KOBE, Japan, Sep 25 – Rugby fans sometimes ask, ‘Whatever happened to the drop goal?’ and then every four years along comes a World Cup to remind you of their worth.
Drop goals are rather like flared trousers — commonplace in the 1970s but rather less familiar in the decades since.
Yet an extra-time drop goal has twice been responsible for winning a World Cup final, with Joel Stransky’s effort sealing 1995 hosts South Africa’s 15-12 victory over New Zealand in Johannesburg before England’s Jonny Wilkinson broke Australian hearts in 2003 when, with just seconds left, his sweetly struck kick sailed over to secure a 20-17 success.
In the most recent World Cup final, fly-half Dan Carter’s 69th-minute drop goal took New Zealand into a seven-point lead before they eventually beat Australia 34-17 at Twickenham.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of a remarkable individual and tactical feat — Jannie de Beer’s five drop goals during South Africa’s 44-21 World Cup quarter-final win over England in Paris.
The much-neglected art has again been in vogue at the current World Cup in Japan. France beat Argentina 23-21 after Camille Lopez came off the bench to drop the winning goal with 11 minutes to go, while South Africa’s Handre Pollard and Yury Kushnarev of Russia have also slotted drop goals.
– ‘Monsieur Drop’ –
Generally, when it comes to tries and penalty goals, the attacking team has to do something right — hold their passes, create an overlap — and the defending team something wrong, like missing tackles or killing the ball.
But the peculiar cruelty of a drop goal, as demonstrated by de Beer’s Test-record haul at the Stade de France, is the defending side may do very little wrong at all and yet still concede points.
“It feels now like a bad dream,” England great Martin Johnson wrote in his autobiography, recalling the defeat to South Africa.
“His (de Beer’s) kicks were going over from miles out and we just couldn’t get enough pressure on him to try to affect his accuracy.”
So with all these high-profile examples, why is that it can seem as if the drop goal has disappeared from sight between World Cups?
Well for much of rugby union’s history a drop goal and a try were both worth three points.
Indeed so proficient was Pierre Albaladejo, a France international of the 1950s and 1960s, he was nicknamed ‘Monsieur Drop’.
To encourage more attacking rugby, the value of a try was increased to four points in 1971 and five in 1992.
The advent of seven points for a converted try and the arrival in the professional era of multi-phase forward play, that would eventually see defending teams concede a three-point penalty, led to a decline in the drop goal’s popularity.
Better pitches and more precise training have also been responsible for a huge increase in placekicking distances and success rates for penalties.
“Drop goals used to be the first option, not a last option,” former Wales fly-half Paul Turner, a noted drop goal expert, told the Rugby Paper.
“I soon realised that forwards loved the drop goal. They saw it as their reward for exerting pressure and gaining territory.”
Someone might want to tell that to Scotland fly-half Finn Russell.
Scotland’s 27-3 tournament-opening loss to Ireland in Yokohama on Sunday meant that in his 47-Test career Russell has still to kick a drop goal, for all he’s been involved in several matches where the Scots have struggled to turn pressure into points.
Given he plays his club rugby in France, for Paris-based Racing Metro, perhaps he should drop in for a chat with Albaladejo?