Matt Williams: Time for players to rediscover the lost art of the torpedo punt

The 50-22 law empowers attacking teams to exploit some of that crucial empty space to telling effect

Ronan O’Gara: The great torpedo punters of the recent past like  O’Gara did not have the 50-22 law to exploit when they played  but could  land their torpedo punts a few metres from the sideline, deep inside the defenders’ 22. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Ronan O’Gara: The great torpedo punters of the recent past like O’Gara did not have the 50-22 law to exploit when they played but could land their torpedo punts a few metres from the sideline, deep inside the defenders’ 22. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

The introduction of the 50-22 kicking law has empowered attacking teams to kick with positive intent from their own side of the 50 metre line with the aim of bouncing the ball into touch in the opposition 22.

If the players have the ability to apply the required skill, their team is given the great opportunity of gaining the lineout throw in a very powerful attacking position.

Rushing defensive systems leave huge unguarded amounts of space behind their line. The 50-22 law is aimed to encourage the defenders to leave players in their backfield to cover the possibility of the 50-22 kick. This would then create fewer defenders in the line and more space to attack.

In the early stages of observing the effect of this positive law change, it appears that attacking teams are not able to exploit the opportunity the law provides because the knowledge of how to execute the required kick is almost extinct from the current generation players.

The aim is to produce a kick where the foot shapes the ball into a spiral spin, so that when the ball makes contact with the grass it rapidly bounces straight forward and runs into touch.

The almost extinct ‘torpedo’ punt is needed to win a 50-22 lineout. The majority of the current generation of international and professional club backline players do not have the skill or knowledge to create an effective torpedo kick to exploit the great advantage that this positive law change has provided.

After seven international games in the Rugby Championship, there have been only two 50-22 kicks. The great torpedo punters of the recent past such as Michael Lynagh, David Campese, Grant Fox, Rob Andrew, Andrew Mehrtens, and Ronan O’Gara did not have the 50-22 law to exploit when they played. Despite this their great skill could land their torpedo punts a few metres from the sideline, deep inside the defenders’ 22.

After landing the ball would bounce low and accelerate like a startled rabbit into touch. With laser-like accuracy, these great kickers would pin teams down, only a few metres for their try line. All of those greats kickers were also equally brilliant kicking from either foot.

The greatness of their torpedo punting was not just that the ball explodes from their boot, rotating faster than a Tom Brady pass. It is that, like Brady, the kicker has to look up and identify the space, then attack it with the confidence that they have the tools in their kit to get the job done.

This skill to torpedo punt is not just for outhalves. Every backline player should be a crafter of the ball, who can shape the movement of the ball with their foot. I yearn to see a team win possession at a set play in their own half and quickly move the ball across their backline to a fullback or outside centre who, like Brian O’Driscoll did with great success for many years, will then create a low trajectory spiralling kick into the opposition 22 that bounces into touch.

Standard play

This kick was once a groundhog day stock, standard play in most teams in the world. A miss pass to a player who would create a long diagonal crossfield kick, known as a “wipers” kick. Coaches and players have forgotten the effectiveness of this strategy. There is a muddled thinking belief that all attacking kicks should come only from the 9s and 10s.

Here is a true loss of knowledge, skill and understanding from our game.

The invading species of drop punts that crossed over from Australian Rules into rugby in the 1990s is, to a large extent, to blame. The drop punt is such a simple technique to master that the detailed skill of creating quality torpedo kickers has dropped from the skills of the game.

Across the rugby world in the 1980s and 90s, there were multiple players at every club who were able to shape a ball with their foot so that it would bounce in way that the kicker desired. Ollie Campbell, Tony Ward, David Humphreys, Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton are perfect examples of a glorious Irish lineage that used intergenerational knowledge to produce technically brilliant, ball-in-hand kickers.

That process is now endangered as is the future supply of torpedo punters.

The former Ireland and England coach Brian Ashton once told me: “There can be up to 8,400 square metres of space on a rugby field. There are 31 people on that field, taking up one square metre each. That leaves 8369 square metres of space to attack”.

The 50-22 law empowers attacking teams to exploit some of that empty space. What we are not seeing from the attacking teams is the skill to produce an accurate long-distance kicking strategy to gain an advantage from this positive law change.

Regrettably, the overwhelming majority of the kicking we are forced to endure are aimless box kicks, that take little skill from static positions, or crossfield bombs from outhalves that simply produce a jumping lottery for their wingers to buy a ticket in.

Coaches and players must act like environmental conservationists, to firstly rediscover the techniques of how to produce a torpedo punt. Then create the time to practice kicking every day, to revive these much-needed but dying skills.

In creating the 50-22 opportunity, the lawmakers have offered teams a high incentive. All backline players must grab this chance not with their hands, but with two educated and cultured feet.

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