What’s with Australian number nines and the box kick?
Wallabies halfback Will Genia kicks the ball. AAP Image/Dave Hunt
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What is the fascination in Australian rugby where the scrumhalf’s default play near his own 22 is the aimless box kick down the blind side to an uncontested catcher? I honestly don’t get this.
And for something they use so often, why are they still rubbish at it?
It reminds me a lot of the classic house red down at your local, actually. No-one’s really sure where it came from, it’s been around way too long to get rid of now, and it rarely leaves anything other than a horrible taste in your mouth.
This all started on Friday night.
In the first ten minutes of the game against the Chiefs in Tauranga, Brumbies scrumhalf Ian Prior put up two box kicks, both from outside his 22, but neither of them getting much further up field than the halfway line.
Both kicks had plenty of height; that wasn’t the problem.
The problem was that apart from Prior, no-one knew they were coming. The result, as it so often is for Australian number nines, was the Chiefs got an uncontested catch both times, and both times they were rapidly back in Brumbies territory on the front foot.
It is just a dumb, nothing play. It’s the sort of play that makes you wonder why flat screen TVs don’t have something to protect them from hurled objects.
Fortunately, Prior put the box kick back in the rack for the rest of his night, and actually played quite well in his run-on debut. However, that wasn’t the last we’d see of the box kick, and the next time would have major consequences.
With a touch over three minutes left on the clock, and with the score locked at 22 apiece, replacement scrum half Nic White felt the urge.
From about 35m out from his own line, White peered up like a meerkat, spied an opportunity down the blind side, and unleashed the box kick. Into touch on the full.
The Chiefs fluffed the resulting lineout from their own throw, somehow got the ball back in the scrap, and worked about ten phases toward the posts with Aaron Cruden sitting back in the pocket.
From there, they worked another four phases to the corner while ignoring Cruden (or were they – was it a set play?), fired a couple of passes, and outside centre Jackson Willison duly dived low into the corner for the match-winning try. Cruden converted to give the Chiefs the 29-22 win.
In the aftermath of the game, White could be seen on his own, cursing to himself and generally looking for cans to kick into the gutter. He must know that an authoritative South African voice is going to approach him soon, calmly but ominously suggesting, “We need to do some work on your box kick…”
One of the best exponents of the box kick is Springbok number nine Fourie du Preez. But du Preez picked his moments far better than any of his Australian counterparts.
Usually, du Preez would wait until he had Bryan Habana stationed down the short side for the chase, and he’d weight the kick to perfectly coincide its landing for the arrival of Habana. Australian halfbacks rarely even have a chaser after their kicks, never mind them being well-weighted.
In Sydney on Saturday night, Sarel Pretorius proved that New South Wales haven’t quite been able to wash all the Luke Burgess out of the number nine jersey yet. Numerous times Pretorius was guilty of the pointless box kick, and it surely played a part in the less than flattering reaction from the Sydney Football Stadium crowd on full-time.
The classic – but far from the last – example came midway through the first half, when after the Western Force had piled up well over ten phases. The Waratahs had less than a quarter of the game’s possession to that point when Pretorius took the ball from a turnover and kicked it straight back to the Force. It was truly kicking for kicking’s sake.
Surprisingly, Brett Sheehan used the box kick quite effectively, by contrast. Like every modern-day scrumhalf before him and since at the Waratahs, Sheehan used to box kick himself (and supporters) crazy when he wore sky blue.
On Saturday night, however, Sheehan very cleverly saved it exclusively for when he had Alfie Mafi to his left down the short side, and the two of them timed their respective kick and chase to perfection all night. I never imagined ever saying this, but perhaps Australian scrumhalves can learn something from Brett Sheehan.
Will Genia used the box kick quite sparingly in Durban against the Sharks, considering the weather, and in general, this seems to be the way he plays for the Reds.
Yet for no obvious reason, he consistently morphs into a compulsive box-kicking monster when he dons a Wallaby jersey. I assume it’s just a default setting when the team is on the back foot, but whatever the case, Genia is just as guilty at the futile box kick to no-one as any other Australian nine Sometimes he’s the worst offender.
Richard Kingi did his bit for the box kickers union too. With the first half done on Sunday, and with the referee just waiting to blow time at the Stockade, the Rebels had maintained possession for seven or eight phases.
Suddenly, Kingi pushed Cooper Vuna away and promptly kicked over the ruck and covering Cheetahs defenders. The Cheetahs calmly picked up possession again, and booted the ball out of play.
The Rebels were down by ten points at the time, but had finished the first half well. They were even making their way into the Cheetahs territory gradually. But Kingi killed off any chance of even snaring a drop goal, let alone a possibly kickable penalty. When you’re controlling the play in this scenario, why would you give the ball away?
I go back to my opening statement: I just don’t get it. If our players talk about wanting to ‘play some rugby’ so regularly, why is the opportunity to do so handed away so often?
As I said up the top, the box kick can be a good option when executed well. However, it happens so rarely in Australian rugby these days that maybe the best option is to just leave it in the dressing room.
And either way, if we can all see it’s not working, why can’t the coaches see it as well?
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Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-first-grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009, Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport