Get your kicks: rugby's finest marksmen are ready to make their mark
The world's finest kickers will be out in force on the Heineken Cup's first weekend. Who will dominate the competition?
Saturday 09 October 2010
The poor misguided souls who sit on the International Rugby Board have tried everything under the sun – everything, that is, except the blindingly obvious – to wrest the game away from the goal-kickers and place it in the hands of the try-scorers, spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on "experimental law variations" that were laughed out of court and changing "refereeing interpretations" at the tackle area more often than an incurable germaphobe changes his underpants.
And what can we expect on this opening weekend of the sport's most captivating tournament? A masterclass in the art of booting an oval-shaped ball between a pair of vertical sticks.
It is still a kicker's game, whatever the governing body would have us think, and until the IRB gets really serious about creating space for runners by restoring the essential dynamic of the boots-on-bodies ruck and abolishing tactical substitutions that allow a player to be replaced at the first sign of breathlessness or the moment he finds himself being dominated by his opposite number, the big matches will continue to be decided by "les buteurs", as the French call them.
"I think it will always come down to kicking." So says David Walder, the outside-half at Wasps who, as an ambitious youngster at Newcastle, spent much of his time honing his technique alongside the most celebrated marksman of them all, Jonny Wilkinson. He also trained and played with another World Cup-winning kicker, the fine Australian full-back Matthew Burke, during his spell at Kingston Park. "I'll never forget Matt telling me that the most important thing in rugby is the conversion," Walder recalls. "It's a free shot at two points. How many important games are won by a couple of points? Check the records."
A clear majority of Heineken Cup finals – 11 out of 15 – have ended with something less than a converted try separating the teams and on four occasions, the trophy has been won by sides who failed to score a try at all. As one of the principal features of this season's competition is an extraordinary concentration of high-calibre kickers who kick at least 75 per cent of their goals, the chances of this being a riot of running rugby are slim at best. Walder himself finished last season with a 78.72 strike rate, while Toby Flood of Leicester delivered a figure of 81.48. Saracens, meanwhile, have Derick Hougaard, who is currently contributing well over 50 per cent of their total points. All three will figure prominently in Europe over the coming months, as will the best of the Celts: Ronan O'Gara, Stephen Jones, Chris Paterson... And then there are the French – or, in the case of Wilkinson at Toulon – the Anglo-French. Saint Jonny is worth 17 points a game to his club according to the latest statistics. To put it another way, he has scored 135 of Toulon's 207 points in Top 14 rugby, 125 of them with the boot. Dimitri Yachvili, whose record of winning matches single-handedly is among the more remarkable features of rugby across the water, is scoring almost as heavily for Biarritz, while two of the lesser-known kickers in the land of Les Bleus, the Castres full-back Romain Teulet and the Racing Métro outside-half Jonathan Wisniewski, are currently as accurate as anyone in the world game. Indeed, Wisniewski is so crucial to the Parisians, he frequently keeps the Argentine maestro Juan Martin Hernandez out of the starting line-up.
Toulouse, by some distance the most successful club in Europe, would, in an ideal universe, play a more attack-minded individual than David Skrela in the No 10 position, but when a match really matters to them, they always fall back on their most reliable buteur. (Last season, Skrela landed three penalties and dropped two goals to see off Biarritz in the Heineken Cup final.) As for Clermont Auvergne, a powerhouse club with 30 full internationals on their roster, costly marksmanship failures in the past have led them to split the duties between Brock James and Morgan Parra, both of whom can kick goals from 50 metres or more.
The kicking range is increasing year on year: a fortnight ago, Walder was on the wrong side of a Premiership defeat at Gloucester when Nicky Robinson landed two 60m penalties in the space of six injury-time minutes. "When I started playing, a kick from 50m was regarded as a 50-50 shot," he says. "Now, the expectation is far greater. My range is 50-51m and I'm disappointed if I fail from that kind of distance. It's an illustration of how standards have improved.
"Some people say it's down to developments in ball technology, but the only thing I've noticed about the Gilbert balls we use in the Premiership is the way the flight changes with the colour. It's not a big thing, but the yellow ball we have this season moves slightly differently through the air – not further, just differently – to the black ones and blue ones we've used in the recent past. The reason more people are kicking more goals from longer distances is better accuracy, and that comes down to practice."
Unlike Wilkinson, whose links with Dave Alred, the former England kicking coach, remain extremely strong, Walder prefers to prepare alone. "It's nice to have a coach if the relationship is really productive," he admits, "but over the years you pick up enough knowledge to know what's what and understand why things might be going wrong. I worked with Dave Alred for four or five good years when I was at Newcastle – he's still the best around, although there are times when you feel everything has to be done the way Jonny does it. Now, I'm happy to work through it in my own way.
"If I start a practice session so badly that I make a mess of the first six kicks, I'll pack it in and do something else. Jonny would never do that. He'd stay out there for two hours until things improved. When I practised with Jonny, there were times I thought my leg was about to fall off. Even at the end of a session, when he'd called "last 10 kicks" and I was looking forward to a shower and a hot drink, he'd miss one and say "right, back to zero".
Does the sport betray itself when the biggest matches are decided by kicks rather than tries? The IRB clearly thinks so, hence its knicker-twisting attempts to increase the latter at the expense of the former. Some of the more zealous believers in the theory that the best games are the ones with most tries – complete anathema to those who have spent time acquainting themselves with the intricacies and complexities of the union code – despair of World Cups that are invariably dominated by the boot. (The six finals to date have produced the grand total of nine tries, four of them in the inaugural showpiece in Auckland in 1987.) They have a problem with the Heineken Cup, in which the average try-count for a final is something less than two, for the same reason.
Walder has no problem with kickers winning trophies. "Right from when I first became aware of rugby and started playing, I always wanted to be a kicker, always wanted to be the glory boy," he says. "I still love the idea of it now, after all this time. Even though you never know what side of the line you'll finish up – I was on the right side against Leicester just recently and on the wrong side, by a few inches, at Gloucester – it's incredibly rewarding. If you respond well to pressure, there's nothing better."
No kicker has ever responded better to pressure than his old mucker Wilkinson. Does Walder consider him the best he's ever seen? "I reckon so," he replies. "Or maybe Jonny and Matt Burke, equal at the top of the list. It was Matt who taught me to do what suited me, rather than copy what everyone else was doing. That was the big lesson of my career as a kicker and I hold to it to this day."
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