The Boks are blessed with depth and quality in the goal-kicking department at this World Cup, writes Petros Augousti.
Picture the scene. The hooter has sounded, players lie shattered, strewn across the park – medical teams are massaging cramped legs, the crowd has gone deathly silent.
It all comes down to this minute, this second. A lifetime of aspirations, sweat and blood boils down to one person.
The scores are tied, one solid strike is all it takes. The 40m distance from ball to pole feels like 400, the heart is gate-crashing the chest, breathing is becoming impossible, adrenaline is surging. Two nations hold their collective breath. The goal-kicker tries to zone out the noise. He begins his run-up … five steps, four, three, two, one … a thud … then chaos.
According to one of the foremost kicking specialists in the world, the Webb Ellis Cup will come down to a battle of the boot and the side best equipped in this department will come out on top.
Vlok Cilliers is an expert on the art of goal-kicking and has a talent for spotting a winner from a loser. Cilliers, who has been practising his art in Japan for the past three years in various consultancy roles, has studied the minutiae of statistics, metres gained and kicking angles in the Land of the Rising Sun. He believes the Springboks are the favourites to lift the title based on their all-round balance when it comes to the all-important task of slotting an oval ball through an H-shaped set of poles.
‘I truly believe that South Africa has one of the best goal-kicking departments at the World Cup this year and, to me, they are the favourites to win the trophy,’ he says matter-of-factly.
‘Handre Pollard is up with the best in the world; he is in the same league as Owen Farrell, who plays a crucial part for England.
‘The Welsh have Dan Biggar, who is an 80% striker, which is what the best in the world can manage in international rugby,’ he says. ‘Pollard is full of confidence this season and, to me, he is the best flyhalf in the world at the moment … slightly ahead of Farrell and Johnny Sexton of Ireland.
‘Sexton has more than 750 points for Ireland and is also hovering at the 80% mark, and while Pollard may be a bit below that in terms of his success rate at poles, he is peaking at the right time. He has the temperament and confidence to win the World Cup … it all comes down to those big moments in knockout rugby and this is where he excels,’ says Cilliers.
The World Cup promises to deliver one of the most thrilling spectacles in recent editions with as many as six teams going into the tournament with a fair chance to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
With the resurgence of the northern hemisphere teams, Wales, England and Ireland, particularly, are looking to pull off what will be a major coup. New Zealand are many pundits’ top pick, but any of Australia and a mightily revitalised Springbok side can wear the mantle of the planet’s best side.
There’s an inordinate number of variables in the tournament after years of meticulous planning, heartbreak and sacrifice and yet the destiny of the Cup is likely to lie in the hands of a chosen few. Importantly, the Boks are not all-reliant on Pollard, even though he will play the most crucial of roles, with understudy Elton Jantjies also enjoying a rise off the tee.
‘At the moment Elton averages close to 80%, a better rate than Pollard,’ Cilliers says. ‘Then there is Frans Steyn, who will be a huge threat … he can punish teams from 60 metres out and in Japan it is very much like playing on the Highveld,’ says Cilliers.
‘I believe the Boks boast the players in the same league as the top Six Nations kickers, but they have more depth and range … and in tight games they can get on top of a team and create scoreboard pressure.’
However, Cilliers does add one key caveat: ‘There is one area where we are struggling, and that is kicking the ball out of hand. Our scrumhalves are not as effective as Ireland’s Conor Murray and England’s Ben Youngs. Faf de Klerk is inconsistent and out of five kicks, maybe two will be contestable.
‘Fullback Willie le Roux, though, can be a big threat because he is left-footed and this changes angles.’
Cilliers is also a firm believer in history repeating itself and believes the annals tell us everything about the future. ‘If you look back to every World Cup since 1991 the necessity of having a world-class kicker and the depth of the kicking squad comes into sharp focus,’ says Cilliers.
‘In 1991 the boot of Michael Lynagh, with two penalties and a conversion, helped Australia lift the title against England in a tactical final,’ he says of the 12-6 win that gave the Wallabies the first of their two World Cup titles.
‘Then, who can forget the 1995 final, where Joel Stransky broke the heart of the world’s best team by producing a kicking masterclass, including one of the greatest kicks in history,’ he says. There were no tries that day, even though many thought the All Blacks and Jonah Lomu would run rampant, as they did throughout the tournament.
‘Moving on to 1999, the world saw one of the most astonishing kicking feats, when Jannie de Beer slotted five drop goals among 34 points from the boot.’
Those five kicks sealed a famous win over England in the quarter-final but ironically, the Boks crashed out in the semi-final, when Stephen Larkham managed his only drop-kick on the biggest stage of all.
The final that year saw the Wallabies smash the unpredictable French 35-12, but without that drop kick, the Aussies would not have reached the final.
The 2003 edition was just as tense, with another goal-kicker winning the day for their country. The final against Australia was almost a carbon copy of ’95, with Jonny Wilkinson slotting the winning drop goal in the last minute of extra time after the sides were tied up at 17-17.
The 2007 tournament was also steeped in goal-kicking lore, Cilliers points out. ‘Percy Montgomery was superb for the Boks that day, and for a few years leading up to that moment, while a young Frans Steyn showed the world what he could offer with a crucial long-range goal kick.’
That final was another display of ruthless three-point mastery as the Boks wore down England. In 2011 the depth of the goal-kicking department was pushed to the limit when New Zealand defeated France 8-7 in a tense final that saw Stephen Donald become the unlikeliest of heroes.
In 2015 the All Blacks claimed a memorable 34-17 victory over Trans-Tasman rivals Australia in the final, but once again it was the boot that won the day, with flyhalf Dan Carter being named the Man of the Match for his match-winning haul of four penalties, two conversions and a decisive drop goal.
So, if history has taught us anything, it is that goal-kicking is often the difference between agony and ecstasy at the World Cup. Thankfully, millions of South Africans can breathe slightly easier with Pollard and company at the helm.