The drop goal

by Paul Thomas / 12 July, 2011
Although dismissed by the public and players, the drop goal has proved an effective tactic at Rugby World Cups.

Why is New Zealand rugby so sniffy about drop goals?

Players and coaches give the impression they think drop goals are beneath them: rugby for robots. The public and the media are just as dismissive: those who try one can expect to be jeered by the crowd and derided by the commentators.

It seems attempting a pot is acceptable only if you are Zinzan Brooke or there’s no serious intent, such as when a team has a penalty advantage and wants the penalty awarded. This gambit raises an obvious question: why take one method of securing three points ­seriously, but not the other?

The drop goal has a lot to recommend it. First, unlike penalties, the points-scoring opportunity doesn’t depend on the opposition breaching the law and the referee detecting the illegality. Second, drop goal set-ups can be perfected at training. Third, it’s hard to defend: you can send a drop kick over the sturdiest defensive wall.

And let’s not forget the drop goal has proved an effective tactic at World Cups.

Arch-pragmatist Grant Fox kicked one in the 1987 final, and extra time pots determined the outcome of the 1995 and 2003 finals. All up, England’s Jonny Wilkinson banged over 13 at the past two World Cups. (England won in 2003 and came second in 2007.)

Still not convinced? How about this: in three of the six games the All Blacks have lost at World Cups, the opposition dropped not one but two goals.

Although teams depart at their peril from the style of play that comes naturally to them, it’s fanciful to suggest the odd droppie is incompatible with a commitment to ball-in-hand attacking rugby, or would compromise the All Blacks brand.

And disdaining a perfectly legitimate method of scoring on aesthetic grounds seems both arrogant and silly, akin to cricket teams deciding they’re going to ignore a particular mode of dismissal.

Curiously enough, that’s exactly what happened for many years. The Mankad, named after Indian all-rounder Vinoo Mankad, involves the bowler, in the act of delivering the ball, running out a non-striking batsman who leaves the crease too early.

Because they were considered unsporting, there have been only four Mankads in test cricket. With characteristic foolishness, the International Cricket Council (ICC) outlawed the practice, thus eliminating a non-existent problem and enabling batsmen to cheat with impunity by backing up before the bowler releases the ball.

Which they proceeded to do, hence the ICC’s recent about-turn. Hopefully this time around cricketers will embrace Mankading for what it is: a legitimate mode of dismissal that comes into play only when batsmen either cheat or get careless. Rather than being unsporting conduct, the Mankad deters it.

The ICC has also put an end to the convention of injured batsmen using a runner – a fellow team member who runs between wickets on their behalf – because it was being abused. As former Australian wicketkeeper Ian Healy once had to point out to former Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga: “You can’t have a runner just because you’re fat.”

The use of runners was anomalous on two counts. First, injured bowlers can’t be replaced, so why have a system just to enable injured batsmen to continue batting? Second, it created the absurdity whereby a batsman with an injured hand is out of the game but a batsman with an injured foot isn’t.

It would have been too much to expect the ICC to follow this logic to its conclusion and also ban the use of substitute fielders. If you can’t replace an injured bowler or provide a hamstrung batsman with a runner, why should you be able to send on the 12th man because someone wants a rubdown or a shower or simply can’t be arsed fielding?

New Zealand Cricket chief executive Justin Vaughan explained the decision to ban runners thus: “We shouldn’t forget that cricket is not only a skill-based game, but a fitness and endurance game, too.”
And, you would hope, a game whose participants can get through a two-hour session without having to relieve themselves.
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