It’s not how often the All Blacks kick, it’s how well they do it
Springbok kicking coach Louis Koen was the first to plant the seed. “Did you know,” he said in an interview, “the All Blacks kick the ball more than the Springboks do?”
In this age of electronics, some rugby writers have swallowed the Vodacom rugby stats app so completely, their reports are sprinkled with figures supporting one or other trend.
And true to form, Koen’s revelation was seized upon by those keen to show that Heyneke Meyer is on the right track when it comes to the Springboks’ style of play.
At the time, a lot of criticism was doing the rounds about how often, almost habitually, the Boks kicked the ball rather than keeping it in hand to build a better attacking platform.
You’re wrong, we were told, the stats show that the All Blacks – considered the best attacking unit in world rugby – kick the ball more than we do.
My response was this: Have you seen how they kick? Have you seen the variety of their kicks? Have you seen the accuracy of their kicks?
And, moreover, have you seen how often they retrieve the ball when they kick it? Have you seen how they manage to put pressure on the receiver? Have you noticed they try to kick the ball to land rather than to hand?
But the numbers kept being trotted out. More tries were the result of kicks. Still more came off first-phase play and very few off long periods of possession, because holding on to the ball merely enabled defending teams to stop the thrust with one or two players, allowing the others to fan out to defend.
With this in mind, I’d have thought more would have been made of a remark by Meyer in the build-up to yesterday’s test at Ellis Park. Speaking to the myriad microphones and TV cameras on stilts invariably generated by the presence of the All Blacks in any city, the coach ended his discussion on kicking by saying: “People say I like kicking, I don’t; I hate kicking.”
The cynic in me wanted to react by saying, “You could have fooled me!”, but that would have taken out of context the point Meyer was trying to make: however important tactical kicking is, it is only as good as the quality of the kick.
He was at pains to stress that the All Blacks were best at this aspect of the game. Reason being they had been found wanting against the Boks in 2009, when they lost to them thrice in a row.
So they set about working at being a better kicking team.
The All Black kickers – Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett, Colin Slade, Aaron Smith and Tawera Kerr-Barlow – worked hard at perfecting the art of kicking.
Significantly, the Kiwis also started to pick players on the wings with experience at fullback – players used to catching the ball in the air such as Cory Jane, Ben Smith and Israel Dagg.
Meyer said he was displeased with the level of tactical kicking in all South African teams.
After calling Handré Pollard a “special player”, he said “his tactical kicking is nowhere near where it should be”.
Interesting, too, was Meyer’s reference to how well Patrick Lambie was starting to play as his confidence returned after injury.
“It’s going to be very tough to pick the best No. 10 next year,” Meyer said.
It may have taken him a good while – perhaps too long – to turn away from his favoured kick-as-a-first-option pattern, but it is good to know the Boks are being drilled not only to kick, but on when to kick and how to kick.
It reminds me of a wonderful retort by Naas Botha when a fan jibed him about kicking too much rather than passing. “Ja, that might be so,” said Botha, “but did you notice that when I did pass, we scored?”