The loneliness of the long-distance kicker
December 6, 2013
Striking a familiar pose as Stephen Myler lines up a shot at the posts © Getty Images
If ever there was an example of just how important the metronomic act of knocking a ball over a set of posts is, then Friday night's game at Kingsholm showcased that in all in its shank splendour. Gloucester's kicking collapsed as Leicester got a key win.
Gloucester fly-half Freddie Burns' emotion afterwards, a private event launched into public awareness due to the prying changing room cameras, showed his own turmoil at his missed efforts.
While Gloucester now find themselves anchored towards the bottom of the Aviva Premiership table, Northampton are flying high. Close season recruitment has bolstered their already impressive resources with tries coming from players both tall and small.
It's championship-winning form. And while some may put that down to the emergence of Luther Burrell, their crux of England starters and the added drop of class from George North, Alex Corbisiero and Kahn Fotuali'i, there has been a constant feature in their team who gets overlooked. Consistency is sometimes overlooked in our modern game with flash-in-the-pan brilliance more headline-catching, but Stephen Myler has been key to their performances striking the most successful place kicks in the Premiership this term.
Every kicker has their own stance; Rob Cook's provokes guffaws from the stands, Jonny Wilkinson's is still replicated the world over. For Myler, he is unsure how his own, unique, method has resulted in the one today - hands on his thighs, a shuffling of his feet, a peak at the posts from the corners of his eyes and then the kick.
"It's evolved over the years," Myler told ESPN. "It's something I changed completely when I came to union with the help of Paul Grayson. I changed the way I placed the ball, the tee and the way I ran up. I think certain little habits creep in without thinking about it.
"People have asked me 'what are you doing with your crazy eyes', or whatever you call it. They have asked me 'have you been doing hypnosis', which I haven't. There is a routine, but certain things have crept in. A few of the lads have shown me some screen shots of my crazy eyes, but that just happens. All I'm trying to do is track where the ball goes and I'm sure more habits will creep in over the years. It's a question of comfort really.
"I would cross-reference it to golf, which I watch a lot of. There are so many different ways of swinging a golf club, but all that matters is foot either side of the ball and the impact position, that's essentially it. What poses people do and what gets you comfortable doesn't matter."
The cross code convert is an unpredictable entity; some flounder, some prosper. Myler's upbringing was rooted in league, he had four years of Super League when he swapped Widnes Vikings for Northampton. The move to union was not popular in the town, but he had the backing of his family - father John played for Widnes, uncle Tony coached Warrington and St Helens while great-uncle Frank played for Great Britain.
The move to union came about when Myler's agent spoke to Frank Pernisi, who coached at the Saints between 2004 and 2007, and 208 appearances later Myler has seen off the threat of Carlos Spencer, Shane Geraghty and Ryan Lamb to establish himself as the Saints' number one fly-half. For Myler, he puts this success down to persistence.
"I knew it was going to be a lot different to league but until I started playing union, I didn't really understand just how different it was. A lot of is foreign. I decided that if I was going to give union a go, it wasn't going to be half-hearted. That's in my nature really, if I get my mind on something, I give it 100%."
© Getty Images
But in a role of solitude such as a kicker, mental strength also becomes integral to success. Kickers seem to wear their missed efforts as albatrosses until the next match.
"It's not nice when you miss them," Myler admits. "Through experience and age, you realise you aren't going to kick everything. I try not to get beaten up mentally when I miss the kick. I just focus on the process of what I know I can control. If I do that well I am generally happy. Sometimes you can kick what you think is a well-struck effort but the wind takes it and you miss. It would be wrong of me not to get a little bit disheartened when you miss a kick, but there must be some appreciation that you aren't going to get everything.
"If I miss the first kick of the match, it shouldn't have any impact on the second. They are different entities, that's the way I try and approach it. It is a mental state of mind you have to get into to separate each kick."
International recognition has since been realised but such is the strength of depth for England at fly-half, he is one of many who will all feel they have some claim to that prized No.10 shirt. His debut came in the summer on England's tour of Argentina, it gave Myler a chance to escape and re-focus after their Premiership final loss to Leicester.
Saints have since turned that defeat into a motivational force for this season's campaign, a mindset they attempted to adopt in 2011 following their agonising loss to Leinster in the final of the Heineken Cup, a game the Saints led 22-6 at half-time.
"Those kind of experiences definitely help," Myler said "They aren't nice at the time but somebody has to win and someone has to lose. You have to take the positive of what you did to get there. That shows why it means so much when you win a trophy like that, they are so hard to win."
This weekend a very different Northampton side come up against their conquerors two years ago and Leinster will face a different beast with Myler the Saints' pivot.
But come Saturday, when it's Myler kneeling on the ground, his hands adjusting the slightly slanted ball, it will be just another kick at the posts, a 'separate entity'. It will be a case of routine, isolation and hopefully, for Northampton Saints fans, points.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.