It’s become part of the sporting folklore, a myth as old as time, Leicester cheat. You hear it everywhere, from crazy message board conspiracy theorists to allegedly professional pundits. We’re successful because we cheat and give away shed loads of penalties. But is there any truth to that?
We never see any analysis of penalties, occasionally we might see a table of yellow cards, but you never see the number of offences each team commits. Until now. ESPN.co.uk keeps the penalty count for each Premiership game; using the power of addition I’ve crunched the numbers and found out whether that old wives tale has any basis in fact.
Frustratingly for a complete data set one match, Saracens v London Irish at Allianz Park, is missing. Therefore Saracens and London Irish’s number are averaged over 21 rather than 22 games.
From this we can see that the two dirtiest teams were the bottom half strugglers Gloucester and Irish, averaging around 13 penalties a game. Tigers on the other hand were the second cleanest team in the league, only Mike Ford’s Bath conceded fewer penalties during the season.
On the other side of the ledger it was Bath who was the most fouled against, with Leicester and Harlequins almost inseparable behind them in second and third place respectively. Myth busted. Tigers are more sinned against than sinners.
Across the league overall penalties conceded average to be very similar. Roughly speaking a side, over the season, will give away between 10 and 13 penalties per match; the majority average 11 per game. Penalties awarded are a little bit more dispersed with the top 5 almost 2 penalties per game better off than the middle 5.
Over the whole season Bath gained 92 net penalties, i.e. more than they conceded, interestingly Worcester were the only side outside that top 5 with a positive balance. Tigers were second with a positive balance of 52 net penalties. At the wrong end were Gloucester (-52), Wasps (-53) and Irish (-65).
The interesting bit is when the yellow cards get dished out. You’d think that the most befouled teams would gain the most from the referees, which would make sense as yellow cards were introduced to deal with persistent infringement, and that as penalties conceded are very flat so would be yellow cards.
But no. The yellow card numbers go haywire. If we take yellow cards per penalty Tigers had to foul 14.4 times to see yellow but Exeter were allowed to get away with 34.3 penalties before losing a man. Harlequins conceded 30 more penalties than the Tigers but saw 3 fewer yellows, whilst the Tigers cheat myth seems to be false the one about Harlequins being the RFU’s darlings seems to be borne out. For the opposition to get a yellow card against Tigers or Saracens they need to give away 21.8 penalties but the Quins need only 12.8 penalties to gain a 10 minute advantage.
Despite Tigers running such a positive balance of net penalties (+52) we have seen 3 more players sin binned than the opposition. Harlequins on the other hand have a net balance of only +22 but have 9 fewer players sin binned than their opponents. Given how tight the playoff race was, and how tight the play offs promise to be, it does not seem farfetched that effectively playing a whole match extra against 14 men gives Quins an advantage.
Home and away differences are also apparent. Only 3 teams conceded more at home than they were awarded, and Tigers concede 40% fewer penalties at home compared to away. Over the whole league the away side has to concede 3 fewer penalties to get a yellow card than the home side. The yellow card numbers are again striking and not good reading ahead of our semi final; at home Tigers see yellow every 22nd penalty offence but away that drops to 12, the lowest in the league.
One final really stand out result. Andrew Small has refereed 19 games this season and seen 14 away wins. How come he couldn’t get our semi?