Rugby Union: Showman's art is alive and kicking: Geoffrey Nicholson discusses the mind games played by those who rule by the boot

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AS if their job was not difficult enough already, place-kickers are the only rugby players who have to put up with being booed by their own supporters. Not after they fail; that's usually met with an embarrassed but fairly sympathetic silence. It's from the moment they are called up to take a kick at goal that the crass romantics in the stands start hooting and baying for their side to run the ball.

They receive bursts of adulation, too, when single-footed they win the match for their sides, as Jonathan Callard did for England, and Neil Jenkins for Wales last weekend. But that meant there was just as much heart-felt wretchedness for Gavin Hastings and Eric Elwood, equally eloquent kickers on their day, who narrowly failed to do so on behalf of Scotland and Ireland.

You wonder why they put themselves through it. But then it's not so much a job as a calling, and one in which they take a lonely pride. The crowd may be as grudging as a matinee audience in a Glasgow music hall. But the high-kickers hold the spotlight, they are the stars.

'I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it, would I?' says Jenkins, who has been a regular place-kicker ever since he joined the Pontypridd Under-11s. 'You have to take the flak, but I suppose I just like scoring points and stuff.' This he does on the grandest scale: 170 in 19 internationals, a marginally better average (8.98) than Paul Thorburn's Welsh record of 304 points from 37 Tests. And Jenkins is still only 22 years old. His eight penalty goals against Canada last autumn equalled the world record, and he has gone one better in a club match for Pontypridd against Pontypool.

For all that, Jenkins is not a flamboyant character as some earlier place-kickers were. Billy Bancroft, who captained Wales at the turn of the century, had a party-piece in which he would remove the corner flag, place the ball in the hole and float it in a shallow arc between the posts. Bob Scott, the powerful New Zealand full-back, who shivered the timbers if ever he struck them, would demonstrate that although now he was able to afford boots he could still kick prodigious distances with his bare feet. And England's Bob Hiller, the last and most lethal of the great toe-kickers, was also given to a more subtle showmanship. He seemed to delight in antagonising opponents, and referees, by his patient deliberation; and the more the crowd whistled the more slowly and meticulously he lined up the ball.

Nowadays place-kickers tend to be less cavalier, more inward-looking, as they go through their set routines to help them concentrate. Kicking has become a deadly serious business. It has always won matches. In fact in the earliest days a try just gave you the right to a try at goal; it didn't count in itself. Now, a century on, like it or not, kicking has come back into its own.

Don Rutherford, the RFU's technical administrator, and no mean toe-kicker for Gloucester and England in his day, points to the obvious reasons: 'Under the present rules tries are much harder to score and more penalties are given. But also the ball is lighter so that now you have to give every consideration to kicking goals from anywhere between the two 10-metre lines.

'I'm not so sure, but the change in style over the last 20 years or so from toe-end to round-the-corner kicking may also have something to do with it. It was Barry John who started the fashion, putting the ball down and just stroking it through the posts. Once they saw it on TV, almost everyone took it up.'

If anyone was still in any doubt about the new method, John Taylor, the Welsh flanker, clinched the argument in its favour at Murrayfield in 1971. Being left-footed he was taking the kicks from the right of the field, while Barry John took those from the left. So it fell to him a few minutes from no-side, with Scotland leading 18-17, to take a conversion which would win or lose the match. Only five yards in from touch, he swung round on the ball and sent it curling in to the goal. And the boot which delivered the victory is still on display at the London Welsh club.

'With toe-kicking the point of contact had to be very precise,' Rutherford says, 'but with the instep it's larger and so the error factor might just work in favour of the round-the-corner kickers.

'Either way it's all to do with developing a rhythm, hitting the ball at the optimum time and speed. That, and checking where your left foot is going to land when you place the ball. It's the balancing foot - assuming you kick with your right foot - and it has to be firmly planted. If it slips you're buggered.'

The other thing that kickers work hard on today, Rutherford says, is visualising the kick before they take it. Callard agrees: 'You think about the ball and form a mental image, picturing it going through the posts.' Jenkins does the same but takes it further: 'I try to focus on a spot between the posts, and imagine the touch judges putting up their flags.'

It was Grant Fox, the All Blacks stand-off, who perfected the mental rehearsal, the stylised ritual, the robotic movement - then bang, another three points. Though not the most fluid of players, he is the ultimate technocrat and highly influential. Jenkins says that he studied Fox on film, watched how he concentrated as he move into position, and set out to do the same. 'I line up the ball. Always use sand if it's there. Take four steps back and two to the left. Then picture the goal.'

Fox's composure is not so easy to copy, and at one point last winter Jenkins was having difficulties. He seemed to be striking the ball well, but he would kick one goal and then miss the next. He talked it over with Julian Baker, a karate champion who acts as fitness adviser to the Pontypridd club. 'What he told me was, before I took a kick, to put all my problems behind me in a little black box. Like putting your tools away. And that's what I do every time. It may sound funny, but it works. It helps me a lot.'

He certainly had his little black box in Dublin, for in spite of a couple of misses, his kicking got better, not worse. 'I scuffed the first. I don't know where the hell the ball went. But I knew that I had practised well, so I wasn't too concerned. But then just before the last kick, the ball toppled over. Now in Cardiff two years ago, the last kick fell just the same, and I remembered Mike Hall telling me not to worry and to take my time. That came back to me and I did what he told me then.' He struck the ball perfectly from 42 metres, and the kick won the match.

Composure doesn't come easily to Jenkins. 'I sometimes get hyperactive and start shouting at myself, but on last summer's tour to Zimbabwe Alan Davies, our coach, talked to me about it and calmed me down, and I think I've matured quite a bit this season.'

Callard is less the method actor. Apart from little matters like preferring a plastic tee, a small blue disc which he hands to a ball-boy before the match, he follows much the same routine as Jenkins but less self-analytically. When I mention Fox he says: 'You know you could ruin me, making me think I should be doing things differently.' But there seems to be no great danger of that.

He also had his misses at Murrayfield, but without suffering agonies of self-doubt. 'You know when you haven't hit it right, but instead of going through your technique you put it out of your mind a minute later. You know that no two kicks are ever from the same position, and next time you will be yourself again.'

Callard believes that the best you can do is 'practise and practise and hope your technique stays with you'. But though both men do so more or less daily it's never for very long. For Callard a session is 12 to 18 kicks: 'More than that and you're satiated. You just try to get in the groove and then you stop.' Both determinedly end on a high note. 'If I miss the last kick,' Jenkins says, 'I take an extra one right in front of the sticks.'

Which is not the kind of luxury that either man enjoyed last weekend.

(Photographs omitted)

Comments