Declining kickable points to save time a worthwhile strategy


Opting not to convert a try, or take a penalty, could gain extra nine minutes of play, writes ANDY MCGEADY

The number of tries scored will probably decide qualification for two teams in this weekend’s final Heineken Cup round – so why are teams persisting with wasting time by taking conversions? The final round of Heineken Cup pool matches will see frantic calculations by coaches, fans and pundits as they attempt to work out what teams need to do in order to qualify for the quarter finals.

A key part of the qualification equation is likely to be tries scored, as the first ERC tiebreaker will likely see two teams tied on points. So why aren’t these teams trying to maximise their opportunity to score as many tries as possible?

Most top-level kickers have a deliberate routine they go through before every place kick. In order to stop such routines becoming ridiculous set-pieces the IRB introduced a 60-second limit for penalty kicks and this season are trialling a limit of 90 seconds for conversions from the moment a try is awarded.

To save time, teams often turn down a penalty attempt at goal or drop-kick a conversion; indeed, Ian Madigan did the latter on Saturday after scoring Leinster’s fifth try in the final minute. However, a better option for Madigan would have been to ignore the kick altogether.

Teams have the right to attempt a kick at goal for an extra two points after scoring a try, but this kick is not mandatory. Ulster have declined conversions on two occasions this season, the most recent occurring last Friday night against Glasgow after they scored their third try with just 90 seconds left to play. Instead of seeing Ruan Pienaar line up a meaningless conversion, the Ravenhill crowd watched the Ulster team run back to the half way line, ready for the hunt for a crucial fourth try.

The amount of time the ball is actually in play during a rugby match is surprisingly low. During the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the average time a ball spent in play per match was just 35 minutes 25 seconds. A time study of the 2012 Super Rugby competition showed the ball spent an average of 35 minutes 31 seconds in play. Of the lost time in Super Rugby games, an average of 18 minutes was spent simply waiting for a player to take a kick at goal via a penalty or conversion attempt.

Extra nine minutes

If a team clawed back half that time in possession, it could potentially be an extra nine minutes in a single game. To put that in perspective, Leinster had three such nine-minute periods in their 59-22 match against Cardiff at the RDS this season during which they scored two tries.

Last weekend Leinster deliberately refused early kickable penalties, with Jonathan Sexton sensibly opting to kick for touch deep into Scarlets territory. They should have gone further and ignored conversions — their largely meaningless conversion attempts for five tries took a valuable four minutes off the clock.

In Murrayfield, Munster attempted five penalty goals before scoring two tries, both converted by Ronan O’Gara. As the final whistle sounded, Munster were still desperately trying to add to their try tally, knowing two was a poor return. But had Munster refused all kicks they would have had an extra eight minutes on the game clock in which to launch more attacks on the Edinburgh try line.

In coaching, if you get the process right, the results will follow. In the context of the Heineken Cup, along with simply playing better attacking rugby, stronger teams should implement a strategy that would maximise the amount of time the ball is in play in order to increase their chances of scoring more tries.

In the strategic context, the fact that Leinster scored five tries and Munster conceded two late tries is largely irrelevant. Both teams saw crucial minutes lost and Munster, despite scoring fewer than half the number of tries managed by Leinster, took over twice the amount of time off the clock through place-kicking attempts.

Often in the Heineken Cup, points can become a matter of pride while tries scored become the real key to a quarter-final place. Declining all conversions and kickable penalties is a controversial strategy, and would need a team with the utmost confidence in their gameplan. It might not sit well with some fans, and perhaps there is an element of it that would show lack of respect to opponents.

But both players and supporters would be able to console themselves when they take their seats to watch their team run out in a European quarter-final – and should they go on and win the whole thing, it could become the toast of the tactical town.

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