Playing to win

SIMON BORCHARDT, in his SA Rugby magazine column, says tactical kicking is a vital part of the game.

The Springboks will not play 10-man rugby under Heyneke Meyer and they will not play running rugby either. They will play winning rugby, according to the new Springbok coach, which does involve kicking.

There’s a common misconception that Meyer wants the ball to be kicked as much as possible. He doesn’t. He only wants the ball to be kicked if his team can get it back again.

This year’s Varsity Cup final provided a good example of this. Tuks were leading Maties 21-13 midway through the second half with just one score separating the sides (converted tries were worth eight points). The hosts launched an up-and-under that was chased and collected in the air by fullback Clayton Blommetjies, who timed his jump to perfection and sent lock Franco Mostert away for a crucial try. This was not a case of ‘kick and hope’ from Tuks – Blommetjies had practised how to regain possession in this manner with Bulls backline coach Ricardo Laubscher throughout the tournament.

The next time a ball is kicked in a match, those groaning fans might want to consider why it’s being done. If the defence is flat, kicking behind it allows the attacking team to chase and put the retreating defenders under pressure, which could result in a turnover (if only one defender gets to the ball and is forced to release it when tackled) or penalty (if that defender opts to hold on). Or the first defender to the ball may have no choice but to kick for touch, which will result in a territorial gain for the team that kicked first.

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Another good reason for putting boot to ball is that research shows a team only has a 10% chance of scoring a try after going through three phases. This is because outstanding defensive systems (like the Stormers’) commit just one player to the breakdown (the tackler) with the other 14 standing back and waiting for the next ball-carrier. If the attacking team commits three players to the breakdown, as is often the case, and they inevitably go to ground, then the attacking team is effectively playing with 12 men against 14. That’s why it makes sense to kick.

Another common misconception is that South African Super Rugby sides kick more than their Australasian counterparts. When the Chiefs played the Highlanders in the opening round of this year’s tournament, the commentators raved about the New Zealand teams’ positive approach to the game. Yet there were more kicks in that match than in any of the other round-one fixtures (according to ruckingoodstats.com, the Chiefs kicked 27 times, averaging a kick every 34 seconds in possession, and the Highlanders 24, averaging a kick every 57 seconds in possession). The Reds, supposedly the flag-bearers of running rugby, kicked 46 times (one every 25 seconds in possession) in their round-seven win against the Brumbies, which ended a three-match losing streak. And last year, when they won the Super Rugby title, they kicked more on average per game than any other team.

As Meyer says, people don’t remember how you win, they remember whether or not you win. That’s why the Springboks will play winning rugby while he’s in charge.