Time to bring an end to aerial ping-pong
John Taylor
January 1, 2009
England's Jamie Noon and New Zealand's Conrad Smith compete for a high ball during their clash at Twickenham in London, England on November 29, 2008.
England's Jamie Noon and New Zealand's Conrad Smith contest a high ball at Twickenham last year - has kicking become too prevalent in today's international game? © Getty Images

With doom and gloom the prevailing mood as we head into 2009 we need to be positive - we need something to look forward to. Now, call me a fool but I'm convinced this could be the year when the northern hemisphere emerges from recession - at least where rugby, is concerned.

However, it will only happen if we take radical action to eliminate the current scourge of rugby, that terrible debilitating habit - Aerial Ping-Pong

It is endemic in the whole of the rugby world but I believe English rugby is suffering from a new, more virulent and particularly dangerous strain. It is undermining all the good things in the English game and it must be eradicated.

At various stages in the history of rugby kicking has become too dominant and law changes have been needed to keep it in check - the Australian Dispensation which forbade kicking directly to touch from outside the 22 was one ELV instantly acclaimed and accepted by everybody.

The solution this time might be much more simple. Wingers appear to be the worst affected players so I am asking them to make a New Year's resolution to reduce their kicking by at least 75%.

C'mon you guys - you are the fastest, trickiest most devastating runners we have in the game but, with a few notable exceptions (is it coincidence that Shane Williams, IRB Player of the Year, is the foremost example?) you waste most of the ball you receive.

You used to be the most over-rated players on the field but you were the glamour boys - prima donnas to a man! Most of you were not even very skilful but if you received the ball on a silver salver in space with a guarantee that nobody would lay a hand on you that was it - your power and great pace or your repertoire of swerves, jinks and side-steps would take you speeding to the line where you would receive applause bordering on worship from your adoring public.

As a breed you have improved your all round skills and work-rate - and therefore your overall contribution to the game - since rugby went professional but despite the fact that few of you are very good at kicking you now insist on hoofing the ball in the general direction of the opposition's try-line on more occasions than you choose to run.

OK, it 's not all your fault - law changes and short-sighted coaches must take some blame - but why would you give the ball straight back to your opponents when they are foolish enough to kick it to you with an open field ahead of you. In my days wings saw that as an irresistible challenge they didn't do safety first.

We have all been bored to death by the following scenario in the past couple of seasons - and it is happening more and more. Fly-half kicks deep - opposing fullback and the two wings have formed a defensive back three. Fullback - a specialist kicker - punts back hoping to equal or beat the length gained on the first kick - he chases so if the kick is returned it is now down to one of the wingers to decide what to do.

"C'mon you guys - you are the fastest, trickiest most devastating runners we have in the game but, with a few notable exceptions you waste most of the ball you receive."

In English rugby they invariably kick, trying to match the fly-half/fullback for length, and fail miserably so the opposition, pouring forward in numbers and at a rate of knots, is presented with great attacking ball.

New Zealand's Graham Henry was one of the first to note that rugby was becoming much more of a 'kick and chase game' but, typically, thought it through better than most.

Dan Carter and Mils Muliaina have the length to get in behind their opponents and if they succeed it becomes a genuine attacking option because they follow-up so quickly they are able to exert pressure. Significantly, you rarely see Joe Rokocoko or Sitiveni Sivivatu putting boot to ball unless there is absolutely no other option.

The All Blacks are also the best at exploiting the bad return kick. As soon as it falls short the whole team moves up a gear. They know they have an ideal attacking opportunity - enough space to explode forward, plenty of support runners and a broken field in front of them. They seldom fail in such situations.

It has all come about because the law-makers want to keep the ball in play so have made it more difficult for players to put the ball out - no kicking dead, no passing back into your own 22 to be able to find touch.

This has certainly resulted in fewer time consuming line-outs but, perversely it has also caused the number of kicks to soar instead of reducing them as was expected.

The length of time the ball is in play has increased but what is the point if it is usually 50ft up in the air?

Of course, not all kicking is bad. Wales' Lee Byrne and Ireland's Keith Earls have rediscovered the art of the 'up-and-under' as an attacking weapon whilst the chip into space behind the first defensive line is also making a comeback but unlike the mindless belt down the pitch they require real skill.

For once wingers can be the initiators instead of just finishers and would be doing the whole game a service to boot. Go on, reclaim your birthright - go for the genuine attacking option, have fun and excite.

Williams, Jonah Lomu, David Campese, David Duckham and Gerald Davies - are names that have and will stand the test of time but nobody remembers them for their kicking.


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