Rewind the clock, back to the Rugby World Cup final, Sydney 2003.
Phil Larder peered out from the coaches’ booth with a worried frown on his face. The Wallabies had just scored a try from their first meaningful attack in only the sixth minute of the game. And they had done it from a kick:
Stephen Larkham hoisted an accurate cross-field kick for six foot five of Lote Tuqiri to out-jump five foot nine of Jason Robinson and dot down in the corner.
It had all happened rather too easily for comfort. Phil looked across at the kicking coach Dave Alred meaningfully:
“I was thinking… I bloody well hope they don’t do that again. I knew it was a play we couldn’t defend with the people we had on the field. But for some reason, they didn’t repeat it”.
We all know what happened on that famous day – and how the game was won by a kick. The incident encapsulates so much about Australia’s attitude to the kicking game.
For most of the time, it is neglected in favour of keeping the ball in hand – even on occasions when Australian teams can extract an obvious advantage from its use. Because it’s neglected, best practice withers on the vine.
Recently the ex-Wallaby centre and Rebels backs’ coach Morgan Turinui addressed this issue in a podcast at RugbyRuckus:
“You could write an article about the challenges [facing] Australia’s kicking game. When did we ever have a good kicking game?
‘Bernie’ [Stephen Larkham] couldn’t kick, Mat Rogers had a left foot but wasn’t tactically brilliant…
We used to get murdered by [Ronan] O’Gara every time we played Ireland, or [Neil] Jenkins when we played Wales. We are just not a good kicking team. Any time someone spits on the ground or it’s greasy, we’re not a good field position kicking team.
So… it’s flawed to say this Australian rugby team is poor at kicking. Australian rugby has been poor at kicking for 20 years…
We put laws in place to discourage kicking – at the lower levels of the game like NRC… then we whinge when your kicking for poles and for touch isn’t great. So, we’re reaping what we sow there, and tactically we are what we’ve always been.”
Turinui’s ‘live’ comments betray a fascinating, conflicting mix of emotions about the idea of kicking a rugby ball.
On the one hand, ‘we’ve never been any good at kicking, so why should we worry about it now?’
On the other, ‘we’ve never been any good at kicking, why haven’t we moved with trends in the game?’.
Turinui’s interlocutor on the podcast (Ben Kimber) picked him up on the statement that “it’s flawed to say this Australian rugby team is poor at kicking.” Not flawed, but absolutely accurate, said Kimber – and rightly so.
It is, however, flawed to say that Australian rugby has always been poor at kicking. The great 1984 Wallaby touring side succeeded when it slotted in a kicking fly-half (Michael Lynagh) alongside a dyed-in-the-wool runner and passer (Mark Ella).
That team had other superb kickers too, like Roger Gould and Brendan Moon.
Rod Macqueen’s world-leading team of the late 1990s and early noughties had terrific boots from the back like Joe Roff, Matt Burke and Chris Latham – and Larkham did learn to pull the strings from ten, as the Tuqiri try shows.
The second question is raised by Phil Larder’s reaction. Why don’t Australian teams choose not to put the ball in the air when they have the weapons to hurt their opponents?
The Wallabies’ best performance of 2018 was their win over Ireland in the first Test at Brisbane, and that came on the back of Israel Folau’s domination of the airwaves.
When Ireland improved their defence in the second match of the series, the kicking game was abandoned rather too readily – and only returned fitfully for the rest of the season.
The final match of the year, against England at Twickenham, demonstrated that the kicking game is still not trusted by Michael Cheika, and therefore it doesn’t operate efficiently.
Out of 17 Wallaby kicks for position during the game, only three had positive outcomes.
Kicking is unavoidable when you’re looking to relieve pressure in your own end, and exit from within the 22-metre zone. Accuracy in the detail is at a premium. Wallaby captain Michael Hooper received the opening kick-off and set up a ruck on the right 15-metre line:
From here you could kick directly off ten from this position, or move the ball closer to the right sideline for a box-kick off nine. The Wallabies instead chose to move the ball via two carries towards the posts.
This is not the ideal scenario from which to find touch:
After taking the pass square, Dane Haylett-Petty takes far longer to shape his body towards the sideline than if he was positioned to one side of the field or the other.
That right foot-to-left touch is a difficult kick to make successfully, and the preparation time required gives England scrum-half Ben Youngs the chance to block the clearance down. England scored their first try from the following 5-metre scrum.
Australia repeated the same process at the next England restart, with Will Genia missing Matt Toomua with his pass into the in-goal area, and they did it throughout the game:
Again, the play starts on the 15-metre line (this time on the left), with the Wallabies moving the ball towards the posts for the exit by Bernard Foley:
The clearance effectively gives Australia two open-sides to defend, a situation where the chasers won’t be able to use the sideline to help them. It’s an easy return for England, they can run the ball back to the Australian 40m line and establish a commanding central position on the counter.
The issue of creating two open-sides on the chase should have cost the Wallabies a try in the second half:
After Matt Toomua launches the kick, the chase on to England wing Joe Cokanasiga becomes fatally split, with a gap developing between the third man (Jack Dempsey) and the first two (Foley and Israel Folau):
Quite how Cokanasiga found a way not to finish the break with a try remains a mystery.
Other aspects of the Wallaby pursuit put the accuracy of their fragile kicking game under further pressure:
Here the system requires left wing Jack Maddocks to swing all the way over from his natural position in order to chase down the right – an issue I examined in this article a few weeks ago. Although Maddocks makes the tackle, the defence is far too thin to prevent England from making further progress on the following phase.
Matters did not improve when Australia went to the box kick off Will Genia:
The kick is much too short and hands all of the momentum over England. When they kick on the following play, it is with a cohesive three-man chase which pins Israel Folau to the sideline and gives him nowhere to go. Hooper was forced to give up a penalty for sealing off at the ensuing ruck.
The irony is that there were tantalising glimpses of what Australia might have achieved with a more lucid kicking policy:
Kicks with the right length and hang-time found two outstanding chasers in the shape of Folau and Haylett-Petty – and putting one of those two up under the high ball constitutes the best defence for a chasing team!
England created 20 points worth of scoring chances directly from the inadequacies of Australia’s kicking game at Twickenham. The comments of Morgan Turinui suggest that the Australian attitude toward kicking the rugby ball is a complex one. ‘We prefer to keep ball in hand but we know we should practice it more’ might be a good summary.
The best Australian teams have always featured very good kickers of a rugby ball.
They have always found a way to pick an Ella, but add a Lynagh to whisper in his ear. To manufacture a Larkham, but find others to cover his (perceived) shortfalls.
The current Wallaby squad may lack a left boot of the quality of Latham, Roff or Brendan Moon, but a better fist of the kicking game can certainly be made before the World Cup in 2019.
Australia has two outstanding high ball artists in the form of Israel Folau and Dane Haylett-Petty, they just need to find the right kickers, and plan the right scenarios to make them lethal weapons on chase.
They cannot skirt around the planning part of the process for sure, because the detail in the planning determines the accuracy of the execution. Do it, and do it consistently, and the Wallabies may yet bring those worried frowns back to opposing coaching booths. They may even wipe the grin off Eddie Jones’ face.