Kicking ourselves

Keo, in his Business Day column, writes that kicking accuracy cost SA four Super 14 wins at the weekend. And it could cost SA even more as the year unfolds.

It was probably SA’s best collective rugby effort for a couple of seasons, but better goal kicking would have ensured better results.

Cynics will counter the praise with a claim that the horse has already bolted in this year’s competition, but the performances at the weekend went further than Super 14 play-offs. The good was in all the South African teams showing they can play rugby for 80 minutes, and that they can combine physical intensity with skill. The bad involved continued goal-kicking flaws.

It took skill from the Cats and Cheetahs to keep the ball alive for two minutes after the hooter and to force a try that set both of them up for victory. Had Andre Pretorius and Meyer Bosman kicked more accurately, we’d be talking of two fantastic injury-time wins. Had Willem de Waal been more successful with his goal kicking early on, it would not have come down to an injury-time conversion kick.

Goal kicking has, ordinarily, been the one strength of South African teams. When South African sides have lacked skill, they’ve always had goal kickers. When they could not score five pointers, they had no problem knocking over three pointers.

This season it has been the opposite. The Sharks have shown completeness in their game when conjuring up tries. The Bulls on Saturday provided evidence that they can move the ball around, while the Stormers finally played with the authority you’d expect.

The Cheetahs, in their first Super 14 season, have always been capable of scoring tries, and even the Cats turned promise into five pointers against the Force.

The goal kicking has not been good. In fact, it has been awful at times, and the misses have been decisive. Morne Steyn hit the posts from right in front against the Chiefs. Steyn also missed a sideline conversion that would have taken the Bulls past the Reds in Brisbane.

Pretorius and Bosman missed kicks to win games at the weekend, Percy Montgomery had a couple of misses in the one-point defeat against the Cheetahs and Peter Grant’s miss against the Chiefs was also a turning point.

Grant, who has the benefit of tutorship with Western Province and Stormers kicking coach Louis Koen, has improved his general accuracy, but his kicking game is still in the evolutionary stage.

Vlok Cilliers, who operates a kicking school, is linked with the Bulls’ kickers, but there is no nationally appointed mentor. Naas Botha flirts with the concept every now and again, but he has never taken on the role with a full-time interest.

The lack of a kicking mentor at national level is a weakness because had South African rugby enjoyed the services of such an expert, he could have been working with Pretorius and Bosman and one point misses could easily have been victories.

Pretorius and Bosman, assured of being two of Jake White’s three Bok flyhalves, have to be kicking at a minimum of 75%. Currently they are not. The decision to also relegate Montgomery to second-choice kicker at the Sharks is a concern nationally. Montgomery’s career goal-kicking peaks have coincided with him being given the responsibility as the starting kicker. The more he kicks the better he is.

Ideally, you want a situation where a nationally appointed kicking coach has the luxury of spending time with the leading kickers. The provincial coaches get the benefit of this service.

Defences win Test matches, but defensive solidity has to come packaged with a goal kicker who achieves a strike rate of 80% over a period of time and rarely drops below 75% in a match.

When Australia hosted England in the 2003 World Cup final, Jonny Wilkinson and Elton Flatley were the only kickers to average 80% throughout the tournament. Wilkinson, at the peak of his powers, averaged 90% in the four years England dominated world rugby.

Dan Carter is closer to 80% than 75% for the All Blacks and Montgomery in 2004 experienced his best-yet international goal-kicking season with a strike rate in the high 70s. Last year he dropped to the high 60s and some of the misses, as in Paris, contributed to the defeat.

Goal kicking will be significant to next year’s World Cup challenge, and SA is off the pace in this regard. It is a specialised field and it needs a full-time specialist.

Too few in this country acknowledge this, and until it is addressed SA could be left kicking themselves at the World Cup.