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The boot-iful game

Andy Clarke

A well-placed kick can win a tournament. No one knows this better than Owen Farrell, whose automatic selection for England over the past eight years has owed, in part, to the reliability of his kicks at goal.

But Farrell’s recent – and uncharacteristically wobbly – performances in front of the sticks against France and Wales in the Autumn Nations Cup shook England’s supporters used to his unerring accuracy. Despite missing four penalties in the match against Les Bleus – and another one in extra-time – Farrell finally nailed the sudden-death kick that secured England’s 22-19 triumph, before apologising to his team-mates for taking so long.

A reliable kicker off the tee is arguably the most crucial element of a successful Test-match squad.

Place-kickers assume a world of responsibility when they step up to the tee. A momentary lapse in concentration or a slight and unaccounted change in the direction of the wind is a missed opportunity and will cost points. It is a lonely job, but squandered penalties or conversions change the momentum of Test matches and allow the opposition back into the game. With this in mind, head coaches will ruthlessly choose between players based on the strength of their kicking percentages and steely resolve in front of the posts. A reliable kicker off the tee is arguably the most crucial element of a successful Test-match squad. They have the ability to galvanise a nation or bring a country to its knees.

From the moment a penalty is given and the choice is made to kick for goal, tension builds around the ground and gradually a hush falls upon the crowd. Settling into their carefully crafted pre-kick ritual, the player must remain focused until the moment the ball leaves their boot. To do this job successfully, a kicker must have mental resolve, talent and supreme confidence in their own ability. This is a rare combination of skills and there are few players who have been able to consistently meet the demands of top-level goal-kicking throughout their career.

Defined by their dependability to attain kicking percentages around the 80 per cent mark and tackle acute angles with confidence, a place-kicker cannot count on his counterpart to miss opportunities.

Scotland’s Chris Paterson, with a career kicking success rate of 88.4 per cent, is among the very best. Notching up 1,598 Test points for the All Blacks, Dan Carter is rugby’s highest international points scorer and a player whose versatility and regularity kept him at the top of his trade for a decade. Jonny Wilkinson and Neil Jenkins are in the same rarefied company as Carter and Paterson at the top of lists that rank rugby’s best-ever goal-kickers. It would be wrong to omit the likes of Ronan O’Gara and Diego Dominguez among rugby’s goal-kicking legends, but these players are the exceptions, not the rule.

In today’s game, an international goal-kicker is expected to be flawless. There are too many top-notch players waiting in the wings for them not to be. Defined by their dependability to attain kicking percentages around the 80 per cent mark and tackle acute angles with confidence, a place-kicker in a current Test side cannot count on his counterpart to miss opportunities.

Having racked up the majority of his 174 points from kicks over the past year for club and country, Dan Biggar is proving himself to be amongst world rugby’s elite group of goal-kickers. With a penalty success rate of 94 per cent, Biggar’s performance in front of goal since November 2019 is one of Wales’ best assets and the envy of his peers. Missing just two of his 34 penalty attempts during the past year has contributed to his set of impressive statistics, which suggest that Biggar is currently world rugby’s best goal-kicker.

Our data suggests that the player most likely to challenge Biggar’s top spot is the South African Curwin Bosch, who plays his rugby for the Sharks in Super Rugby. He boasts an outstanding penalty percentage of 91 over the past year and has only missed three of his 35 attempts. Bosch is just 23 and was first capped for South Africa during their 37-15 victory over Argentina in a 2017 Rugby Championship match. Whilst South African rugby has been blessed with the kicking prowess of Morné Steyn since 2009, the record holder for the most consecutive successful kicks at goal in Test play, we expect to see much more of Bosch in the coming years.

Establishing a definitive list chronicling rugby’s best goal-kicker is a difficult task. Factors like the distance and angle of a kick are difficult to account for when calculating success percentages. On top of this, seizing opportunities when they matter most is something that distinguishes good goal-kickers from the great ones and is not something that can be measured – yet. But as with any skill, the quality of a top kicker comes down to the proof that they can make a high number of their kicks over a long period of time. Or, to put it simply, points and consistency.

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