Rugby World Cup: Kickers coming into their own

By David Leggat

France seems to have the best chance of consistency when it comes to getting the ball between the sticks

Morne Steyn is at 82.61%. Photo / Getty Images
Morne Steyn is at 82.61%. Photo / Getty Images

When it comes to the crunch situations at the World Cup, captains will look to their goalkickers to get the job done.

In that respect, none of the eight quarter-finalists striving to make the last four in the next two days has been better served at the cup than France.

Coach Marc Lievremont has stuck with using his second choice halfback, Morgan Parra, at first five-eighths against England tonight, outside the impressive Dimitri Yachvili.

Of the two left-footers, Parra is going at 90 per cent success rate from 10 shots; Yachvili is at 81.25 per cent, with 13 from 16 attempts.

And while tries may be the ultimate form of points scoring, no one doubts the importance, and value, of a deadeye marksman.

South African Morne Steyn is widely held to be the finest in the game right now, and his numbers thus far are tidy.

Steyn's method is deceptively simple: place ball, step back, pause, look at posts, step forward and kick.

So too Ireland's veteran Ronan O'Gara, who has climbed above Jonathan Sexton in coach Declan Kidney's pecking order for the big Celtic clash with Wales in Wellington tonight.

James O'Connor, by contrast, has a deliberate, fiddly approach; albeit nothing like Jonny Wilkinson, who has been the poster boy for so many kickers with a quirk in their preparation.

Yet Wilkinson is travelling at only 45 per cent in the tournament, well below England's alternative kicker, Toby Flood, and the poorest of the regulars whose teams are still alive. That adds to the intrigue of who will step up for England's first kickable penalty tonight.

Argentina's goalkicking hand is the poorest of the eight, with neither captain Felipe Contepomi nor Martin Rodriguez appealing as reliable options.

Former All Black first five-eighths Andrew Mehrtens, believes the Gilbert ball being used in this cup is less forgiving than some of the past. It rewards precision, does not flatter average kicking, and Mehrtens likes that.

Mehrtens kicked 932 of his 967 points in his 70 tests from 1995-04 - second only to Dan Carter's 1250 among All Blacks. He knows his oats when it comes to plonking the ball between the sticks.

"It seems to me if you don't strike it true, there's a lot more margin for error [at this cup] so it rewards the art of good goalkicking and striking the ball well," he said.

"From what I've seen, the guys who have the smoothest and truest motion, whether it is slow or fast, are the ones getting rewarded."

He's a fan of the Gilbert ball, and remembers the best of the brand being around 2002-03, when Wilkinson was raising the bar.

"When I was playing if you got around 70-75 per cent you were happy.

"The 80 [per cent] barrier was smashed by Wilkinson and ever since then that's been the standard."

On Wilkinson, Mehrtens puts him in the manufactured rather than natural category.

"He's a fantastic kicker but his strike is abrupt, and I wonder if that's contributing a little [to his problems] because his stroke is not so smooth."

Mehrtens made a comparison with AFL kickers across the Tasman.

"They get more distance when the ball spins more slowly end over end, so they try and hit it with a slower spin rate.

"This ball tends to deviate more when it's rotating slower. So the guys who are hitting it smoothly, but also spinning it a lot, find it tends to stay truer, whereas if you try and hit it lower on the point - when it spins slower - it tends to swing away more like a cricket ball."

Age old principles still apply in terms of technique, timing and repetition of movement.

"It's a matter of the kicker getting to the ball in the same position each time.

"I probably wasn't all that simple, but when you see guys doing all sorts of funny things, you think to recreate that every time must be difficult with all those moving parts."

This cup ball also gets a thumbs up from Mehrtens for its passing qualities.

However past cups rather suggest kickers, rather than tryscoring, will decide the destination of the Webb Ellis Cup.

The previous six finals have produced a grand total of nine tries, so after this weekend best not hold the breath for piles of exhilarating rugby from here on.

History tells us this is the time the goalkickers earn their corn.

- NZ Herald

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