Bernard Foley’s Spring Tour goal-kicking was far from the only issue the Wallabies need to address in 2017, but it did raise a broader issue that has afflicted Australian rugby at the highest levels for several years now.
For the Tour Foley kicked 19 goals from 25 attempts, a success rate of 76 per cent. It’s marginally down from his 2016 success rate of 76.3 per cent and down further from his career rate of 76.8 per cent.
But it does now highlight just how good his 2015 Rugby World Cup return of 28 from 35 – an 80 per cent success rate – really was.
These numbers are mostly sourced from the usually excellent South African-based website www.goalkickers.co.za; I say ‘usually’ because for reasons unknown it doesn’t include the final weekend of 2016 internationals in its numbers as yet. Its last update was 28 November, taking in the weekend including the Wallabies’ match against Ireland.
Nevertheless, to that point, Foley had kicked 16 our of 20, or 80 per cent, ranking him fifth among all kickers. The ranking formulas used by Goalkickers take into account things like average difficulty of each shot as well as pure flags up or flags down as the ball passes the uprights.
Ireland flyhalf Paddy Jackson (13 from 13, 100 per cent, ranked first) and Welsh fullback Leigh Halfpenny (18 from 22, 81.8 per cent, second) topped Foley in the overall rankings of the ‘regular’ kickers, though Foley was rated ahead of All Blacks flyhalf Beauden Barrett (11 from 12, 91.7 per cent, eighth), Argentinean flyhalf Nico Sanchez (16 from 19, 84.2 per cent, 10th), Scotland skipper Greig Laidlaw (14 from 17, 82.4 per cent, 16th), and England centre Owen Farrell (17 from 24, 70.8 per cent, 32nd).
Looking in Foley’s Spring Tour kicks – specifically the first four Tests – a bit deeper makes for interesting reading.
For one thing, having clicked on all twenty of those dots, a couple of things stick out.
Foley hadn’t missed a penalty goal at all in the first four Tests, though you might recall he missed one from in front to start the Test against England;
He had only two attempts at goal from inside the 15m tramlines down the right-hand side of the field; this has always been, and remains his weak point on the field.
The majority of conversion attempts were down the left or in front of the posts, suggesting that the Wallabies had a clear left-side bias in their attack or that if anyone did cross out wide down the right, they improved the position of the conversion on all but one occasion; and
Including the England test, Foley kicked 9 from 10 penalties and 10 from 15 conversions.
Foley’s Super Rugby return was slightly higher than his full 2016 season, with my spreadsheet marking him down for 47 from 60, or 78.3 per cent. The breakdown was 34 from 40 conversions and 13 from 20 penalties, which doesn’t sound like a lot, though it should be remembered he missed the first five rounds this season on return from Japan.
Of the ‘regular’ Australian kickers in Super Rugby this season Christian Lealiifano kicked 64 from 81 at 79 per cent for the Brumbies, Reds flyhalf Jake McIntyre kicked 25 from 37 at 68 per cent and Rebels 10 Jack Debreczeni managed only 45 from 69 at 65 per cent as be battled at times just to hold his spot in the team.
The Western Force’s kicking was shared between Jonno Lance (13 from 15, 87 per cent) until he got injured, Peter Grant (22 from 28, 79 per cent) when he took over, and Ian Prior (15 from 16, 94 per cent), who finished the season as the preferred kicker. The Force did a lot wrong in 2016, but their kicking at goal was the best in the country.
These broader numbers are where one clear deficiency in Australian rugby emerges.
In reality Australian kickers just haven’t reached the lofty – or ‘match-winning’, to put it another way – heights of 80 per cent for any consistent period, never mind over a career.
In this day an age when specialist skills, like scrummaging, lineout throwing and indeed kicking out of hand, have specialist coaches charged with their oversight, why is it that Australian goal-kickers haven’t progressed from that fair-to-middling pack?
The Wallabies haven’t really had a sharp-shooting goal-kicker since maybe Matthew Burke, and to find one at Super Rugby level you almost have to go back to someone like David Knox.
Worryingly, the next group of Australian players are no better, with goal-kicking averages in the NRC stuck at plus-or-minus 70 per cent for the three seasons of the competition.
Most front-line kickers these days do have personal mentors. Foley himself has done some work with Andrew Mehrtens, and Lealiifano has used not-the-former-Rebels-coach Damien Hill for years. But is the odd session here and there or an irregular video review enough to find the improvements needed?
The figures suggest not.
I’m not sure that goal-kicking is part of Mick Byrne’s remit as national skills coach and, frankly, he’s got enough on his plate trying to lift the national skill level anyway.
But if the Australian Super Rugby sides and the Wallabies truly want to take that next step in terms of consistency, kicking three from five every game isn’t good enough.
The benchmark needs to be 80 per cent; if you can consistently kick eight goals from every ten attempts, you’ll win a lot more games than you will kicking only six or seven.
A national goal-kicking coach, therefore, is something that should be given serious thought. The benefits should be clear to all and the workload is similarly obvious when the Australian success rates are highlighted.
Given these numbers haven’t really changed over the last however many years, it makes you wonder why it hasn’t been considered before. No doubt there is the question of affordability, but when no Australian kicker has stood out as being world class for years, can we really afford not to?
Give the right person a bag of balls and a frequent flyer card and reap the benefits.