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A Short History of Goal Kicking

Kicking goals has always played an important part in rugby football.  Although in the modern game scoring tries is considered more important, the original objective of rugby was in fact to score goals.  If a player touched the ball down behind the posts his team was rewarded with a "try" at kicking a goal.  Only in later years were points awarded for the touch-down itself.  The relative value of the try has been increased over the years, supposedly to encourage a more open style of rugby, but goal kicking, whether place kicks or drop goals, remains a vital part of the game.

In the right circumstances the rugby place kick can be one of the most exciting set pieces in team sport.  Whereas in soccer the taker of a penalty is in a one-to-one battle with the goal-keeper, in rugby he is completely on his own, watched by the other 29 players.  This creates its own special tension, so that place-kickers require a strong nerve as well as kicking skills.  There can be little to compare with the excitement of a last-minute touch-line conversion to save or win a game.

The style of place-kicking has changed over the years in which I have been watching rugby.  Gordon Cripps, a brilliant goal-kicker for Bristol in the 1950's and early 60's, actually wrote a book on the subject. Well, it was as I recall more like a pamphlet, with diagrams, explaining the correct way to kick at goal.  Alas, I have long ago lost my copy, but I well remember his method, so different from today's kickers.  According to Cripps the kicker should use the back of his heel to dig out two small piles of mud or divots (no buckets of sand in those days) and then place the ball on them pointing towards the posts, quite flat but with the front end obviously higher than the back.  This required some careful lining up of the ball to ensure it was pointing at the centre of the goal posts.  The longer the kick, the flatter the trajectory, so the flatter the ball should be placed.

Cripps of course had his own routine. After carefully lining the ball up  he would stand up, take three or four paces back, in a straight line - this was before the days of "round the corner kicking" - then hitch his shorts up, pull up both socks, head down and kick with the toe, not the instep.  Providing he went through the whole routine the ball would nearly always go between the posts.  But if he forgot to pull up one of his socks the Bristol crowd would be shouting "right sock, right sock...".

There were a number of arguments in favour of the straight toe kick rather than the round the corner method as it was initially known.  For one thing it seemed logical to point the oval shaped rugby ball in the direction you wanted it to go.  The ball travels in a straight trajectory from A to B whereas the instep kicker has to curve the ball in towards the posts and hope that he judges the angle correctly.  In theory the ball should travel further in a flatter trajectory, so it's better for long-distance kicks.  And of course the method works from any angle and any distance within the capacity of the kicker, whereas the instep kicker will have a right side of the field and a wrong side depending on whether he is right or left footed. 

Despite Cripps' teachings he was one of the last great place kickers to adopt his style of kicking.  The last international toe kicker of note was Bob Hiller, who was capped 19 times for England between 1968 and 1972, scoring 138 points. By the 1970's almost all the top players were kicking round the corner,  The great kickers of the professional era, for example Jonny Wilkinson, Chris Paterson, Stephen Jones and Owen Farrell are all instep kickers.

Another major change in place kicking over the last thirty or forty years has been the position on the field of the specialist kicker.  In 21st century professional rugby place kicking has become largely the preserve of the number 10 shirt, the outside half.  In modern international rugby most of the kicks taken by players wearing other numbers are fly halves playing out of position, for example James Hook in the centre for Wales or Chris Paterson at full back or on the wing for Scotland.  There are of course exceptions like the French scrum halves Yashvili and Machenaud whilst Wales have reverted to the traditional full-back kicker with Leigh Halfpenny.

If we go back 20 years or more we would usually expect the place kicking duties to be taken by the full back.  We can think of Jonathan Webb, Dusty Hare, Bob Hiller, Don Rutherford, Roger Hosen, all great England international goal kickers.  But if we go back to the 50's and 60's even the 70's a specialist place kicker could come from any position on the field, even the forwards, almost inconceivable today.

Gordon Cripps who we mentioned previously was in fact a Number 8 forward, sometimes second row, but at the time there seemed nothing incongruous in his tall scrum-capped figure taking goal kicks.  He was so successful he broke the national record for points scored in a season.  Bristol had another first choice kicker a few years later, D. St.G. (David) Hazell who was a prop forward.  In the County Rugby Final at Redruth in 1969 Cornwall got two penalties, kicked by Ray George and Roger Harris. Both were forwards and Harris was actually the hooker.

On the international field, who of those who were lucky enough to see it live or on television as I did, can ever forget Gerald Davies' last minute try, far out on the right, for Wales against Scotland at Murrayfield in 1971, which left Scotland still in front by a single point.  As first choice kicker Barry John was right footed and had been concussed earlier in the match who was called up to take the vital conversion? None other than wing forward John Taylor, kicking left footed from the right-hand touch line, he made no mistake and Wales had won the match 19 pts - 18.  One journalist called this the greatest conversion since St. Paul.

Interestingly enough Scotland's kicker on that day was also a forward Peter Brown.  Brown played in the second row and had a most unusual kicking style. He would place the ball on its end, turn around, walk a few paces away from the ball, then turn round again and casually run up to the ball and kick it.  There was no science in it and apparently no control over length or direction but he usually did pretty well.  Sadly for Scotland, on that day against Wales, he missed the much more straightforward conversion of the previous Scottish try which would have put his team safely two scores ahead.  However in the Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham the same year he converted Chris Rea's last minute try to give his side a one point victory by 16pts - 15.

© Francis Jacobson 2014