Duane Heath

Boks: It's a numbers game

2004-11-19 08:05

At the beginning of the 2004 season, I wrote a column clogging your bandwidth with statistics about Springbok rugby and a week doesn't go by that I don't receive a request for "stats man, I want stats", as one reader put it.

It did made me think that sport, after you strip away the players, pitches and everything that's written about it, is nothing more than a numbers game - and that fans are obsessed with anything to do with numbers, be it betting, the latest Currie Cup or Super 12 logs, weights and heights of players, etc.

We also see it on television, at half-time, when any number of statistics are flashed onto the screen and dissected - 30 men and their on-field flesh and bloodletting reduced to nothing more than the stuff that bored you back in high school.

I'm not a fan of seas of stats but what maths does really well is reveal things you'd ordinarily miss when caught up in the emotion of the event.

Sometimes stats are vital, sometimes merely trivia for your next cocktail party, but they always tell their own story about what is, like it or not, a sometimes emotional numbers game - and this week's quotas controversy is yet another prime example.

For example, statistics will show us that, like Rudolf Straeuli before him, Jake White uses a lot of players - more than you think. If Bryan Habana and Danie Rossouw make it onto the field against England, the Bok coach will have used 36 players in just 11 Tests in 2004.

Of the 34 used so far, 29 have started at least one international, with the other five - CJ van der Linde, Hanyani Shimange, Geo Cronje, Michael Claassens and Tim Dlulane - being used as subs only. (Poor Van der Linde is fast becoming the Ollie le Roux of the new millennium.)

Given Test caps

Twenty-six of those 34 were capped Springboks before 2004. This year, White has given Springbok Test caps to eight new players: Henno Mentz, Fourie du Preez, Claassens, Jacques Cronje, Gerrie Britz, Dlulane, Eddie Andrews, and Shimange.

Springbok colours (included in a touring team but have not played) have gone to Jongi Nokwe, Habana, Solly Tyibilika and Gurthro Steenkamp.

Looking at players capped by position, White has, in six positions, used the same player to start every Test he's been in charge of.

Breyton Paulse's recall to the team to face England means he will have started all 11 matches on the right wing.

Similarly, Marius Joubert has not been replaced as a starter at outside centre; Jaco van der Westhuyzen is unchallenged at flyhalf, Schalk Burger is numero uno at open-side flanker; Os du Randt has no serious obstacles at loosehead prop; and captain John Smit, despite the form of a number of players, is firmly entrenched at hooker.

In stark contrast, White has started with five different players on the left wing - Mentz, Fourie, Ashwin Willemse, Brent Russell and Jean de Villiers - and even used Gaffie du Toit there in the Tri-Nations.

White has also employed the services of six players at lock: Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Quinton Davids, Albert van den Berg and Gerrie Britz have started at least one Test; Geo Cronje came on against Wales in Pretoria.

This means lock and left wing have accounted for just about one third of all players used by White in Test matches in 2004. There's one for the next time you're standing around the braai with a mouth full of teeth, wondering what's taking the boerie so long.

Unwanted milestone

South Africa's loss to Ireland last week also means that the Springboks will find themselves on the brink of an unwanted milestone if they cannot overcome England at Twickenham on Saturday.

The match against Jason Robinson's men will be the 313th Test that South Africa have played since losing 4-0 to Great Britain more than 113 years ago.

Defeat against England on Saturday will be South Africa's 99th Test loss, of which more than half - 52 - will have come since readmission in 1992.

They can no longer do it, but had the Boks won all four Grand Slam tour internationals, then victory over Argentina on December 4 would've been South Africa's 200th Test win from 315 matches - a winning ratio of 63.5%.

But with defeat in Dublin, wins against England, Scotland and Los Pumas will bring that figure to 199.

Looking at the win-loss stats, it would be easy for a rugby statistician to borrow a cricketing term to explain the Boks' form on tour so far: they're in the nervous 90s.

Send Duane your views on this column.

  • Duane Heath is a freelance sportswriter who has written about the game for News24, Rugby World, IRB World of Rugby and the Sunday Times.

  • Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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