Should rugby have specialist kickers like its USA counterpart American football? In the latest issue of SCRUM magazine, ROSS JONES-DAVIES investigates, thoroughly.
As the game has become more defence-minded, and tries fewer, goal-kicking has become vital, so vital that there is a strong argument to employ specialist kickers. The bench was increased to include a specialist front row, so why not a specialist goal-kicker? A marksman to trot on, tee in hand, when there’s a penalty or conversion to be taken.
American football, with its separate offensive and defensive units, employs specialist kickers. So the logical step (SCRUM logic being employed here) would be to compare rugby placekickers with those playing gridiron to see whether that specialist role results in sharper shooters.
First up, we take a look at how Super Rugby’s placekickers have improved over the last couple of seasons and then compare them to the best ball-strikers in the National Football League (NFL), who have been kicking as consistently as their stats show for a number of years.
In 2011, former All Black flyhalf Grant Fox stated that the lowest acceptable percentage for a professional kicker should be 70 percent and that you are a real ‘sharp shooter’ if you are in the mid-to-high 80s. In the 2011 opening rounds, only the Stormers’ Peter Grant and the Force’s James O’Connor were in the 80 percent mark, with the average being a mere 70.
It looks as though the kickers took Fox’s words to heart as there is an increase of nine percent from the years 2011 to 2013.
The clear improvement of rugby’s marksmen has increased enough to challenge the accuracy that the American football kickers achieve in the NFL on a regular basis. In gridiron, the kickers are primarily kicking from roughly 20 yards away, in front of the posts. These are the kicks in which they are expected to achieve their 100 percent record. Relatively speaking, this is equivalent to a kick that is between the 22 and the tryline; these are never missed at the top level. The other percentages in the NFL stats below offer us field goals from longer distances – the figures we will use in comparison to the Super Rugby stats.
The overall percentage success rate of field goals in the NFL is at 88. Here, we see these NFL kickers are roughly 10 percent better than our rugby kickers, and about 20 percent better than the early rounds of Super Rugby in 2011.
However, a critical fact in this comparison is that American football goal-kicks, whether PAT or field goals, are always straight in front of the posts, and never on the angle. In rugby, kickers have to squeeze the ball between the uprights from far more difficult areas of the pitch. This makes a huge difference in our comparison as the majority of rugby kicks are missed from the touchline.
Also from the rugby perspective, kickers cannot simply just focus on their kicking. They need to spend time and energy working on other areas of their game, such as passing and tackling. The NFL boys have got one job: kick the ball. This is all they practise, and their only responsibility within the team.
So what if rugby had specialist kickers? In the South African context, Steyn could be the specialist kicker whilst Patrick Lambie or Johan Goosen start at flyhalf? And where is their training time going into? Directly into improving their attacking skills, not worrying about goal-kicking.
For the full article, including 3 tables comparing the Super Rugby eras and Super Rugby with the NFL, head to SCRUM magazine.