Rugby Union: Duel of the foot soldiers

Similarities are striking between Wales' champion of the kickers and England's young pretender
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The Independent Online
IT WAS an exciting coincidence that, on the day Neil Jenkins became the highest points scorer ever in European rugby union, England should unveil a long-awaited challenger to the kicking kings of the game. At 19 years of age, Jonny Wilkinson has a long way to go before he can compile enough evidence about his ability to be regarded as a serious contender for the throne but it would already be a mistake to treat him lightly - anyone who can slot over seven out of seven under the pressures of a Five Nations match is a force to be recognised.

While Wilkinson was hammering 21 nails into France's coffin at Twickenham last weekend, Jenkins was assisting Wales with 30 points in their 60- 21 victory over Italy in Treviso, and in doing so overtook Gavin Hastings as the top European points-scorer with a total of 745. This still leaves him short of Michael Lynagh's world top mark of 911 but you wouldn't want to bet against him passing that one day.

Inevitably, Wilkinson's sudden arrival on the kicking scene will introduce a High Noon note to the clash between Wales and England at Wembley in two weeks' time. Kicking for goal has always been important in that match and will be particularly so the way England are playing. It will a harsh trial for the youngster but I always found that the more deadly the man up against me, the more concentrated and determined I became. And there is no one more deadly than Jenkins.

He is the best kicker in the world - and I include both codes in that assessment. He has been so for some time and that puts him ahead of some excellent kickers I've seen at close quarters and really admire such as Matthew Ridge, Daryl Halligan and Frano Botica, the former All Black who turned to league. Our own Andy Farrell of Wigan would also come into that category, as would Iestyn Harris, who we can see in action in the Challenge Cup semi-final this afternoon; although it is not easy to compare kicking in league and union.

Union kickers are usually better at long distances because they get more practice. The league boys don't care for the long pot because if you miss it you've surrendered possession. If you miss a kick in union it'll be a drop out or, if they catch it, you usually get a line-out. Either way, you get the ball back so there's more incentive to have a go. Even accurate long kickers like Paul Thorburn or Rob Andrew wouldn't have been encouraged to try it in league.

What makes Jenkins the greatest of the moment is the technique which he has developed totally on his own, without any coaching at all. It is a highly individual style which at first earned him some ridicule as he stood crouched with his hands twitching as if in a trance. But he had the courage to ignore the cat-calls and perfect a method and a swing that seem now to be armour-plated against pressure.

Although he comes at the ball from an angle he doesn't curl his kicks like so many. He hits them straight and whereas most kickers prefer one side or the other it doesn't matter to him which part of the park he has to kick from. He just focuses on the ball and kicks through it with a consistency so dependable it seems almost nonchalant.

There's no doubt that Wilkinson has many of Neil's qualities. I met him in Dublin recently and he impressed me as a nice guy and very level-headed. Unlike the self-coached Jenkins, he has spent a long time under the wing of the specialist Dave Alred and has obviously benefited from it. It depends on the individual whether you derive anything from being coached or whether it is better to develop your own style. I was self-taught but when I hit a bad patch of kicking in league I was glad of some advice from Kel Coslett.

I'm not sure being a left-footer is an advantage or not. I don't recall many in the past but now it is something that Wilkinson shares with Farrell and South Africa's Percy Montgomery. What he does have in common with all the great kickers is that he devotes every possible minute to practice and he looks so assured as he shapes to kick.

Practising kicking sounds easy but it isn't. I used to hate staying on the pitch after the others had finished training. I forced myself to do it but the kicks didn't mean anything. I found it difficult to focus and I got no thrill at all at seeing the ball go over. Stick 60,000 people around the pitch and I found it a much more tempting prospect. There were some defeat or victory situations I would prefer to avoid but it was exciting and I put every last ounce of concentration into it.

The biggest battle I found was to prevent my fortunes with the boot affecting the rest of my game. This is another big strength with Jenkins. He doesn't go through many bad patches, but when he does it makes no difference to the way he plays. When Wilkinson first played for England in Australia last year he didn't have an auspicious start after missing a couple of kicks.

It is not only the pressure before a kick you've got to handle, it is the pressure after missing one. It is difficult to give your best attention to your other duties when you want the ground to open up and swallow you. But all this is part of a great kicker's development. It is the most thankless task on the field and it's a special player who conquers it.