What a kick… it’s only fitting it helped win the match!
How often do we hear the groans and cries of “Don’t kick it!” from disgruntled fans every time the ball is kicked away.
It wasn’t long ago that the Waratahs were heavily criticised for the amount of possession they were giving away, embarking on an ‘aerial ping pong’ duel with opposing teams as spectators’ necks swivelled like clowns at Luna Park, waiting for the ball to be plugged down our throat.
For all we knew, we could have been in the stands at Wimbledon or the at the MCG watching that other football code, as we witnessed game upon game of the same low-risk, conservative game plan.
Thankfully, those sighs of frustration are now being replaced by raucous applause and cheers every time a line break is made inside a defensive half, as teams throw caution to the wind and adopt a counter-attacking philosophy that attracts more fans.
As a player, it’s the sort of game I want to be involved in as well. Like the common spectator, I prefer a faster-paced, high-risk style of play, where the ball rarely gets kicked into touch and teams attack phase after phase with the ball in hand.
We all want the same thing.
However, even as the disgruntled gentleman in the 22nd row has remained silent for the past umpteen months, there is more kicking now then there was ever before, as the rise of attacking box, long and short kicks are being employed.
So why aren’t we hearing all the negative connotations usually associated with putting boot to ball?
Teams like the All Blacks have shown you don’t need the majority of territory or possession to win matches. They are extremely comfortable with playing without the ball and backing their resolute defence and a ‘snatch and grab’ counter-attacking game plan to overcome teams, often in the final five to ten minutes of games.
In Round 2 of this year’s Super Rugby tournament, over half of the tries scored came from kicks – cross-field kicks, grubbers, chip and chase, you name it. Even Rebels flanker Scott Higginbotham got in on the act, as he pulled his pitching wedge out from his bag to put the ball on a plate for fullback Jason Woodward.
It’s a skill that is becoming more and more important, as defences become harder to crack. Gone are the days when you could put it through the hands to the winger and score in the corner. The modern rugby player needs to have options, an innate ability to change his mindset, and the footballing skills to deliver in the heat of battle.
Rather than aimlessly booting the ball downfield and hoping for a mistake from the opposition, contestable kicks are being employed in an attempt to get the ball back and it’s these types of kicks which keep us burying our heads in our hands every time the ball goes in the air.
Halfbacks spend countless minutes in training perfecting their box kick, wingers the same chasing them, and as a fullback, one of the most fundamental parts of my job descriptions is to be comfortable and combative under the high ball.
On top of this, restarts and kick offs are now referred to as the ‘third set piece’, behind lineouts and scrums. It’s why positions such as tighthead prop and flyhalf are so valuable in the modern game, as set pieces take up the majority of game time and are so important for teams to lay the foundation for the rest of their attack.
As well as this – and this is why I sympathised with the Waratahs when they were getting it from all angles a few years back – there is always a reason why and when teams kick the ball.
Each week, video analysts, coaches and players all gather and sift through countless hours of footage of past games of the opposition they are due to face on the forthcoming weekend. They identify strengths and weaknesses of their opponents’ game and where they feel they can take advantage and punch holes in their defence and nullify their opponents’ attack and key players.
In relation to kicking, a team like Wales might endorse a ‘blitz’ style defence, where they rush and attempt to suffocate a team’s attack. We often see this in teams that play Quade Cooper, to limit his time and space with the ball, as if given it he can tear teams apart. Kicking in behind this strong line of defence early in games forces defences to rethink their mindset. It’s all part of being smarter than your opponent.
Adaptations to the rules of the game have also reduced the amount of negative kicking taking place. Not being able to kick the ball out on the full when the ball has been passed back into your 22m area has seen the rise in amount of time the ball is in play, which is ultimately what we all want to see. It’s why the amount of time taken at scrum time – to reset, stand, then reset again – is frustrating for players and supporters alike.
I’d like to see that rule being taken even further to not being able to kick the ball out on the full at any stage, but I’m not sure if the IRB, or my lungs for that matter, would be able to cope with it.
Players have also caught on to the fact a penalty advantage is a ‘free play’ – like a zero tackle in league, they can use it to try something (like a chip, cross field kick), and know that if it doesn’t come off they can always come back for the penalty.
This has led to the sight of the 10 dropping back in the pocket and having a shot at drop goal diminish as teams go for five instead of three.
However, and we Aussies don’t need to be reminded of this, a drop goal can win a Test match, or even a World Cup was it? I don’t remember.
The bottom line is that teams will do anything to win matches, even if it means kicking the leather off the ball and upsetting their supporters.
We play the game to win, and will do anything to get the desired result.