Statistics are like a lamppost to a drunk man. It does not serve to illuminate but rather, to keep him upright.
A very apt description when it comes to statistics, specifically where it is used to motivate the inclusion and exclusion of certain players.
I had to learn the hard way that statistics, although extremely useful, can sometimes be very damaging. Especially in a dynamic medium such as rugby where success is dependent on more things than just raw mathematical or scientific data.
In my days of doing analysis in sport I got very frustrated by certain coaches insistence on the continued selection of certain players when my analytical data suggested they were not where they should be from a performance point of view considering widely accepted bench marks. That was until I ventured into coaching myself.
I learned as the saying above goes, that statistics merely support views in rugby, it does not illuminate or give certain clarity on events or players.
Practically I am also reminded of this whenever I see a Baa-baa team, or World XV team assembled. Statistically you can pick the best individual players in the world in certain positions, but that is no guarantee they will gel as a team, in fact, they seldom do.
The recent End of Year Tour was supposed to answer the question of leadership within the Springbok team, in the absence of regular captain John Smit who underwent surgery and rehab. His long serving deputy, Victor Matfield was charged with the honour to lead the Boks on tour and given the performances, the questions on whether there is life after John Smit from a captaincy or leadership role, remains largely unanswered.
The situation is even more complicated with the fact that Smit’s continued inclusion in the Bok team mostly based on his leadership ability, is keeping who many believe to be the best hooker in the world at the moment, Bismarck du Plessis, on the bench.
Many argue it is more of a sentimental issue than a logical one, and statistically they can prove this to you rather convincingly, but I am afraid it is not that simple.
I think Smit would be first to admit that 2010 was a forgettable year for him. From a form and conditioning perspective it was probably his worst year as a professional player.
But is one bad season enough to make what would arguably the most crucial decision for a Rugby World Cup in 2011?
If one bad season is all we consider, not many players will play more than 20 tests for South Africa, let alone 50 or 100.
It is a very fine line one walks when you pick teams based on form alone, especially at test level where form comes from different dynamics (lower levels of competition, different teams and different competitions).
The question we should ask, is whether a fit, conditioned John Smit would be a asset, or liability for the Springboks at World Cup 2011?
Following that, it would be up to the player to ensure he is (fit and conditioned), because I do not believe this should be a case of either or, for me it is a case of having the best captain, lock forward, and hooker in a match day 22, and I cannot see why this is impossible.