Is the Chiefs' success sustainable?

IAN ANDERSON
Last updated 14:02 07/03/2014
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PROUD MOMENT: The Chiefs perform their victory haka after winning back-to-back Super Rugby titles in August, 2013.

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OPINION:  

Those Chiefs sure know how to win the close games, don't they?

Or have they just been lucky so far?

The ability to take victory from matches that are still up for grabs in the final minutes has been a key factor in Dave Rennie's side winning the past two Super Rugby titles.

That doesn't look like changing after the Chiefs' first two matches of the current campaign. They upset the Crusaders 18-10 in Christchurch before fighting back to beat the Highlanders 21-19 at home last weekend.

Given that I'm going to spend most of the rest of this column gently tapping you on the noggin with a statistics stick, it'd be appropriate to confirm that those two games are what's known as a small sample size.

But there seems to be enough empirical evidence that the Chiefs have built a winning system founded on committed defence, composure under pressure and solid goalkicking - while not wanting to undervalue their ability to score tries.

The question I'd like to pose, with some possible statistical answers hopefully emerging, is: is that success sustainable?

There are a couple of ways to examine what's gone before to give us an idea of what may follow re the performances of sports teams.

One is the Pythagorean expectation - a formula invented by noted baseball statistician Bill James to estimate how many games a baseball team "should" have won based on the number of runs they scored and allowed.

By comparing a team's actual and Pythagorean winning percentage, you can evaluate how fortunate that team was through the variation between the two percentages.

It's a simple mathematical formula for the Chiefs - total points scored, divided by total points scored, plus total points conceded, then multiplied by an exponent to gain a number that represents their number of wins per season. You're still with me, right?

Let's run the numbers on last season, when the Chiefs won 12 regular-season games, scoring 458 points and conceding 364 to finish top of the New Zealand conference and the overall standings.

Their Pythagorean expectation number was 10.58 wins, which would have placed them fourth on the overall table and second in the New Zealand standings behind the Crusaders.

That's the difference between home and away playoff berths - hugely significant in anyone's book.

Jump back a year further and a similar pattern emerges for the Chiefs.

In 2012 they finished second on the championship table behind the Stormers with 12 wins and four defeats, again ensuring they topped the New Zealand conference.

Yet their Pythagorean expectation tally was 10.51 wins, which would have seen them finish fifth on that table behind also the Crusaders (top), Bulls (third) and Sharks (fourth).

Obviously, the fact that the Chiefs won most of their close clashes made a difference between their actual and suggested finishing positions.

The numbers behind that are irrefutable. In the previous two seasons, the Chiefs have recorded 15 wins and just five losses in games that have been decided by seven points or less.

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So how much of that can be put down to fortune or variance, and how much weight should we attribute to what the Chiefs train for and carry out on the field?

Many will argue that better sides should win more close games that they lose. They are likely to possess players with more capability to produce moments of skill under pressure.

The Chiefs are rightly proud of their defensive systems and the big intangible that has attracted the "mana" label.

But the more analytical observers will say that they've simply come out on the plus side of some random variance in results.

Take the case of the New Zealand Breakers this season as they've attempted to win their fourth consecutive Australian National Basketball League title.

The Breakers had also developed a reputation as a team that would usually close out tight games in their favour. When they won their third consecutive crown last season, they won all 11 games in which the final margin was 10 points or fewer.

This season, their record in close matches is six wins and 10 defeats.
Observers will point to a new coach, the departure of MVP guard Cedric Jackson and the retirement of wily veteran Dillon Boucher as key reasons for that slump.

Those of a statistical bent will observe that an 11-0 record was most likely to regress closer to the mean over time. On the court, that would see three-point winners from the Breakers rim out, while those last-ditch missed jumpers from rival teams would start to find the net more often.

The Pythagorean expectation isn't a foolproof method, simply a handy predictive tool.

So how does it hold up for recent Super Rugby seasons?

Well, it indicated that the Chiefs may fall back somewhat from their 2012 season, when they were second in the regular season standings but fifth under the Pythagorean expectation.

They didn't - they topped the standings the next year, while the Pythagorean expectation ranked them fourth.

For many teams, their win tallies were very similar. But the most notable difference for a team in 2012 was for the Queensland Reds.

They were third on the points table but eighth on the adjusted standings.

That hinted at a fall in victories the following year The following year they were fifth in the competition, and again eighth on adjusted standings. So it shouldn't have come as any surprise when they were eliminated in the first round of the post-season in convincing fashion, 38-9 by the Crusaders.

The system saw problems ahead for the Stormers, who topped the 2012 table with 14 wins, which equated to just 11.09 in adjusted standings. The following year, the Stormers won nine games and finished seventh.

The Waratahs should see an improvement in their 2014 campaign. They were ninth last year with eight wins, but the Pythagorean expectation method had them up to sixth, with two more wins to their credit.

Good news for Blues fans too. The Blues finished 10th last season with only six wins, but the Pythagorean expectation gave them 9.14 victories, hinting at greater things this year.

What should we expect from the two-time champions at the end of this regular season?

I won't be surprised to see their results in close games fall a lot nearer a 50 per cent winning ratio than the 76 per cent rate over the past two and a bit campaigns - maybe six wins and four defeats in games decided by seven points or less.

That ultimately could spell the difference between a top spot and home advantage in the playoffs, and the chances of a third successive title.

Let's see how that pans out on the field. 

 

ian.anderson@fairfaxmedia.co.nz

2013 Super Rugby victories and final standings:

1) Chiefs 12 wins

2) Bulls 12

3) Brumbies 10

4) Crusaders 11

5) Reds 10

6) Cheetahs 10

7) Stormers 9

8) Sharks 8

9) Waratahs 8

10) Blues 6

11) Hurricanes 6

12) Rebels 5

13) Force 4

14) Highlanders 3

15) Kings 3

2013 Super Rugby regular season table under Pythagorean expectation:

1) Brumbies 11.26 wins

2) Crusaders 11.25

3) Bulls 10.94

4) Chiefs 10.58 wins

5) Stormers 10.30

6) Waratahs 9.99

7) Cheetahs 9.94

8) Reds 9.88

9) Sharks 9.24

10) Blues 9.14

11) Hurricanes 8.91

12) Highlanders 8.16

13) Rebels 8.09

14) Force 8.01

15) Kings 6.58

2012 Super Rugby victories and final standings:

1) Stormers 14 wins

2) Chiefs 12

3) Reds 11

4) Crusaders 11

5) Bulls 10

6) Sharks 10

7) Brumbies 10

8) Hurricanes 10

9) Highlanders 9

10) Cheetahs 5

11) Waratahs 4

12) Blues 4

13) Rebels 4

14) Force 3

15) Lions 3

2012 Super Rugby regular season table under Pythagorean expectation:

1) Crusaders 11.26 wins

2) Stormers 11.09

3) Bulls 10.66

4) Sharks 10.56

5) Chiefs 10.51

6) Brumbies 10.44

7) Hurricanes 10.12

8) Reds 9.66

9) Highlanders 9.16

10) Cheetahs 8.75

11) Waratahs 8.73

12) Blues 8.65

13) Rebels 7.80

14) Force 7.79

15) Lions 7.75

- Waikato

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