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Kicking the Habit

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There’s no doubt about it, a strong boot is a sure way to control a game.

It has been at the heart of England’s game for quite a while. While other nations looked to alternative methods of gaining ground and adding points, the Red Roses’ policy has been to play the game – as far as possible – in the opponent’s half.

And they have had the players to ensure this. Once they depended on Katy Daley-Mclean and Emily Scarratt. Now that KD-M has retired and Scaz has been missing from parade for a long while, a host of other players have taken on the responsibility: Amber Reed, Ellie Kildunne, Helena Rowland, Holly Aitchison and Zoe Harrison, to name but five.

The side was widely criticised in New Zealand for over-reliance on the boot and forward power, but Kiwis can hardly claim England lost the RWC final because of that strategy.

Over recent seasons a particular sequence has developed: a penalty kick to the corner, a clean line-out and an unstoppable rolling maul. It doesn’t always succeed, there are so many elements that could go wrong, but for England it has become a deadly weapon. A crucial element: the closer the kick lands to the try-line, the easier it is for the pack to finish the job.

How to react?

Other nations are slowly developing the same approach, most notably France. But even they have fewer players able to achieve the effect. One young player who caused England trouble for a couple of years was Chloé Jacquet, but her preference is for Sevens. With Jessy Trémoulière now retired, and Caroline Drouin also opting for Sevens, France need more players with the kicking power of Emilie Boulard to test England.

Kicking has rarely been at the forefront of Kiwi thinking, but the evidence of recent big matches, above all the WXV1 final, may make them think twice. I recall Renee Holmes being introduced to the Black Ferns’ line-up specifically for her strength in kicking from hand.

Yet in the opening seconds of that final she made an error that was to cost her team dear. She fielded Aitchison’s kick-off, then advanced around eight paces before releasing the ball. That was enough for Mo Hunt to leap into its path and charge it down. From there the Black Ferns spent much of the first half defending their line.

Apart from Holmes only Ruahei Demant was committed to a kicking game. Even she, with all her experience, made errors with the boot that proved expensive.

In many Six Nations games of recent years we’ve seen teams facing England unable or unwilling to clear the ball to touch as early as possible. Instead the forwards mount a series of charges to ease their way towards their 22. All too often an error occurs, resulting in an England scrum close to the red zone.

Two of the Celtic nations, Ireland and Wales, are tending to choose No 10s whose prime (but not sole) skill is with the boot, Dannah O’Brien and Lleucu George. Scotland are sticking with the experienced Helen Nelson, but younger players are finding a place in midfield to add more kicking options.

Counter-measures

So the game-plan must be

1. to have at least one, better two, backs happy to belt the ball with the foot.
2. not to concede penalties in midfield, from where a kick to the corner can be launched unopposed.
3. More positively, national sides are employing a specialist coach to cover all aspects of the kick. They see the need to make it appear a natural part of the game, not an ill-prepared reaction to sudden pressure.

‘Kick-tennis’ is a term of abuse these days. But the Red Roses are happy to indulge in it for three reasons:

1. They normally finish up further down the field than they started.
2. Their most accurate kickers can land the ball where it can do the maximum damage, including
the still relatively new 50:22.
3. Their back three have the option of running the ball back with profit.

And that is where their game-plan can be so exciting. It brings doubt to defences; where will the next thrust come from; from the boot or by hand?

The Antis

There’s no doubt the kicking game has an army of opponents, but when as eminent a personage as Warren Gatland joins the opposition, saying, ‘We need less kicking in 2o24’, his eye is certainly fixed on the men’s game. There critics could claim it’s been reduced to a slow caterpillar ruck, followed by a deliberately produced box-kick by the 9, then a chase and hope. The caterpillar may be the object of banishment by the law-makers.

Far less so in women’s rugby. The statisticians assure us that the ball is in play for far longer than with the men. Rucks are only occasionally countered strongly, the ball is released from the forwards far more quickly. That in itself allows far more options out behind, including a wide variety of kicks.

Lou Meadows, England’s new attack coach laid emphasis on the ability of all the backs to kick the ball. That may seem perverse to some, but it brings much greater doubt into defenders’ minds. ‘Line-speed’ is a watchword of the game, but the faster the defensive line advances, the more gaps are likely to appear behind it.

It’s been noticeable this last year how often Red Rose backs have dropped the ball on to a foot to lob it over the top or grubber it through at worm’s height. With the pace and handling skills they have, the opposition is always having to second-guess how the next move will develop.

The simplest justification for a sound kicking game is to ask any forward: when she lifts her head out of the scrum, does she want to see the ball ahead of her or behind?

In the perfect world that we all seek the answer would be for every player to command every skill. It’s time for a New Year’s resolution.

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