What’s with Australian number nines and the box kick?

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    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?

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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    The Crowd Says (99)

    • March 20th 2012 @ 5:23am
      Moreton Bait said | March 20th 2012 @ 5:23am | ! Report

      Absolutely Brett, nailed it! The box kick is not new to rugby, but it’s only as effective as the chase. Can hope to bundle the catcher into touch, or hope for a knock-on, or a turnover. Ideally you’d want to gain territory and re-gain possession. Recent attempts are simply poorly executed. Why not perfect this at training sessions? Badly executed it just drives everyone crazy and the scrumhalves all seem to have been indoctrinated into some weird box-kicking voodoo cult. Nick White seems to have had a shocking start this season, generally, but that kick – omg – get him to the witchdoctors. Who should the Brumbies call? Cultbusters!

      • Columnist

        March 20th 2012 @ 8:35am
        Brett McKay said | March 20th 2012 @ 8:35am | ! Report

        Hi Moreton, where was “some weird box-kicking voodoo cult” when I was writing this?!? That comfortably tops my “a compulsive box-kicking monster”…

        On Nic White though, I noted in the first couple of games that he did seem to use the box kick pretty well (or at least told his wingers what was hapening), but his effort on Friday night probably undoes that. Aside from that, he’s been playing quite well; Prior has been too in his chances. It’s a nice change from the Valentine/Phibbs days..

    • March 20th 2012 @ 5:39am
      kingplaymaker said | March 20th 2012 @ 5:39am | ! Report

      Spot-on Brett, the box kick is so rarely effective it’s bizarre that teams use it. I think it is part of a misguided idea that players should ‘back themselves’ at all costs, meaning any tactic how ever foolish and useless is fine as long as it encourages the player to be boost their own confidence.

      Good photograph for the article by the way, the mindless look and gesture perfectly expresses the stupidity of the box kick.

      • Columnist

        March 20th 2012 @ 8:37am
        Brett McKay said | March 20th 2012 @ 8:37am | ! Report

        KPM, it’s a few years old, that photo, judging by the Wallabies kit and the length of Genia’s afro, but yeah, the Eds have looked after me today..

    • March 20th 2012 @ 6:44am
      mania said | March 20th 2012 @ 6:44am | ! Report

      its not the box kick or kicks in general that are the issue. its the players either not chasing or not knowing that a kick is coming. a bad kick can be made good by a great chase.

      • Columnist

        March 20th 2012 @ 8:39am
        Brett McKay said | March 20th 2012 @ 8:39am | ! Report

        Mania, that’s quite true, and that’s the point I’m making by mentioning du Preez and what Sheehan did on Sat night. Communication is obviously a big part of it too – the chase can only be effective if the chasers know it’s happening..

    • March 20th 2012 @ 6:55am
      kingplaymaker said | March 20th 2012 @ 6:55am | ! Report

      mania that doesn’t explain how almost every team in every country in the world is so bad at chasing them. I would suggest that actually it’s so difficult to chase one effectively that it rarely ever succeeds.

      • March 20th 2012 @ 7:03am
        mania said | March 20th 2012 @ 7:03am | ! Report

        kpm – and i would suggest that those teams are either not advised a kick is coming or they’re unfit. a bit generalising saying every team in every country is bad at chasing. AB’s and Boks do it well. those are 2 teams in 2 different countries.
        quarter finals at the WC last year was a contrasting view of how to and not to use the kick. Aus shouldnt have kicked that day and AB’s could’ve kicked more, but didnt need to.
        how can u say chasing a kick is difficult? its just running and watching the ball. the trick is being fit enough to chase all kicks all day and being advised/ or knowing that a kick is coming. the main part of this is just fitness and a desire to chase
        its team work…its what rugby’s all about

    • March 20th 2012 @ 7:26am
      kingplaymaker said | March 20th 2012 @ 7:26am | ! Report

      But Mania how many of these box kicks are successful? What percentage? I see players rushing to chase the kicks but such is the nature of the space they have to run in it is extremely difficult to get in the right place at the right time, while it’s even more difficult to land a succession of box kicks accurately. I can’t hardly remember seeing a match where a team has had anywhere near enough success with box kicks to justify the number they have sent up that have failed.

      • March 20th 2012 @ 8:12am
        thurl said | March 20th 2012 @ 8:12am | ! Report

        “I can’t hardly remember seeing a match where a team has had anywhere near enough success with box kicks to justify the number they have sent up that have failed.”

        Last years WC semi final, particulary the one where Kahui nailed Cooper, ball and all. (I was impressed with Cooper’s ability to retain possession thought.)

        • March 20th 2012 @ 8:26am
          kingplaymaker said | March 20th 2012 @ 8:26am | ! Report

          thurl but how many box kicks were unsuccessful in order to produce that one? And how many games of unsuccessful box kicking were there in order to produce that incident in that game? Of course a box kick can work once in a blue moon. The problem is that the percentage of the time it works is so low that it means repeatedly gifting ball to the opposition and squandering attacking situations to produce an occasional success.

      • March 20th 2012 @ 9:14am
        mania said | March 20th 2012 @ 9:14am | ! Report

        KPM – your discounting box kick as a valid attack option all because the aus conf 9’s suck at it. AB’s 9’s are good at the box kick. Piri being better and more selective than Cowan. duPreez (as brent mentioned above) is the master of it
        dont discount the box kick just because no one in aus knows how to use it properly. sometimes you have no choice and the only option is a box kick.
        get the aus 9’s to practice because this is a fundamental skill of a half back. box kix work if you do it well.

        thurl – makes a great point and alludes to the game i mentioned earlier. that was a game of contrast where the AB’s skooled Aus as to how box kick and kick in general play

        • March 20th 2012 @ 9:33am
          kingplaymaker said | March 20th 2012 @ 9:33am | ! Report

          mania not all issues in rugby are simply about whether Australia or New Zealand is better. I don’t think either country’s 9s box kicks successfully, because I don’t think the box kick is an effective tactic in rugby, and most of the time fails. That applies to the rest of the world too.

          • March 20th 2012 @ 10:02am
            mania said | March 20th 2012 @ 10:02am | ! Report

            kpm – its not the (box)kick here that is the issue. its the execution. by all means disregard it at your peril, but there will come a time when the box kick is your only option. are you going to tell every aus player never to use a box kick? thats crazy. as I’ve said there are great exponents of the box kick. Piri does well most of time and only when needed. duPreez at his best was the master.

            why have u got the attitude of disregarding it completely instead of trying to get players to do it better?

            NZ had a similar aversion to drop kicks and we’ve paid for it at several WC’s. only in the last 5 years has the drop kick started creeping back into AB’s arsenal.

            • March 20th 2012 @ 10:39am
              kingplaymaker said | March 20th 2012 @ 10:39am | ! Report

              Very rarely it could be used, or by a team who have no good backs and so have to rely on kicking as their only possible attacking strategy: such as Italy and Scotland.

              But if there are any good backs given how often it fails it is largely a waste of possession.

    • March 20th 2012 @ 7:37am
      Jack said | March 20th 2012 @ 7:37am | ! Report

      Poor kicking skills across the board in Oz Rugby is very frustrating. There are only one or two players who can kick 50 m plus (60-65 is needed to gain real territory. Are there any who can kick both feet?. The drop punt is used almost exclusively when its use in AFL is to kick accurately to another player or for goal. If your kicking for length and to make it hard for the catcher use a torp. Follow through the ball – your foot should finish above your head not your waist. Concentrate on every kick, every time. Missing goals from right in front should never happen through lack of concentration. The skill level of our Rugby players is sadly poor for professional full time athletes and seems to have gone backwards over the last 10 years. The best football kickers in the world are in AFL. Get a AFL kicking coach. See if anyone can get Barry Hall to give a kicking exhibition with a Rugby ball. I’d bet he could kick field goals from 60m.

      • Columnist

        March 20th 2012 @ 9:32am
        Brett McKay said | March 20th 2012 @ 9:32am | ! Report

        Jack, I missed your post before, my apologies..

        You mention accuracy with the drop punt vs the length of the torp, and like most things in rugby these days it’s become a risk v reward thing these days. If you’re kicking for the line, then the last thing you want is a shanked torp gaining you four and a half metres, when even a mis-timed drop punt will gain way more than that. A lot more NRL kickers use the drop punt these days, too, and for the same reason..

        • March 21st 2012 @ 12:28am
          Lorry said | March 21st 2012 @ 12:28am | ! Report

          But geez, a torpedo punt looks great in aussie rules doesn’t it?!!

          they dont do it enough,,,,

      • March 20th 2012 @ 12:28pm
        Bob said | March 20th 2012 @ 12:28pm | ! Report

        I would be very interested to see how well Barry Hall could execute a drop kick with accuracy under pressure. In a game he would not have enough time to put the ball down, pull up his socks, pick the ball up, sniff, take 4 or 5 prancing steps and bang it between the posts (potential bonus point if he misses). He will also need to ensure he connects with the ball on the half volley, it has to bounce.

      • Roar Rookie

        March 20th 2012 @ 5:48pm
        Die hard said | March 20th 2012 @ 5:48pm | ! Report

        They use an entirely different ball. I can get an extra 5-10 yards on an AFL ball easy and it is a lot easier to catch. Its great for force back down the park.

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