The Bulls made no secret of their commitment to kicking the ball during the time that they won three Super Rugby titles, the Springboks were the same when they won the 2007 Rugby World Cup and in 2009 when they dominated the All Blacks, and as Jake White noted here earlier this week, the Crusaders switched to kicking tactics to beat the Jaguares in the 2019 Super Rugby final.
The statistics show that teams that kick well, win. Over the past decade, South African teams have moved away from making kicking a top priority and that’s why we’ve produced teams that only kick when they have slow ball, and often those kicks are badly executed.
There’s no way to play winning rugby without kicking and that’s because, nowadays, defences are so good. Teams spend hours and hours analysing their opponents to see how they can put them under pressure with double hits and linespeed, so you can’t just assume that after 10 or 15 phases you will break down the defence. One way to get round the defence is with a good kick, because there’s sometimes only two defenders at the back covering the space.
And once you get those kicks right, then the defence loses some linespeed because they have to drop guys back to cover kicks. It’s something the Crusaders really got right this year with Richie Mo’unga.
As soon as you get in behind a team with well-placed kicks, the defence coaches will be on the radio: “Listen, they’re starting to explore the field, hold the wingers back a bit more.” And that effects the aggressiveness of the defence, which offers the attack more opportunities.
A team can use various types of kicks from different positions in the backline and both of these are generally based on field position.
Most teams look to the kicking game to relieve the pressure of playing deep in their own half, and the plans around these kicks are called exits.
There are three ways of exiting. The first is conservative – secure possession in your 22, then use a long kick into touch and contest the ensuing lineout.
New Zealand teams prefer the second option which is to play out of the 22 and then use their flyhalf to kick a cross-field contestable that comes down near halfway with their centres, fullback and winger chasing to put pressure on the receiver.
And thirdly, some teams have license to play wide and attack until they run out of momentum.
South African teams traditionally go with the first option, but inconsistent kicking has given them mixed returns. As with any skill or tactic, it must be executed accurately to be effective.
You can’t kick the ball into touch just outside your 22 and then wonder why that tactic isn’t relieving pressure. The ball needs to go out on at least your 10-metre line where you can contest the lineout. An alternative is for the exiting team to kick long, but then the ball needs to come down near the opponent’s 22 to give the kicking team a chance to build a defensive line near halfway.
The risk of kicking long is that that the receiver can run it back instead of kicking it back, and that means you have to make more tackles which often leads to conceding more penalties.
The reward from deep kicks is that some teams kick it back to relieve the pressure and that can put you in a better position to attack. Or, if they run it back when they shouldn’t, you make the first tackle on their side of the halfway line, force a turnover or win a penalty.
The kick that is probably least appreciated by supporters is the box-kick. It’s a conservative way of getting out of your own half with the minimum risk of making a mistake. The idea is to move the ball 25 metres downfield with low-risk rugby, perfect for if you have a ruck just outside your 22.
Teams like Ireland, Wales and England will be serious threats at the 2019 Rugby World Cup because they have a massive kicking game and the personnel and systems to tackle the hell out of each other.
These team will box-kick anything outside their 22, but the difference between that and what you might see in Super Rugby or the Currie Cup is that scrumhalves like Ben Youngs and Conor Murray are consistently accurate and they’re supported by chasing wingers who are good in the air – it’s an area where SA teams are sometimes lacking.
We also need a massive change in mindset when it comes to attacking kicks. These are kicks aimed at space instead of isolating a receiver. The idea is to hit grass with kicks that roll in behind the defending wingers and give your chasers a chance to recover the ball.
As with anything, balance is key. When you have the ball, your attacking kicks must complement your attacking play. And in your attacking play, you must have the option to kick within your attack shape.
If you look at the World Cup contenders, they can all attack and defend, they each have two or three special players who can create magic, and a good 10 that can convert penalties into points. But the team that will have the edge is the one that can put opponents under pressure through an effective kicking game that keeps their opponents pinned on the far side of the field, and can also relieve pressure applied on them through slick game management in their own 22.
Make no mistake, kicking will be the difference in Japan.
A former Springbok and Western Province flyhalf, Cilliers has worked with the likes of Morne Steyn, Derick Hougaard, Demetri Catrakilis and Lionel Cronje during his career as a kicking coach at the Bulls, Stormers and most recently as a consultant to clubs in France and Japan. Follow: @Vlokskop10