Rugby Union: Capable kickers hold key

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The Independent Online
THE MOOD of English and Scottish rugby supporters is going up and down like a yo-yo, and no wonder. The mood of Welsh supporters is descending like a cage down a mineshaft in the days when we still had mines, and there is no great surprise about that either.

The Welsh humiliation lay not so much in losing to Canada (who ran England close at Wembley a year ago) as in losing by two tries to nil. Scotland A, by contrast, lost to New Zealand by a try to two drop goals. It is accordingly arguable, though only just, that the Scots deserved to win.

Anyway, the memory of the mid- week massacre of the Borders was ameliorated though not obliterated. Do they not have any big men in the Borders any more?

It was madness to go into a match against what are not a particularly big New Zealand pack with a weight disadvantage of two stones a man.

It is not a mistake which the Scottish selectors have made. If Alan Watt, who is over 19 stones, could have been joined by Iain Milne (now retired from international rugby), Scotland would have had the heaviest front row on record, though readers are welcome to correct me if they possess information to the contrary.

But, as we know, Saturday's match will not be decided by the weight of the front three, the height of the back five, the elusiveness of the halves, the penetration of the centres or the speed of the wings.

Unless the New Zealanders run away with the Scots as they did with the Londoners (a more complimentary comparison than the Borderers), the match will be decided by the boot.

Here the Scots are blessed with two fine place-kickers in Gavin Hastings and Craig Chalmers. Together they provide one or maybe two reasons why the Scots should not abandon hope.

England can afford to be happier than they were a few days ago. Jeremy Guscott has announced his fitness to play on 27 November.

When I saw him on Saturday, he was enjoying a substantial lunch of curry, rice and chips in the Polteney Arms before watching his side beat Newcastle Gosforth in the rain.

The other piece of good English news from this game was that Jonathan Callard had a 70 per cent strike rate with his kicking. The previously metronomic Matthew Cooper, by contrast, had a strike rate of 0.55 against Scotland A.

It has been suggested that his confidence may have been bruised by his comparatively simple failures and that by Saturday he will be a nervous wreck.

Somehow I doubt it. If he is a true New Zealander he will spend the week practising and be as good as ever on the day.

A friend of mine, a reader of this column, believes that it is in some way subversive - detructive of the spirit of the game - for me to point week after week to the importance of place-kicking. But in matters of rugby I am a philosophical positivist.

Certainly I should like the value of the penalty to be reduced to two points; the number of directly punishable offences to be reduced further; and handling to be allowed in the ruck. In the meantime, I have to accept the world as it is.

By this criterion, it is sensible for Alan Davies to play Neil Jenkins in the Welsh team. If no kicker had been available last Wednesday, Wales would have gone down 26-0 not 26-24, for all Wales' points came from Jenkins' penalties.

What is not sensible is to play him at inside centre, Scott Gibbs' preferred position.

Yet how can selectors - or, for that matter, commentators - be sensible about anything when no tables of strike rate are regularly published? We sometimes get tables of total points scored through kicking. But that is not the same thing.

Rugby is notoriously cavalier about statistics. This is in some ways admirable. I should still like to know who the best place kicker in England currently is, from First to Third Division.

I would then play him, perhaps on the wing, on 27 November.