We all take it for granted that test match experience is vital for teams to do well in competitions. The stats, however, paint a much more complicated picture.
Every time a team is announced, we understand that an important calculation went into the selections centred around either preserving experience, or gaining it. Experienced players might be rested so that they are available for other crucial matches; younger players might be included to build up their test experience. (Steven Prescott started the conversation about test match experience. See his article here.)
In this article, I put our assumptions about the importance of test match experience to the test. I look at 4 recent Rugby Championship tournaments, 4 recent Six Nations tournaments and the last 4 RWC Championships: a total of 12 tournaments in which 72 rugby squads from 11 nations competed.
For those who want a close look at the data, here are the numbers on which I base my analysis.
Experience does not guarantee success
When we look at the most experienced squad in each tournament, it becomes clear that experience does not guarantee good results.
In three tournaments the most experienced side finished 1st, but in two tournaments they failed miserably and finished last. To be fair, in another three tournaments the most experienced side managed to finish 2nd.
This tells us that experience helps to achieve a good performance but certainly won’t prevent a miserable result if the squad lacks the other necessities for doing well.
Top two vs bottom two
We will now expand our look and consider the performance of the TWO most capped teams, and the TWO least capped teams in every competition. There is a good reason for that. In top-level tournaments, the competition is generally tight. Not only is it tight, but often there isn’t much to choose between the top two or three sides.
We know how narrow the margins between winning and losing can be, and that winning or losing can be the result of factors outside of the control of the teams, like a dodgy referee call, a (un)lucky bounce of the ball, a desperate ankle tap, or the infuriating tyranny of camera angles. It makes sense, therefore, to also look at the second most capped squads and the second best tournament results.
We will do the same analysis for the two lowest capped squads in each tournament. If we see a pattern for the high cap sides, and the pattern is reversed for the low cap sides, we know that experience works the way we suspect it does.
We can now clearly see that the most experienced squads do well, and the least experienced squads don’t. In 6 of the 12 tournaments the most experienced squad finished top 2, and in 7 of the 12 tournaments, the least experienced squad finished bottom two. It’s as close to a mirror image as you will get and confirms our notion that experience helps, and lack of experience hinders.
A closer look
But looking closely, this pattern is not repeated for the second most experienced and second least experienced squads. Performance does not seem to be related to the number of caps unless the number of caps is presumably very high or very low.
We will now test this by looking at the actual number of caps, rather than just the most or least in the tournament.
Extreme levels of experience matter, a lot
The following graphic shows the tournament results of squads for every test cap band. Good (green) and bad (red) finishes seem to occur at almost every level of experience. However, if you focus on the two extremes, the very low experience band (top third of the graph) and the very high experience band (bottom third of the graph), you can see a pattern.
Note: Only starting line-up caps were counted. This is different to test appearances, which will always give a higher number.
Analysis of the extreme
Looking at the very high experience band (29 matches and higher), we can see that squads with this very high level of test match experience do extremely well. The sample had six squads at this level, and four of those went on to finish in the top two of the competition. We see a similar pattern at very low experience levels.
The squads with 17 or fewer test caps on average, do extremely poorly in their competitions. 13 squads fell into this category, 6 of which went on to finish in the bottom 2 of their competitions. Surprisingly, 2 of those very inexperienced squads managed to finish top 2 in their competitions. But in the highly experienced band virtually all the squads finished in the top half of their competitions.
This suggests to me that very high levels of experience are always valuable. Whereas very low levels of experience are definitely not good, but not impossible to work with.
Very high levels of experience are ALWAYS valuable. Very low levels of experience are bad, but not impossible to work with.
The middle range of test match experience (17 to 29 tests caps on average) is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage. In this band, 18 squads went on to finish top 2 in their competitions, and 17 went on to finish bottom 2.
I believe we can draw the following conclusions from the above analysis:
- Experience cannot guarantee good results. Even with lots of experience, you can still finish last.
- Experience does not mean much unless you have VERY little, or VERY much.
- If you have VERY LITTLE experience you are at a serious disadvantage, BUT, you can still win a tournament.
- If you have VERY MUCH experience you will always do well. You will never finish last.
This look at experience confirms what we intuitively know: success depends on doing a range of things well. One factor cannot guarantee success. But, if we understand the relationship between a factor and success, and we make sure we meet the minimum requirements of a factor, we will give ourselves the best chance of success.
Looking at the test experience factor, my advice for coaches would be to aim for the 29+ average test cap mark.
Author: Willem Van Rensburg
I was raised among Springboks, then matured among Kiwis, and now live among Wallabies. What’s next? I have never been good at playing this game, but what a game! Show me any other team sport that has equal room for the big, small, quick, slow, smart, not so smart. And when they work in unison it is like watching a symphony.