Ian Madigan happy to get his kicks while he can
Accuracy from the tee can be the difference between winning and losing a tournament
“Kicking is also part of the game I get confidence from. There’s no doubt if I am kicking well it lifts other parts of my game,” says Ireland’s Ian Madigan. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
For a part of the game so available to eyes, the kicker’s personality has always been split. Often more important than scoring tries, kicking has become a position of pressure and expectation, all of it under the hush and glare of thousands.
Isolated from the rest of the team and facing instant judgment, time and again it is either a noose or a garland hung around the kicker’s neck.
His quantifiable importance is shown on a weekly basis. Ronan O’Gara regularly did it from the tee for Munster and Ireland and also from the patiently engineered pocket, where a disciplined pack and the outhalf worked in perfect harmony for an inevitable drop goal.
In 2003, when England won the World Cup, they went into the first quarter-final match against Wales and won it 28-17. In the semi-final they beat France 24-7 and in the final stole past Australia in the dying seconds 20-17.
In those three knockout games England scored 72 points. With the exception of two tries, all the points came from the boot of Jonny Wilkinson. The English outhalf kicked six penalties, a conversion and drop goal against Wales, five penalties and three drop goals against France and four penalties and a winning drop goal against Australia.
He kicked 62 points in three matches with a final winning drop goal in the 100th minute of the final. It was Wilkinson’s kicking that earned Clive Woodward his knighthood.
Last season Madigan had the best return for kicking in the Pro12 with 47 kicks from 54. It’s the second time in three years he has topped the accuracy charts.
His success rate for the season ran at 87.04 per cent, which means he missed just a little over one kick from every 10 taken. O’Gara’s kicking accuracy in the 2011 World Cup was 85 per cent. Ireland scored 16 tries for 80 points. All the rest of the scores, 44 points, more than half the total, came from O’Gara or Sexton’s boot.
“I think most kickers will aim for 85 per cent mark as a target. But anything in the 80s is pretty acceptable,” explains Ireland kicking and skills coach Richie Murphy.
“Over the course of a season we would always drive the lads to get to that 85 per cent. We try to get them not to worry about their stats but we do remind them where they are.
“What makes a kicker is a mix of things and different words keep cropping up. Challenge. Pressure. Process. They begin to learn some of those elements before they even comprehend what might hinge on the flight of the ball. The back garden is often a starting point and that’s where many begin to absorb and accept pressure as normal.
“I think many kids look at soccer players and think I want to be a free taker,” says Madigan. “I was a rugby supporter. And I wanted to be the guy kicking goals. So it started off just practicing out the back garden.
“In my first year in Willow Park, I used to go in and kick before school for half an hour or 40 minutes. I think when you make that investment even at that age you want to do it in games.
“If you are the kid who practices most and they’re going over, you are going to be the guy who is allowed to kick in matches.”
All kickers have good days and bad. It’s their fate that regardless of how they perform on the pitch, they are often judged on their accuracy from the tee.
Playing against Wasps last season in the European Champions Cup was one of those days that the boot and ball were foreign bodies to Madigan. It wouldn’t go over. His ordinary kicking that day overshadowed the setpieces and the critics’ wrath was swift. But at inside centre Madigan played one of his best ever games for his club.
“Absolutely. I often say it after games. If a goal kicker kicks seven from seven but plays a poor game he can get away with it,” he says.
“It definitely is something that can overshadow the other aspects of your performance. But it is such a massive part of the game, I think for it to overshadow other things is probably fair. Kicking in rugby is that important.
“It’s also part of the game I get confidence from. There’s no doubt if I am kicking well it lifts other parts of my game. I think you can see with kickers, if they are not going over you can see them taking themselves out of a game.
“But I don’t feel it affects me like that. If you look at games that I’ve been poor in, like Wasps away when kicks just didn’t go over, I still think I played well. I think it was one of my best performances for Leinster. ”
There is a time limit of 90 seconds for a conversion and 60 seconds for a penalty, which means celebrations after scoring need to be curtailed, or at least conducted without the kicker and the ball. A jubilant winger kicking into the stand after a touchdown is a rare sight and one that would be met with serious disapproval.
As soon as the penalty or try is awarded, kickers switch from the mindset of playing their position into the more process-driven methodology of striking the ball and shutting out any interference that may have an negative influence.
“If I broke down my kicking technique I’d probably have 30 things in it that I do every single time,” says Madigan. “The majority of them are automatic. There’s probably two, maybe three that are actually going through my head while I’m taking a kick in a match.
“It’s a very set technique. How quickly you are coming into the ball, your follow through, where you hips are, is your head lifting up.
“The biggest correlation is a golf swing. I think they are similar. If you are slightly off, it’s enough to miss. I look at a video afterwards and, yeah, I can see if my shoulder dipped or whatever. Simple things like getting your plant-foot too close to the ball is enough to push it right. If you stoop over the ball, the chances are you are going to hook it. You are kicking an oval ball. It is not an exact science.”
Close to the top
At the last World Cup there were 100 per cent kickers but they played in teams that earned only a few kickable penalties or from players who did not kick that frequently. South Africa’s Morné Steyn with 21 from 24 was close to the top with 87 per cent.
In 2007, England surprisingly made it to the final again but lost to South Africa 15-6. All England’s points in the decider came from Wilkinson’s boot and all South Africa’s came from Percy Montgomery, who kicked four penalties, and Steyne, who added another.
“Without doubt, you learn more from the kicks you miss,” says Madigan. “You learn the hard way. I’d a good chat with Johnny Sexton about it. It was the Scotland game last year when I missed the kick. When he said that to me – that you learn the most from the kicks you miss – I understood because it hit home.”
It’s a solitary job preparing to miss or hit, please or disappoint, and it starts for Madigan the second a penalty or try is awarded, even before the ball is in his hand.
He tries to settle, bringing his heart rate down with breathing techniques. From there, it’s simple. He takes in the wind, the underfoot conditions, his field position, picks a line and does what he has done for his entire rugby life.