Sexton adds to drop-goal folklore

Craig Ray

Think about many of the greatest, most closely-contested and significant rugby games you’ve ever seen. Significant because of their rarity, or their time and place – not a run-of-the-mill Super Rugby try deluge, or PRO14 slugfest. No, games that have a nation watching through their fingers in screaming tension, and then think of one skill that often separates those contests and elevates them to distinction?

The drop goal.

Jannie de Beer’s five drop goals against England in Paris in the 1999 World Cup turned a tight match into a one-sided romp. England were powerless to stop it, while De Beer’s skill, temperament and technique, reached ethereal heights that day.

In 2007, a baby-faced Frans Steyn hit over two massive drop goals at Newlands for the Boks to beat Australia 22-19. After the game a reporter didn’t so much ask a question, as give a monologue aimed at Wallaby skipper Stirling Mortlock implying it was somehow payback for Stephen Larkham’s wobbly 1999 World Cup semi-final drop against the Boks at Twickenham.

Mortlock, with impressive deadpan interjected the journo’s flow: “So, are you suggesting we are somehow karmically balanced now?” It brought the house down, but also underlined how memorable drop goals are in rugby’s folklore. Two incidents, eight years apart, were linked by the seemingly simple but incredibly difficult skill of kicking the ball accurately and often, a long way, an instant after it bounces on an area the size of a one Rand coin.

On Saturday, Ireland’s Jonny Sexton came up with a drop for the ages during a dour arm-wrestle against France in Paris. It was a match that was heading into the scrapheap of mediocrity, to be forgotten in days and only mentioned in passing as a footnote.

And then, after 42 phases of tight control in driving rain, Sexton called for the ball in a seemingly impossible position. He used every fibre of his sinewy legs; the coordination of years of hand-eye drills and the mental strength developed over a career of effort, blood, sweat and spittle to propel the ball 45 metres over the crossbar to win the match.

In an instant, a forgettable game turned into one that will be spoken about for decades thanks to Sexton’s execution of a skill that cannot easily be stopped because it generally occurs too deep for defenders to be effective.

Of course there is justified praise for the effort of the team to hang on to the ball for over 40 phases, but when the moment came, Sexton had to pull the trigger and deliver.

In South Africa Joel Stransky’s drop-goal to win the 1995 World Cup final sits on top of the pile of greatest drop goals simply because of the significance of the occasion. The time and place were not only about a rugby match, but about the healing of a nation.

Jonny Wilkinson’s strike to win the 2003 World Cup final was perhaps technically more impressive as he hit it with his ‘wrong’ foot, but in the greater scheme of things, it was just a rugby match. Stransky’s strike was a like a great political speech that inspired a country.

Amongst all the flash of eye-catching tries, the humble drop goal remains the point of difference in so many clashes and a skill that needs to be nurtured and grown because it is still critical in the modern game.

Even the mighty All Blacks, the poster boys of attacking rugby, rely on the drop goal when it matters.

During the 2015 World Cup, NZ beat the Boks 20-18 in the semi-final. They were the better team and scored two tries without reply, yet the Boks were in the contest. The eventual difference was a sweetly struck Dan Carter drop goal that kept the Boks at bay.

It’s often forgotten as it happened early in the second half and not in the final seconds of the contest. But the three points it added to the scoreboard, made all the difference in the end.

In the final, the All Blacks were in control, but Australia closed the gap to four points with fewer than 15 minutes to play. Cue All Black jitters as the seeds of doubt crept in.

Taking control, 40 metres out, Carter struck a sweet drop to take the margin out to seven points, settle his team’s nerves and break Australia’s will. Knowing they needed to score twice to win was a mental hurdle to too far for the Wallabies and the All Blacks scored another 10 points to win comfortably.

The power of the drop. Never let it be underestimated.

- Craig Ray