Kicking the 'winning' feature in Japan
WORLD CUP SPOTLIGHT: High balls, cross-field kicks and the return of the mighty drop.
Kicking has been a prominent feature of the early rounds of the World Cup as teams seek to penetrate increasingly aggressive defences.
The last World Cup, in 2015, was dominated by teams keeping the ball in hand, even from deep inside their own territory – and none were better at this than the All Blacks, who sealed a second consecutive Webb Ellis Cup.
But Japan 2019 so far has seen teams revert to the boot to avoid lengthy exposure to ultra-aggressive rush defensive lines that could result in errors.
The two blockbuster matches so far – New Zealand-South Africa and Australia-Wales – both saw exactly 61 kicks of various types, a huge number given the ball was only effectively in play for 40 minutes.
Teams are kicking for territory as a response to stronger defences, but also to elicit errors from opposition backs, especially as the ball is sweat-soaked and slippery due to Japan’s high humidity.
“Everyone is bringing line-speed,” said All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.
“There is also a lot more kicking than most teams want to do. That’s where our game is at right now.
“Defence is king, dominating the game. Hopefully, it’s cyclical. Defence will dominate until someone finds a recipe to change that and then attack will come back,” he added.
A feature of the Australia-Wales clash was also precise kicking in attack to get the ball directly to wingers without having to go through the hands.
Inch-perfect kicks by Dan Biggar and Bernard Foley resulted in tries for Hadleigh Parkes and Adam Ashley-Cooper respectively as defences around the fringes of the ruck held firm.
Scotland finally broke their try duck at the World Cup with a perfectly weighted crossfield kick by Finn Russell that found Sean Maitland in acres of space against Samoa.
The All Blacks’ first try against South Africa also came from an attacking kick.
“It was planned. Not something we just made up on the night and our kicking game is part of our attacking strength,” said Hansen.
‘Not our basic philosophy’
Even France, renowned for their attacking flair, are working on their kicking game, although it does not come naturally to a team used to keeping possession of the ball come what may.
“It’s something we’re working on which we’re not accustomed to using because French rugby, by tradition, is not set up to get rid of the ball like that,” said head coach Jacques Brunel.
Centre Sofiane Guitoune said he was a flyhalf until the age of 18 and strictly banned from kicking the ball away.
“It’s definitely not our basic philosophy but I have never kicked so many balls in training. It’s a powerful weapon that can put pressure on opponents and keep them deep in their territory,” added Guitoune.
It’s not just punting that is in vogue, as a rash of drop-goals has also lit up the early exchanges of this World Cup.
Scotland’s Stuart Hogg landed a monster, 40-metre drop against Samoa, while France’s Camille Lopez broke Argentina hearts with a crucial late strike in their nail-biting 23-21 Pool C clash.
Biggar and replacement flyhalf Rhys Patchell also bagged a drop-goal each, making the difference in Wales’s tight 29-25 win over Australia.
“The way the game is now with defences, from 15 to 20 metres out it’s hard to break teams down,” said Welsh coach Warren Gatland.
Patchell said: “When you get to a World Cup, everybody thinks tries win a World Cup.
“But what wins World Cups is goal-kicking and being able to take those points.”