Learning to love the kick

Pragmatism will continue to trump panache when it comes to a recipe for success in Super Rugby, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

We all love expansive running rugby. It’s why, for neutrals, the Cheetahs have so often been the team of choice, or the ‘second’ side that fans seem to support.

Over the years, the Cheetahs have become renowned for their attacking brand of rugby, but the fact remains that it’s very rarely brought them consistent success. Only in 2013 did they reach the Super Rugby playoffs for the first time, but even then that was based predominantly on the fact that they were finally able to get their defence to complement their attack.

Over in Durban, when Gary Gold took over from Jake White at the Sharks, he spoke extensively about his desire to ensure the team played a more positive and eye-catching brand of rugby that would draw fans back to Kings Park.

It was an understandable intention after White’s brief tenure in 2014, which saw the Sharks top the log for most of the league stage before bowing out at the semi-final stage. The Sharks embraced a highly effective game plan that relied on territorial dominance and stout defence. But fans grew weary of what they branded a dour style of play and welcomed the prospect of returning to a more free-flowing approach.

Similarly, Allister Coetzee came under increasing pressure during the final stages of his stay at the Stormers, and brief successor Eddie Jones, and then Robbie Fleck spoke at length about embracing a more high-tempo and aesthetically pleasing ball-in-hand approach.

Yet when the Sharks recently came to Newlands, they not only outsmarted, but outkicked the Stormers. Some fans would have lamented the fact that the Sharks had not made most of the running, and might have suggested they therefore weren’t deserving of victory. But they couldn’t be more wrong.

Tactically, the Sharks had worked out that an accurate kick-chase game, coupled with strong defence and territorial superiority, would hold more value than prioritising possession. It worked a treat.

Similarly, this past weekend, the Stormers made a calculated move away from their pre-season talk of running rugby, and with clever kicks serving as a prime feature of their play against the Brumbies, they completed a memorable 31-11 win over the previously unbeaten Aussie side.

It again proved the value of utilising a well-drilled kicking game as a weapon. As an attacking weapon. So often the kick is viewed as a negative tactic, and quite often when teams engage in aerial warfare, it draws jeers and dissatisfaction from the crowd.

However, there needs to be a change in perception when it comes to this aspect of the game. When a team uses tactical kicking as part of their attacking arsenal, it can often be the originator of the eye-catching tries that supporters love to see.

It’s through their array of varied kicking strategies that New Zealand teams so often create the opportunities to apply increasing pressure on the opposition in the right areas of the field before pouncing on turnovers created at the breakdown or when receiving poor kick returns. The key is that it’s all part of the plan. 

In recent times, the Lions have also been heralded for their attractive brand of rugby. But their success has also largely come from their ability to embrace a style of total rugby that is reminiscent of the New Zealand game.

However, as is the case with the All Blacks, in contrast to widely held public opinion, they kick more than one might think.

As one example, against the Cheetahs this past weekend, the Lions kicked from hand on 12 more occasions than their opponents.

At the end of the day it often stems down to when, where and why a team kicks. Perhaps as part of the rugby public, we need to change our views towards the kicking aspect of the game. After all, when it all forms part of the team’s carefully considered planning, it can be a thing of beauty.

And, indeed, there is such a thing as an attacking kick.

Photo: Joe Allison/Photosport

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Craig Lewis