It was Matthew Bloxam in 1876 that wrote to the Rugby School Magazine saying that he had learnt from an un-named source that the change from a kicking game (Association Football) to a handling game (Rugby) had originated from one William Webb Ellis. Who is going to volunteer now to write back to the school to tell them that unfortunately the sport of rugby seems to have gone full circle and is now back to being a kicking game?
In an exclusive interview with The Rugby Blog, Warren Gatland, Wales’ Head Coach, has expressed his disappointment at the way the game of rugby has let a large amount of kicking creep into the game and how it has caused a negative style of play within the top rugby playing nations leading into this year’s RBS Six Nations Championship.
When the New Zealander was posed the question whether we were going to see more kicking in this year’s championship he did not hesitate to confirm our worst fears.
“Yes, I think we are. The unfortunate thing with the way that the game is, is that kicking is very much dominating the game,” was Gatland’s response. He elaborated further by stating that “The stats seem to show that the teams that kick the most tend to win a lot of the games.”
The unfortunate thing about this whole situation however, is that the coaches appear to have fully accepted this as part of the modern game. Gatland admits that coaches are in a business that is judged on results and if positive outcomes are to be achieved by kicking, then so be it.
This subject rears its head as much as the debate about the rules at the breakdown which are persistently clouding the way rugby is being perceived. Both issues are becoming detrimental to the way that rugby is being played but are the two walking hand in hand with each other or are they two separate issues that need to be addressed at different times?
Law changes are seemingly playing their part within this issue, with the type of ball that is being recycled by the attackers at the breakdown becoming notably slower than it has been for years. The law makers and the IRB “want a competition at every situation; at the scrum, at the lineout and at the breakdown” according to Gatland. The conflict therefore has been created by the fact that “the coaches don’t want that competition and want to win the ball as much as possible at every situation.”
With this competition at the tackle becoming more vigorous, the less likely the ball is going to come back at a speed that favours an attacking style of rugby, thus leading to sides kicking more and playing a game based around territory rather than possession.
The statisticians among us will back this theory as the teams in the Autumn Internationals that kicked the most seemed to come out on top whilst in the Tri-Nations last year the highest kick percentage belonged to South Africa – the eventual outright, and very comfortable winners of the tournament.
So what does this mean for this year’s Six Nations? Well it’s starting to look bleak isn’t it? None of us want to see another banal display of kicking from hand from any of the teams let alone our own respective home nations, but if we do have to tolerate it then who is this kicking mentality going to favour?
This type of game plays into the hands of a team like Ireland who have picked Ronan O’Gara at fly half for their first game of the tournament (Jonathan Sexton has been ruled out of contention with a dead leg) as he is arguably one of the best tactical kickers in the game. Also, with a back three that boasts the talents of messrs Kearney, Bowe and Trimble, any possession that is kicked to them needs to be of the highest calibre to avoid having to defend damaging counter attacks being launched in the opposite direction.
The Six Nations is the show piece of European international rugby and the last thing that the supporters want to see is it getting kicked into the ground. Unfortunately though, as modern day coaching staff and players are getting more reward from booting the leather off the ball rather than actually picking it up and running with it, as William Webb Ellis demonstrated at Rugby School all those years ago, then I fear that the frustration and blood pressure levels could well start rising within the stands of rugby stadiums all across Europe in the coming months.
As this Six Nations unfolds we will find out whether Warren Gatland is accurate in his prediction. For the good of the tournament and its spectators let’s hope he is not.
By Andrew Daniel
For the audio of Gatland’s comments, click on the player below…[podcast]/Podcasts/Gatlandkicking.mp3[/podcast]