We talk to Super League stars about the art of acrobatic tries
How to score a wonder try: The rugby league skill flying into union
As breathtaking as the finish was, for days later rugby union fans were found debating the merits of England wing Jonny May’s acrobatic try against Italy in the Six Nations. Was it legal? Was it safe? Should it have stood?
For some, the whole conversation became bewildering.
“Look at the whole premise of sport,” reflects Rob Vickerman, a fortnight after that try. “The Olympic motto is ‘faster, higher, stronger’. We want to be pushing boundaries and seeing exceptional things. I just don’t get excited about a pick and go.
“If you’re going to look at this acrobatics-style finish on the edge of the line, I’m all for it. It’s got to be safe, which is why the discussions around jumping have to be legitimate, and that is understandable. But show me a more memorable moment from this year’s Six Nations – some contestable decisions aside – than that flying dive. It’s such an iconic moment. Why would you not celebrate that in a time where the game needs to grow?”
It is an interesting point the player-turned-commentator raises. Then again, for anyone who has listened to Rob, there is something else undeniable: he is northern. Raised in the land of rugby league, he has also grown accustomed to seeing certain sporting trends.
Yes, highlight reels of NFL running backs and receivers hurdling tacklers and diving over a thickly-muscled scrimmage catch the eye, but such moves would be seen as unquestionably reckless in rugby. There are better examples much closer to home, where stars of Super League have been springing into finishes like May’s for some time.
“You most definitely need a finish like that in your arsenal now,” says St Helens and England wing Tommy Makinson. “From the international game to those big league games, there’s not much separating the two. If you can add it to your game and do a finish like that, when it’s needed, it adds an extra string to your bow. So it’s definitely needed.
“Your main purpose as a try-scorer is to get that ball over the line, so if you have to ride a tackle or jump (spinning towards touch) to get that ball down, I don’t believe the people who say it’s a bad thing. If you can get that ball down any way possible, it can be more exciting for fans when it goes on the big screen or the ref gives it straight away.
“It’s a massively different skill (to a normal diving finish) – you are putting your body into a position it would never normally be in, in a game. At the corner you’re trying to get everything over the sidelines, bar the ball. So you’re going for that corner while keeping your feet and body in play, then as soon as you take off the rest of your body is irrelevant: it’s about your hands.”
Makinson plays on the right wing. Over at Wakefield, fellow flying finisher Tom Johnstone occupies the left wing. Is his view from up in the air any different?
“All I think about is trying to get the body as high as it can, but getting the ball as low as I can,” Johnstone says of his in-game thought process. “First thing I want to do is get that ball down in the corner, but keep myself high enough so that if people hit me, they’re not going to get me out.
“I’ll get to that corner and then jump, and depending on how many (defenders there) are or how fast they’re coming across will dictate how early I jump. Sometimes I don’t have to jump too much. Sometimes, I try to do it from three or four yards away to try to project (myself) a bit. But it feels good!
“I try not to think too much. You can start overthinking it and panicking. You can get the ball in the wrong hand or some people jump and put the ball up, thinking the ball needs to be up in the air, but it doesn’t. Otherwise, you’re giving the defenders more time to get to it.
“For the first few seconds when you hit and you flip and you’re not quite sure where you’re gonna land, that’s pretty funny. But I don’t really think much of it other than, ‘I need to get this ball down’. Everyone else has their job, but mine is to finish. So I need to make sure I don’t miss it.”
It’s something Makinson can relate back to May’s Six Nations score.
He says: “The skill in that try was sensational and no matter what the debate is, you can’t take away from that skill-set. In our position nowadays, the wing, whether in the NRL or for the RFU or in rugby league, it’s one you need.
“In the heat of the moment, in those tight situations, where the game depends on a try, coming up with a piece of skill like that is massive. In our sport, we’re accustomed to practising that, making sure we nail our opportunities. In the last six or seven years in league, this (skill) has really taken off and that finish is almost the norm. It’s expected in those tight situations, when you get the chance.”
Makinson laughs that he has gotten it wrong plenty of times, in training and in games. The key is backing yourself to not just try it, but keep learning. It won’t always work. Johnstone explains that it can hurt, pursuing that diving finish. Once, a few years back, a defender flew in as he was diving and the shoulder contact fractured Johnstone’s fibula.
At this point you can feel the need for World Rugby clarity on the legalities of would-be scorers diving towards the try-line at the same time as spinning, mid-air, away from the field of play. However, there is no denying the skill can wow a crowd. When the finisher has the technique down.
Keeping a keen eye on other masters helps. A few years younger than his fellow finisher, Johnstone namechecks Makinson as someone he spotted honing the skill while he was growing up. He also singles out Sale Sharks speedster Denny Solomona as “the best one at it”, encouraging any winger keen to perfect the skill to seek out former league star Solomona, or at least to study him.
As Johnstone explains: “Denny did it to me a few times, and I thought ‘Right, this seems to be the go! This is what I need to start doing.’ So I just started practising.”
So how would these finishers approach learning the craft?
After May’s try against Italy, an image reemerged of the wing working on diving into the corner with crash mats and pads, in England training back in 2015. Debate could be held about the merits of a constant-play approach and training in as many game-like situations as possible, versus the well-defined construct of a drill. For the Super League stars, the answer likely shuttles between the two.
Johnstone begins sharing his experiences, saying: “I’d tried it a couple of times and it was just trial and error. Getting bundled out or going too high or not going high enough, so people could get hold of your legs. Or keeping the ball away and putting it in the wrong hands and things like that.
“I did it once and I enjoyed it – it felt pretty good, and it worked. Then one of my coaches set up a corner mat. He used to tell me to just aim for the corner, get up, and he would try to whack me with a shield or something, to try to dislodge the ball. It made me work on my grip a lot, because a lot of people will try to push you or whack your arms. So if you can, make sure your grip’s perfect.”
Gaining confidence will be important. Then Makinson explains the need to build from here.
The St Helens star adds: “You can get used to doing it with no pressure, so knowing where the sideline is, where to put your feet, where you should put your hands, where your eyes are (looking), and transferring the ball from one hand to the opposite, with no pressure. The next step is to do that with pressure. You will come along nicely, but as soon as you add that extra defender or the cover tackle, that’s when it gets difficult.
“It’s hard to set up a drill, saying, ‘I’m going to score here, you give me four yards and you set up as cover tackle here’. But I just think putting it into more and more game-like situations in training (is good) and obviously we learn on the field, playing the game. It’s about learning on the go.
“It’s the same with the best players in any sport. You learn by constantly doing it. If you get an opportunity it’s nice to nail it in training and then taking it into the game – that’s not to say you won’t stuff it up, because I’ve stuffed many up in training and in the game! But it’s about taking the opportunity and as a winger that’s all I want: the more space the better, but if you have a few yards, a tight corner, you want to get your body in there and get the ball down. The opportunity is all you want as outside players.”
Both men know the joy of scoring these tries. Johnstone jokes that he has been guilty of going for finishes like these when the situation doesn’t even demand acrobatics. But in the end, they believe it should be about the joy of the spectators too.
It’s up to union to decide how they want to react, the next time a try-scorer takes to the skies.
Can’t get to the shops? You can download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.