Stuart Hogg's try was one of the moments of the 2013 RBS Six Nations so far - but not the best for Tim (Image | via

Stuart Hogg’s try was one of the moments of the 2013 RBS Six Nations so far – but not the best for Tim (Image | via

Looking back over the first two rounds of this year’s 6 Nations tournament, there is one thing above all that has made it a championship to remember. Not Italy’s monumental win over France in Rome, nor Stuart Hogg’s pair of epic tries for Scotland; not Owen Farrell’s steely resolve in Dublin or even Ryan Jones’ heroics as stand-in captain being the main influence in ending an eight-game losing streak for Wales. It is something more subtle than all of these things, removed from the rugby itself and yet unquestionably improving the all-round experience.

The phenomenon in question is the BBC’s statistical coverage of the matches, powered by the sports analytics firms Opta and IBM. Never before have television viewers of international rugby been provided with such in-depth information about the action that is unfolding before them; and, while it is far from the obsessive stat-keeping of, say, the NFL, there is a hint that it could develop further towards that model in future.

When France lined up against the Azzuri on the opening weekend, the two best number 8s in the northern hemisphere, Louis Picamoles and Sergio Parisse, went head to head. Pre-game, we were presented with a wealth of statistics from their respective seasons in the French Top 14: number of runs at the defensive line, average metres per carry, defenders beaten, tackles per game.

On paper, Picamoles seemed to be the better-rounded player, although Parisse’s stats were nearly as impressive. And the BBC proved correct in highlighting them as potential threats as each player opened the try count for his team.

In fact, compiling seasonal figures like this is becoming a routine exercise. Prior to Ireland’s trip to Wales, kicking statistics for Jonny Sexton and Leigh Halfpenny at club level placed the Irish fly half ahead in terms of consistency, while during the game itself Opta informed us how many lineouts Ireland had won and lost in the 2012 Autumn Internationals, Wales’ record of missed tackles and the areas of the field where the most rugby was being played.

Bear in mind that, just two or three years ago, the best the analysis could come up with was routine possession and territory percentages, plus maybe an error count and the number of kicks at goal kickers had landed. This was understandable: while American football benefits from regular stoppages and on-field measurements to allow us to keep track of data, rugby is far less clear cut.

A trawl through the internet will lead you to pages on the IBM and Opta websites that reveal a rather old-fashioned method and a somewhat unlikely business-orientated intent. The stats are compiled by live analysts; in effect people watching the game for certain occurrences and physically counting the number of times they happen.

The increased and enhanced use of statistics in match coverage allows the casual fan a greater insight into what coaches like Stuart Lancaster are looking at (Image | PA)

The increased and enhanced use of statistics in match coverage allows the casual fan a greater insight into what coaches like Stuart Lancaster are looking at (Image | PA)

The aim is to provide teams with comprehensive aims to work towards – Scotland, for instance, needed to maintain a tackle completion rate of 95% against England to optimise their chances of winning. From there, it is not a huge leap to translate that kind of data into business models: knowing which shares to invest in based on their performance in past quarters.

There are some who would argue that this takes the soul out of a sport that relies so much on moments of magic, on heroic individual performances or herculean team efforts in the face of adversity. Indeed, rugby union has become increasingly less organic since its conversion to professionalism in 1995. But then consider that these stats do not have the final say in the real world.

On paper, Ireland played overwhelmingly better than England last weekend, with every single statistic except number of kicks made and number of turnovers conceded in their favour, but walked off the park at the end of the game defeated.

Ultimately, for those of us at home, the BBC’s new statistical presentation can help us to identify what to watch for in each match, important players to pick up on and areas of the pitch where we can see the moments that change the game. It was, in fact, England’s relentless clearance kicking and disruption at the breakdown that helped them ward off the Irish attack, and Opta’s data analysis helped us to focus on that, turning what could have been a tedious battle of attrition into an intriguing saga of the unstoppable force versus the immovable object.

This is why the statistical element has been so impressive so far: it is informative and helpful, without managing to intrude on the enjoyment of the actual sport. As rugby becomes increasingly professional and popular, a little guidance towards the best aspects of the sport itself is just what is needed.

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