We asked elite kicking coaches how valuable it really is to have an attractive kick
Who has the most beautiful kick in world rugby?
It could be the graceful classic from Rory McIlroy or the athletic twist from Adam Scott. It might be another stick slinger who makes you swoon. Either way, in golf you could while away hours talking about who has the prettiest swing on tour.
Out there, people want to know who has the best. Which got us wondering: Is there much debate about who has the most beautiful kick in rugby? Maybe it matters, maybe it doesn’t. It’s worth asking those who make it their business to watch kick after kick after kick…
“What a question – it has sparked a lot of debate amongst the back-room staff and some of the players,” Leinster kicking coach and chief analyst Emmet Farrell replies, when asked. For him it comes down to a few select names.
“As you can imagine, a lot of names have been thrown around. Nicolás Sánchez, Juan Martín Hernández and Federico Todeschini from Argentina. There’s Morgan Parra and Lionel Beauxis. All use minimal effort, are very relaxed and rely on outstanding timing.
“For me, outside of Leinster’s kickers of course, it has to come down to two players I’ve witnessed up close and in person: Ruan Pienaar and Frans Steyn.
“Steyn’s style is no fuss and raw power. I’ve never seen anybody who can generate the power Steyn can – it’s simply phenomenal. I remember he kicked a penalty at the RDS for Racing, from directly under the coaches’ box, that still hasn’t landed! Watching him in a pre-match warm up for Montpellier was amazing.
“Piennar is the opposite. A very tall, elegant player. Again there’s no fuss but he has great balance and gets every inch out of those long levers. He never looks under pressure and doesn’t change his routine whatever the situation.”
Of course if you were to plump for a name, personal style preference would have to be a factor. There is a galaxy out there of kickers with their own unique tics, their foibles, their own mental cues that let them know these are the perfect conditions to swing your leg at the ball. There could be those with varying degrees of smoothness. Some might lean back more. There might be kickers with more of a snap to their follow-through. However, some individuals do get mentioned over and again.
Former England and Saints fly-half Paul Grayson touches on a reason for some getting the attention. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it depends what you’re like,” he says, “but instinctively you’re drawn to footballing skills.
“Argentina produces languid, easy, football-style, laid-back, no fuss, smooth-as-silk kickers – though not necessarily the best results all the time. It goes all the way back from Hugo Porta to (Diego) Dominguez and then Nicolás Sánchez.
“Then you’ve got someone like Beauxis who is prone to a howler here and there but is butter smooth. He just walks in, clips it, breaks the rules of convention a little bit, coming round the corner and falling away from the ball. But it’s all about sweet timing like any sport. Those who time the ball the best seem to almost move the slowest. Lack of clutter makes a beautiful goal-kicker for me.”
Current Edinburgh assistant and former sharpshooter Duncan Hodge repeats one name, but also offers additional thoughts on the importance of looking good. “With coaching input I reckon the old school, languid, round-the-corner, flowing kickers are less (evident today). For example, there are no more Dominguezes about really.
“Kids watch more and are coached more, so are much better technically. That mean fewer natural or nice-to-watch kickers going about, in my opinion. But there’s no point in looking good if you can’t get the job done or get results.”
Simply wanting their kickers to get the ball between the sticks time after time is a desire that unites all coaches. When asked if beauty is important, Premiership legend Charlie Hodgson says that it’s results that matter, then rattles through a checklist of factors that are key to success, regardless of how pleasing on the eye the technique is.
He points out that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to kicking. He believes that the basics of approach, with contact off the foot and following through, are key. “Quade Cooper’s matador approach (towards the ball) looked doomed from the start!” he says. He adds that top kickers are able to “self-correct” in high-pressure situations because they know their own technique so forensically.
Coach after coach talks of the art of simplicity too.
Coming back to this, Grayson explains that the more idiosyncratic you are in preparation, the more issues that arise. “As a technical kicker, Wilko (Jonny Wilkinson) was beautiful to watch. The whole build-up is a tortured soul getting to the point where he’s ready to pull the trigger. All those little bits of external demonstrations – which are affirmations to yourself – the cupping of your hands, dragging your feet, trying to find the feel and all that adds into something… His style is great because he owned it and everyone since has copied it, but (for them) it all adds up to a load of mess.
“His actual kicking of the ball is not that different for everybody. The mechanics are pretty much the same.
“In terms of technique and coaching people: what are you good at? What can you do? What feels natural? I approach it from what feels natural. Now how can we hardwire that and make it more reliable through understanding your own technique? It’s potentially tweaking certain things, but that’s more about preparation, mental process and everything else versus ‘stop doing that, it’s not right.’
“Because if you can get in between the posts any way you can, I don’t care. If you’re kicking at 90% and you do it by turning your back on the ball and jumping up and down five times, then toe bungin’ it, I really don’t care as long as it goes through the middle of the posts.
“So there is no right way, there is no wrong way.”
There is potentially a world of nuance within this, though. Some kicks are like a signature, but you can understand why youngsters may want to try to forge that. Vlok Cilliers, the South African coach currently working with France’s kickers, advises young players never to fall into the trap of trying to “copy and paste” another player’s style.
“If you look at my stance, the bit before I actually stand up and kick, it’s irrelevant really,” explains ex-pro Rob Cook, when asked if his split-leg, forward-leaning pose before attacking a kick got too much attention. “That just happened. When I was at uni and I was kicking, I had a stance like Jonny Wilkinson, or at least I had my hands like Jonny. I don’t know what happened, but then I just got a little bit wider. I think it was more mental than anything with me. It was working so why change it?
“Everyone’s different, you know. Your body’s built in a different way. Owen Farrell is what, 6ft 2in? He’s a certain weight, he carries his body differently to everyone else. So you’ve got to find what works for you. When I’m coaching, you can give players the basics, but it’s about finding what works for them. It might not look right but if it’s going over nine times out of ten what’s the point of changing it?”
“It might not look right but if it’s going over nine times out of ten what’s the point of changing it?”
Cook fell into the job of kicking at Cornish Pirates, explaining that he was around sixth on a list of potential marksmen until five injuries hit the squad at once. He laughs that there was a rule in place that if he ever missed three in a row he would relinquish the job, but that a sitter in front of the posts would always present itself.
He agrees that timing is still the key factor, regardless whether the kick is an absolute pig or a stunner. He explains that although he could be wayward, Billy Twelvetrees was capable of sending the ball blurring into the great beyond when his timing was right. He has also witnessed James Hook land long-rangers, despite rarely practising from far away.
And with this talk of timing, any comparison with golf is not as silly as some may think, according to Cilliers.
“There are actually lot of similarities,” the South African says. “For example, the head must be as still as possible – keep your eyes on the ball. You should have no quick hip rotation. You can’t swing if your hips are in front of your hitting of the ball. You can’t kick if your hips are open too much before you complete your swing.
“And there must be rhythm. There must be timing on the ball. But also keep your head down as long as possible – only lift your head after you complete your follow-through. Your shoulders must be square to the ball, like golf too.”
Okay, but as a kicking coach, would he rather work with someone who is wayward but silky looking, or someone who gets the job done but it ain’t too pretty? Going back to golf, for example, Hodgson holds up Jim Furyk’s loopy swing as a example of getting the job done regardless of how aesthetically pleasing the swing is. In response, Cilliers considers the value of control.
The coach begins: “I would prefer to work with a guy who’s not accurate, who might have a good technique. Because I can work on accuracy, I can improve their accuracy and I know what to fix to get them there. Then your timing and your technique can improve.
“Say you take a Dustin Johnson or a Rory McIlroy. These guys have a beautiful swing but also use a lot of power. It’s about being able to control the power so that the ball can go in the direction they want it to go. You can’t use too much power because there’s a lot of stuff that can go wrong. You actually get more with timing, you get more with rhythm and then comes more distance and accuracy. So a guy like a Justin Thomas, an old guy like Ernie Els or even Justin Rose – they have a beautiful golf swing, beautiful control and there’s only one movement from them as well.
“If you see a guy with a lot of power and his technique is not too bad then you are just going to make small adjustments to his technique. It’s about minimising the mistakes.”
Of course, if the ball is going between the poles, there is less pressure to beautify the technique. Nevertheless, there is one aspect that may still need to be considered, despite how successful a kicker is today. You need to think about the years ahead.
“I never really got coached down at Pirates because they were going over, so they didn’t do anything with me,” Cook says. “But it was hurting my back a little bit, so I had to get that balance right.
“I agree that there’s definitely an efficient way to kick. And if it’s causing you problems and injuries, it’s not working really, is it? Then obviously over time, that’s when you’re going to struggle. That’s probably why kickers go through bad patches.”
Cilliers says he is a firm believer in working with medics and conditioners to prepare players for the repetition of kicks. True, he also believes in amassing lots of reps in training to nail down the technique. However, it is a good approach generally to be supple and have a strong core, he adds.
The France assistant has also seen players with the yips, much like a golfer. It especially affects those kicking from areas of the field that some would see as a gimme, he says. He believes in building confidence through repetition of those kicks, then working on mental techniques – sometimes using a mantra of sorts – to take them back to that space in their mind so it feels like just another rep.
Cook, 35, never really got the yips. He rarely kicks now anyway, with the Malvern player-coach happier to let younger players hone their craft. But when he did, he preferred to zone out, maybe even have a song in his head, than obsess over each aspect of his technique. Focus on one aspect and another could slide, he reckons.
It takes all sorts to land a nudge. As Grayson says, some are just prettier than others. Anyway, you don’t want to focus too much on that art to the detriment of anything else. As Cook concludes: “Let’s not forget, you’ve still gotta play rugby as well. Probably some of the best kickers aren’t very good rugby players!”
Undoubtedly it’s better to strive for the total package than simply yearn to have a stunner of a nudge.
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