Not to mention, rugby was born when a whimsical William Webb Ellis infamously picked up the ball and carried it during a football match in 1823.
Possession and positioning are paramount
Contemporary rugby union consists of comprehensive athleticism and skill. Technique is everything when putting ball to boot.
Around the turn of the millennium, kicking became more of an integral component due to advances in ball and boot development. Playing surfaces have also played a part in upping the game speed too, with improved natural and synthetic pitches.
Kicking phases can sometimes resemble a giant game of kick tennis – to the disapproval of some rugby purists who aren’t big on aimless kicks. Extensively trading kicks, from opposing 22-metre zones. Affording the opposite team cheap possession should be swerved at all costs.
Simply put, we love to see big carries as spectators; heavy hits and players breaking the defensive line because these components characterise rugby’s entertaining essence. But when you’re competing to win, tactics take precedent.
It’s generally considered New Zealand’s All Blacks are the greatest team to ever grace the game. Capable of magnificent, comprehensive rugby at the highest level in sweltering sun or in a snowstorm, they’re always a spectacle to behold. And notorious for big hits and handling flair down the years (think Lomu, McCaw, Sonny Bill). Each squads’ been rightfully feared for their imperious running game.
But the Kiwis gradually implemented kicking as the foundation for their domination from the mid-noughties, mostly via Dan Carter’s right boot.
They like to play the territory card by kicking and forcing their opponents into mistakes or poor return kicks. This way, they’re able to pounce on broken defensive lines and exploit any gaps opened up as a result of the initial attacking kick.
All kicks are not created equal…
Place kicks off the tee are straight-forward enough – nudge the ball through the posts to convert tries and penalties. Easier said than done for the sub-par kickers out there.
Kicks in open play come in a variety of shapes and purposes. Let’s run through them then, beginning with the end-over-end. The most basic one, backspin, is generated by kicking the bottom of the ball, so it flies straight, making it the go-to technique for accuracy. For finding touch from medium distances, it’s the most effective.
Alternatively, players can employ the torpedo. Living up to its name, the ‘spiral’, as its also known, is used for finding touch or clearing lines. Wonderful when executed properly with a heightened slice risk, the spiral kick is a rarity in rugby these days and considered the hardest kick. A booming torpedo is always a welcome sight in a match, yet it’s becoming a lost art. Fewer players are able to pull them off.
The grubber is a winner with fans and is fairly easy to do. Kicking the top of the ball horizontally into the ground causes it to pop up in the air at will for pursuing runners to gather. Using the unpredictable nature of the ball’s bounce is a top tactic, especially in tricky playing conditions. We’ll be amazed if you haven’t already marveled over Finn Russell’s outrageous nutmeg try. With his weaker left foot too. Filthy.
Those who back themselves with the ball at their feet enjoy a fly-hack from time to time, playing the ball while it’s on the deck. Admittedly a lot harder with an egg-shaped ball, it’s generally never coached but can be a nightmare for defenders due to the element of surprise. Beuden Barrett is a master footballer on the rugby field.
Then there’s the winger’s special, the chip and chase. Doing exactly what it says on the tin, quick players knock the ball slightly over an oncoming defender to regather.
When and why kick the ball?
Kicking is almost always from the backline, particularly the two half-backs. Number tens and full-backs tend to take command of kicking for touch, place kicking off a tee and drop kicks.
Space in which nines have to operate is limited. Box-kicking scrum-halves relieve pressure on themselves (and their team, if they’re under the kosh) while simultaneously providing an opportunity to contest a high ball further up the field to begin another attacking phase.
A perfectly executed cross-field kick is a thing of beauty. They save the hassle of going through the hands when a quick ball is needed in an opposite corner.
For teams under pressure near their own try line, hoofing the ball clear is always a welcome relief and usually the safest exit strategy. Trying to run the ball from your own 5-metre is high risk and could lead to a perilous turnover.
running, passing, kicking
Teams’ playing styles vary based on squad attributes and preferences over any of these three facets of the sport.
Of course, every team has to carry the ball – running and passing it. Some teams prefer to stick to the ball-in-hand philosophy as much as possible, relegating the reliance on kicking. Nations like Samoa and Fiji famously play fast, free-flowing rugby. The play style preference in this part of the world leans toward running and is heavily centered around offloads.
By contrast, let’s take Saracens as a case study. During the 2014/15 Premiership season, they averaged 20.9 kicks per match – considerably more than any other team and dominated the season as champions. With such superior kickers in the squad, they were bound to excel, but the stat principally highlights the value of frequent and precise kicking.
Neither game style should overpower another in a match – kicking is meant to enhance it. The magic of rugby is striking a synergy between good hands, pace and kicks.
The effectiveness of kicking depends on good vision and the ability to execute perfectly placed pings around the pitch. It also demands tactical awareness and willing runners. You’ll see all the best kickers have an important component in common – their boots.
Ultimately, the kicking game serves as a means to dictate gameplay. But a match’s narrative is always fluid, and the style of rugby changes accordingly. With solid kick-chasing and first phase pack play, teams establish advantageous positions up the pitch from a simple swing of a boot.