By Stuart Peel
There is an old cricketing adage which states that ‘catches win matches’. Since the advent of the World Cup, rugby has put a different spin on this and it now holds true that in the oval ball game, ‘drops win matches’.
Traditionally, the drop goal has been seen as the last resort of a spluttering attack, a final desperate attempt to salvage some points when the prospect of scoring a try has been extinguished. In recent times, this has all changed and this is due to the tight, uncompromising and titanic nature of the World Cup knockout stages.
We have learned over recent World Cups that when the business end of the tournament arrives, there is often nothing to choose between the top teams. They are so well-drilled, disciplined and defensively organised that tries are hard to come by and that which was once the last resort has come to the fore as a match-winning weapon. Indeed the previous two World Champions have had their grip on the trophy broken by a drop goal. England should be wary.
Over the past 4 World Cups, 6 knock out games have been decided by drop goals and it is a fair bet that at least one will be this time round. It could be Carter or Wilkinson slotting over the crucial points in orthodox fashion, or Francois Steyn unleashing his trademark of returning an opponent’s stray clearance kick through the sticks from some obscene distance. Either way, the drop goal will surely be a factor once again as it has in the past on more than one occasion:
1991 Semi final – Rob Andrew vs Scotland
With 10 minutes to go and the sides locked at 6-6 at a passionate Murrayfield, Gavin Hastings lined up a penalty from ‘gimme’ range, in front of the posts, 20 metres out. Inexplicably he shanked it wide. England went up to the other end and Rob Andrew slotted a drop goal from similarly close range to clinch a dour match and put the hosts into the final.
1995 Quarter final – Rob Andrew vs Australia
If his effort against Scotland was a simple affair in a dull game, Rob Andrew’s decisive intervention 4 years later was the polar opposite. In a rerun of the 1991 final, a thrilling game had hung in the balance from start to finish when Andrew received the ball all of 40 yards out. With Will Carling’s instructions to ‘stick it in the corner’ ringing in his ears, Andrew set his sights and struck the ball magnificently. It was still rising as it went through the uprights, but Andrew was already running back, punching the air with delight.
1995 Final – Joel Stransky s New Zealand
The New Zealand side of 1995 was arguably one of the finest teams ever assembled. They had demolished everyone in their path on their way to the final and the Lomu juggernaut had looked unstoppable. However, South Africa had more than 15 players on their side – they believed they had destiny, history and the opportunity to unite a nation all working in their favour. They produced a huge defensive effort against a strangely out of sorts New Zealand and as a tryless game strayed into extra time, South African belief increased steadily. Sure enough, after Andrew Mehrtens had missed a similar attempt, Joel Stransky slotted the winning points and a nation rejoiced.
1999 Quarter final – Janie de Beer vs England
This was one of the most spectacular pieces of onfield spontaneous decision-making seen in the World Cup. The quarter final in Paris was delicately poised when de Beer struck a drop goal…and then another…and then another…and then another. In less than half an hour, de Beer had drilled 5 drop goals and with them several nails into England’s World Cup coffin. There was literally nothing the English could have done about it.
1999 Semi final – Stephen Larkham vs South Africa
Touché Janie. The sides were locked at 21-21 in a titanic battle and de Beer, a mere week after his extraordinary demolition of England, had missed all 4 of his dropped goal attempts. Little seemed on when Larkham took the ball on the run in an orthodox flat fly half position. Without breaking stride, he swung his right foot through the ball which promptly went into orbit and straight through the middle. Although Matt Burke later kicked a penalty, it had seemed the only way the game was likely to be decided. Larkham never kicked an international drop goal before or since.
2003 Final – Jonny Wilkinson vs Australia
‘There’s 35 seconds to go…’. This is probably the most oft-repeated sporting moment of the past 4 years (I have the commentary as my alarm clock). England dominated much of the match but the amazing Australian ability to never give up and hang on for dear life came to the fore and entering the last minute the sides could not be separated. Enter Jonny to settle things with his lesser-celebrated right foot and the Southern Hemisphere monopoly on ‘Old Bill’ was broken.
In the knockout stages of the 2003 World Cup, England scored only 2 tries; Wilkinson kicked no fewer than 6 drop goals. This more than anything illustrates how the importance of this method of scoring has increased. On such fine margins are World Cups won and lost.