The number of carries made by each position has risen marginally in the last five seasons with hookers and number 6s showing the greatest rise of one extra carry per game from 2010/11 to last season.
In the back line, inside centres made fewer carries per game last season than they did in 2010/11 falling from 7.5 to 7.2 last season. Full backs have seen the biggest rise of any position in the team (+2.3) while fly halves and both wingers average between 1-2 extra carries per 80 minutes compared to five seasons ago.
Metres gained by forwards have not changed much over the last five season, with props and second rows all maintaining similar metres gained per 80 minutes, suggesting that many of the carries they make are in tight spaces around the fringes of the ruck. Number 8s have seen a rise of just over two and a half metres per game, although this tally would have been closer to seven metres per 80 minutes had they managed to maintain their levels from 2014/15 when they gained 37.2 metres per game.
Unsurprisingly the three positions in the team that have seen the highest rise in metres gained – all 10m+ rises – have been the back three players, while fly halves and outside centres gained between six and eight metres more last season than they did in 2010/11.
In the last five seasons forwards have generally averaged more passes per 80 minutes of action, although the changes are fairly small. Only openside flankers have seen a rise of close to one pass per game, however the gradual increase across the board suggests an improved skill set across the team with both backs and forwards being expected to be able to distribute the ball.
From 2009/10 onwards there has been a steady rise in the number of tackles made by players, particularly the forwards, although the backs have also increased their workload in general, but there is also a noticeable change in the amount of tackles attempted by different positions.
Looking firstly at the forwards, from the graph below we can see that props generally make the fewest tackles of the pack members with the loosehead prop making marginally more per 80 minutes of rugby than the tighthead.
Interestingly, hookers have seen one of the most dramatic changes in how often they tackle. In 2008/09 both second rows made over one tackle more than hookers, however since then hookers have gone from making seven tackles per game on average to 11.1 in the last full Premiership season. That has seen them overtake both second rows as well as number eights to sit as the forward pack’s third top tackling position, fractionally behind the men wearing number six. Perhaps unsurprisingly the openside flankers have attempted the most tackles per game and they have maintained a rate between 10 and 12.5 tackles per game over the last eight seasons.
In the back line most positions have increased their tackling workload over the last number of seasons although the back three have remained reasonably consistent although this should be expected as they are in the first line of defence less often than the fly half and centres. The inside centres are getting through the greatest workload in terms of tackling – even in 2008/09 they were making more tackles per 80 minutes than any other position managed last season, despite the rise in tackle rate.
Fly halves have generally been the second top tacklers, jostling for that accolade with the outside centres. Although due to their lower tackle success it is much more likely that fly halves are being targeted by ball carriers rather than aiming to make more tackles. Some playmaking fly halves prefer to stay out wide in defence away from the more direct ball carriers though so perhaps there has been a lack of this in more recent years, leading to a rise from 6.7 tackles per 80 minutes in 2012/13 to 8.2 last season.
Overall it is very noticeable how many more tackles forwards are making than backs. Last season, inside centres tackle counts of 9.6 per 80 minutes only bettered the props out of the members of the pack. Even then, loosehead props managed just half a tackle less (9.1) while tightheads weren’t far behind (8.7).
Rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes, however being bigger and taller can make a great difference in the contact area with the forwards generally recording a higher tackle success than the backs.
It is the second row and back rowers who have led the way in this field. The men wearing numbers 4-8 have allowed their tackling success rate to fall below 90% just once in those eight seasons, which to put it into greater context has only been managed by one other group – the front rowers, who managed it in 2008/09, 2010/11 and 2011/12.
Looking more closely at the front row players it may seem a surprise to find the props and hooker recording such high tackle rates, however these players often don’t stray too far from the breakdown and the tackles they make are more often than not players running into them in tight spaces, meaning with their huge physicality they’re unlikely to miss many hits.
Moving on to the backs, it is the centres who perform the best, while the half backs generally outperform their back three teammates, apart from two seasons in 2012/13 and 2014/15.
It is unsurprising that these positions would yield the lowest tackle success. Half backs are often targeted as a result of their inclusion in the team being for playmaking reasons rather than tackling ability, while they are generally smaller than the rest of their colleagues (as identified in the analysis of the size of Premiership finalists) and this can also be cited as a reason for missing tackles and ultimately having a lower tackle success rate.
The back three though have a different argument as their reason for a low tackle success. Often these players are the most exposed in the team, as more gaps can be found out wide. Full backs in particular can be greatly exposed and this is evident in the fact that they have had the lowest tackle success of any position in the last eight years; only once, in 2010/11, have full backs managed a success rate above 80%.
Looking more generally at the overall trend of tackle success, it appears that it is becoming more difficult to maintain high tackle rates. Since 2010/11 there has been a drop in tackle success across the board after a spike that season, perhaps due to attacks being less blunt, or maybe players were trying to impress ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
The general tackle success has fallen since then, however this isn’t to say that players are becoming worse tacklers and there are two sides to every story. In our investigation into kicking it was noted that teams are kicking from hand less often, while more tries are scored from kick returns. The fact that more tries are scored from kick returns suggests that teams are better at counter attacking when play is broken, leading to a higher likelihood of missed tackles occurring. Meanwhile the reluctance of teams to put boot to ball in general suggests that sides are more likely to attack from deep where there is more space because there are fewer players in the first line of defence, which likely leads to more defenders being beaten and tackle success dropping.