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The Lost Arts of Rugby Kicking

Would today’s goal kickers be as good as Eric Simms or Dally Messenger? Does the use of a kicking tee and modern footballs give them an unfair advantage when comparing their deeds with those of the past?

When the Rugby Football Union was formed in 1871, it released a set of standardised rules. It was called: “The Laws of the Game of Football as Played by the Rugby Football Union”.

While the rugby code allowed handling of the ball, the principals of the game were still founded in “football”.

Handling of the ball, scoring “tries” and taking punt kicks could be employed to advance the play downfield, but their use could not override the fundamental of the game – that scoring points from a goal (tries initially had no points value) came from kicking the ball off the ground.

Similarly, play always began or re-commenced via a foot kicking the ball while it was on the ground. A tackled or held player had to put the ball down on the ground and move away – the ball could only be handled again after it had been kicked. In scrums, the ball was placed between the front rows where it would be fought for by players kicking and raking for it. A “try-at-goal” was gained by placing the ball on the ground in the opponent’s in-goal area.

In simple terms, this is why a drop-kick counts as a goal, and a punt kick does not. The drop-kick evolved very early in the history of rugby, as an expert means of combining handling of the ball, while still ensuring it was kicked from the ground to claim a goal.

The path toward tries having greater value and importance than goals began from the late 1800s onwards. In rugby league today, the option of taking a penalty goal attempt is rarely utilised, even though it is easier to kick a goal now than it ever has been. With the aid and consistency offered by kicking tees and professional training (time and expertise), a first grade goal kicker is expected to be able to hold a successful conversion rate of well over 80%.

In the 1890s, successful goal kicking was a very difficult task – there were so many variables that no longer exist today.

Players were permitted to make a nick in the ground to help keep the ball still. However, they could not place the ball on the ground – for as soon as it touched the ground again (even accidentally) play recommenced. To overcome the problem, the ball was held by a “placer”. It was their job to put the ball in the favoured position for the kicker at the last possible moment. The defenders were allowed to charge for the ball the instant it touched the ground, or the kicker began his run-up.

Interestingly, well away from the watchful eyes of the RFU, in Australia and New Zealand the kicker was allowed to place the ball on the ground to show the placer exactly how he wanted the ball positioned. This “irregularity” was stopped though after the visit of the 1899 British team, who clarified the RFU’s interpretation for the local authorities.

Meanwhile, the “Northern Union” (rugby league) in England was looking to make it easier for goal kickers. More successful goals would feed the growing popularity for “star” goal kickers. Always at the mercy of a poor “placer”, the kickers argued they themselves should have sole control.

By the time rugby league arrived in Australia (1908), kickers were allowed to place the ball themselves if they preferred. In conjunction with this change, the defending teams were no longer permitted to charge at goal kickers attempting penalties, conversions or a kick from a “mark”.

In the decades that followed the “nick” to rest the ball upon grew into the use of soil from elsewhere on the ground. This was eventually added to by the permitted use of sawdust or sand, kept ready outside the touchlines.

The increased value and importance of tries over goals from the late 1980s onwards, has seen the goal kicking process allowed to be “corrupted” so that the rules in this part of the game have become increasingly lax.

The ball has gradually lost touch with the ground, providing far easier kicking conditions. Initially the use of dampened mounds of sand provided an advantage by greatly elevating the ball. By the late 1990s the use of sand fell out of favour when it was replaced by the uniform conditions offered by kicking tees.

In modern rugby league the ball no longer has to be kicked from the ground for a goal to count or for the game to restart (including 25m-line “optional” punt kicks). One of the original rules of “rugby football” has now been lost. The vagaries of the condition of the ground’s surface, and the doubt about the kicker being able to “hit the right spot” on the ball, have been taken out of the game.

The use of a “placer” can still be seen occasionally when strong winds are about. However, their purpose is to hold the ball on the kicking tee, rather than on the ground as originally intended.

The use of a trainer to hold the ball is a breach of the rules – only a player may carry out this task (see Section 6 of the ARL laws and notes contained therein). It would also be a gross degradation of the basis of the sport if a trainer were allowed to participate in a scoring function of the game.

Interestingly, while American football is criticised for allowing touchdowns (tries) to be scored without placing the ball on the ground, its goal kicking still retains the use of a “placer” to hold the ball on the ground at the last moment, and the prohibition of a kicking tee or other aid.

In League and Union, under the practised skills of modern kickers using a contrived aid (kicking tee), much of the uncertainty of goal kicking has been removed. The fundamental rule of “rugby football” that goals can only be scored by kicking the ball off the ground has been ignored, and a further link with the original basis of the sport has been lost.

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