To do this we will look at a combination of statistics, metres made indicates the ability to get back to or go beyond support when returning kicks. A crucial skill in modern rugby as it can change the dynamic of that particular possession. We will also consider the ability to beat a defender and to break the line. These are great indicators but can sometimes be misleading, some players such as a Jack Nowell have an incredible ability to beat defenders but struggle to convert these into line breaks.