Opinionista Bob Skinstad 18 September 2013

An 80/20 Principle match

Saturday’s rugby Test saw some questionable calls. By looking at the calls from a statistical point of view, and invoking the Law of the Few, you can start to see the effect these (admitted) refereeing errors had on the outcome of the game.

I have been a long-term observer of the Law of the Few, or Pareto’s Principle, otherwise glamourised by Richard Koch in his business help book “The 80/20 Principle”. I also had an unusual weekend, one that, sadly, illuminated that principle for me, regrettably in an incident that happened in front of many millions of viewers around the world.

Some of them are still trying to grasp whether what happened was fair and just, or whether the Springboks, and their coach, management and loyal supporters, had any reason to be aggrieved.

Saturday’s traumatic rugby Test was one that gave me much discomfort. I hope it wasn’t enough to spoil my role as commentator, but I am sure it affected it. The recent admissions from referee Romain Poite, the players involved, IRB panel of referees’ head Joel Jutge (passports please, fellas?) and many others suggest that I may have been on to something when I pointed to a flawed decision, or two!

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has been quoted as saying, “the decision had no material effect on the game.” That’s rubbish, and here’s why.

Context first: Hansen, known for his surly manner, has also been brilliant in deflecting blame, creating diversions to real issues at hand and, famously, alleged to have been spying on his own country while he was enjoying a coaching stint in Wales. Not the kind of person whose comments at press conference you’d want to take at pure face value.

However, there is no bitterness toward Hansen per se, as he is an activist in this instance, and can only protect his position, whether it is reasonable or not. The demands of modern rugby teams, and the protect-and-serve nature of being a national team coach, ensures that he has to be as outwardly prickly and unfazed as possible.

But my own experience of the game clashed with his so much so that his press-related issuances jogged my knowledge of the 80/20 Principle.

I understand it was first noted by a Vilifred Pareto, in a study he was doing about the wealth holdings of 19th century families. He discovered that 20% of families held at least 80% of the wealth and this mean was something he studied further, trying to discover if, as in nature, there was a “golden ratio” that could be applied universally.

Actually, the ratio is not an absolute, more of a rule of thumb, as it can be 85/15 or even 90/10, but the idea is sound and it’s one that has serious proven examples. Things like 20% of products make up 80% of turnover; 20% of customers generate 80% of profits; 80% of the wealth of the world is held by 20% of the people. Examples abound in my small but varied business interests: in hospitality, 20% of our menu items make up 80% of our orders; with office automation the same ratio applies to products. Staff seem to be governed by it too: the top 20% of our sales staff make 80% of the numbers. Richard Koch has a management-orientated book on it, with loads of examples in SKUs, market shares and campaign effectiveness all being seen in terms of the ratio. It’s a great read.

So with all that in mind, we have to assume that there are players in teams that affect more of the game than others. This is incredibly true. The “spine” of the team – hooker, eighthman, scrumhalf, flyhalf and sometimes fullback – touch the ball more than anyone else, as their feeds and attacks mostly start from the set pieces, where they all have key roles.

Set pieces are measurable, but their impact is not, until you look at the stats from a game. Ball-carries, contributions at ruck and maul time and tackles all have material effects on the game. So do line-breaks, turnovers and even tries.

Remember, again, the incident, which has now been proven to be incorrectly handled (through an apology from the ref and a rescinding of the cards and removal from record) was claimed by Hansen to “not have materially affected the game”.

In the instance of a card being issued, the suffering team have to make sure that they can ably replace a scrummager. So when Bismarck first went off, the ensuing lineout was handled by Ruan Pienaar, assuming the throwing role of hooker. Then Adriaan Strauss came on to handle the scrum and the team had to sacrifice Willem Alberts for that time, another outstanding performer from a week before. Vitally, when Bismarck du Plessis was sent off, again, this time for the rest of the match, the same thing happened and the team was left without two of their stalwarts for another 40 minutes.

So let’s look at those contributions and the ratio that would have had an effect on this game.

Thanks to Chean Roux – an old friend, highly decorated coach and currently a game-specific technical resource at Saru – I have sight of some of those stats. In the game against New Zealand, Liam Messam (I think we all agree an outstanding player) carried the ball five times, for a total of 24m gained. Starting hooker Dane Coles carried once, for 6m, and then he was replaced by Keven Mealamu, who carried twice for zero metres.

Comparably, their opposite numbers, who were highly influential in the Australian game a week before, weren’t able to enjoy as much time on the field as usual due to the ineptness of the referee.

However, there’s that old 80/20 Principle in action because in less than half the time of their opposition, the two South African players managed to add 40% more metres – critical to gaining the momentum that wins Test matches.

Talk about influence. In the 40-odd minutes that they played together, Bismarck carried the ball three times for 15m and Willem Alberts carried six times for a staggering 37m. Staggering because a forward rarely gets the ball with more than a metre of space in front of him, so the kind of momentum that Alberts and Du Plessis generate is game changing. That’s why they are picked in the first place!

They are 80/20 players. No doubt, Bismarck could have effected another four turnovers, as he did against Australia. Alberts also could have eclipsed his total of 14 tackles against Australia, which was double that of the Wallabies’ nearest challenger.

Had they been on the field for the full 80 minutes, and had Alberts carried on with his already high tackle rate and Bismarck with his effective turnovers, there is absolutely no doubt that the game would have been “materially affected”.

Ok, enough, I don’t want to beat this drum anymore as I know it’s a point that has been made too many times already.

South Africa lost this Test match, I know, but to try to cloud an already highly charged situation with the contention that the decision made no material effect on the game is just plain arrogance. I have no doubt it will act as fuel for the next encounter, when our 80/20 Principle players will be joined by one or two more. DM

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