“Don’t you do it!”
How many of us were thinking that, no screaming it, as Nic White went to box kick the ball away in the final minutes of the Dunedin Test Match?
The ‘House of Pain’ took on a whole new meaning as our most experienced scrum-half turned over possession needlessly.
Nic White apologists will say it was the ‘game plan’. They’ll even argue that he should be “allowed to play like Tate.” The problem with that argument is that White doesn’t seem to know how to anymore.
As far back as March 2015, ESPN published an article titled ‘Why Nic White doesn’t need the box-kick’.
ESPN noted that statistics from Super Rugby showed that “when [White] avoids the box-kick, he is among the most creative playmakers in the game.” It even referred to him as ‘nippy’.
In 2019 during a game between Exeter and Harlequins, Joe Marler, ever the wise guy was caught on the ref’s microphone telling White “You’re f*cking boring me, hurry up!”.
And therein lies the problem. White has 8 years of history of slowing the game down, box kicking away possession.
Across teams, coaches and hemispheres. Provincial and Test level.
It has become almost his style or habit and it’s clear that he’s not the same ‘nippy’ player he was in 2015.
Part of the explanation for White’s style, only part of it, must come from the general trajectory of the game and the laws governing it. After all, if scrum halves can dawdle while fully protected at the back of a ruck, there must be some attraction.
According to Opta Stats Platform, at the Rugby World Cup in 1987, the box kick made up 5% of all kicks in open play. By 2019 that was a whopping 23%.
Let that sink in, in 1987 about one in every 20 kicks was the pesky box kick. Just 32 years later it was almost one in four.
The box kick has both slowed play from the base of the ruck as well a reduced the need for creative centres and artful wingers. Would Campo or Paul Carozza or even Jonah Lomu have thrived in an aerial environment?
Teams now play the percentages. It’s also no coincidence there were roughly 30 offloads per game in 1987 compared with just 15 in 2019. Interestingly, turnovers almost halved during that time, mirroring the statistic.
Let’s be clear. Just playing the percentage, the box kick does have a place in international rugby. Even if it has become far too regular an occurrence for most of us.
The problem is, White’s execution of the kick itself as well as his option taking (read, when to box kick) have become atrocious. It’s almost his default position.
Kicking back possession to the All Blacks when scores are level and there are 180 seconds of play left is like throwing gasoline on a fire.
Doing so without proper chasers and without any length on the kick is suicidal. No ‘game plan’ advocates poor execution.
More than that, this is a Wallaby team that has speed and creativity. It’s a team flush with instinctive footballers. They don’t need ‘experience’ coming on to the field and moving them away from what is working.
Especially, when that ‘experience’ hasn’t won a Bledisloe after ten years of trying.
It is harsh but surely if the box kick was the way, we’d have won a few of those tight games White has been involved in?
The Australian way is not ‘box kicking’ 25 percent of the time like other sides apparently do. If Eddie is serious about creating Australia’s own rugby identity it must be with a nine that doesn’t box kick as his default option.
While I think Eddie will take Nick White to the World Cup, he shouldn’t.
McDermott, Lachlan Lonergan and even Isaak Fines-Leleiwasa should go ahead of him.
People talk about McDermott’s pass as being below standard. Yet, he had the back line humming for 40 minutes in Dunedin in a way it hasn’t for quite some time.
He challenged defenders around the ruck, seemed to have a better than average rapport with the officials, took his options pretty well.
This side needs to believe it can win. The young players can’t be saddled with a losing way.
Nic White’s box kick is no longer the answer. If it ever was.