A look at the various kicking strategies employed in rugby
Kicking in women’s rugby: Is there a better balance than in the men’s game?
Box-kicking boredom. Tedious kick-fest. Endless kick-tennis killing the game.
All of these expressions were used to describe the rugby on show during the Autumn Nations Cup last year. Words like ‘turgid’, ‘ponderous’ and ‘aimless’ were also thrown around – perhaps more often than the ball in some Tests – with the prevalence of kicking unappealing to many viewers.
Eddie Jones described critics of England’s style as “disrespectful” while saying rugby is going through a defensive cycle. There have been entertaining spectacles at club level that would disprove this assertion as well as improvements in the Six Nations.
People might point to a match like the 11-try encounter between Bath and Wasps as an anomaly but in women’s rugby as a whole it would certainly be rare to see a long sequence of kicks back and forth, as there is generally a far better balance between kick-pass-run options.
This hasn’t always been the case; in the early days of the women’s game and perhaps even as recently as a decade ago, players’ kicking out of hand lacked the distance and accuracy to be truly effective. In more recent years, however, there have been huge strides made. Top players now have more time to focus on technique and strength in training so they can kick better and further.
“When I came into the England set-up in 2014, I thought we could make massive gains in the set-piece and the kicking game,” says Red Roses coach Simon Middleton. “We’ve now got a fantastic array of kickers and that’s not by chance. We’ve invested a lot of time in players and their ability to kick. We’ve got the strongest kicking game in the women’s game – that’s just a fact, not me blowing our own trumpet.
“One of the trends I’ve noticed over the past two years is that the kicking strategy is rising. When we played the Super Series in San Diego (in 2019), the US and Canada started to kick a lot more. France have developed a strong kicking game.
“It’s very dependent on the team you’re playing; the top three or four teams in the world kick the ball a lot more than other teams, and kick better. In the away game against Italy (in 2020), we kicked 21 times and Italy kicked 12 but away against France we kicked 32 times, they 27. Against Italy we kicked far less but still far more than Italy.”
So how do kicking strategies compare between men’s and women’s rugby?
We took the two Tests played between England and France at Twickenham last autumn, and compared the figures when it came to kicks out of hand in open play. The men’s Autumn Nations Cup final went into extra-time, so to create a more accurate comparison in the ‘map’ below we have focused only on kicks in the regular 80 minutes.
The graphic makes it clear England’s men kicked far more than the women so let’s break it down a little further. The men kicked nearly twice as many times in the first half, with 17 compared to the Red Roses’ nine. Of those 17, six were by Ben Youngs whereas Red Roses scrum-half Leanne Riley kicked only once all game – more on the different box-kicking strategies later.
Over the course of the 80, Jones’s side kicked 40 times compared to 23 for Middleton’s team – a vast difference. George Ford kicked 16 times and if you add the four he made in extra-time, he’s nearly putting boot to ball as often as the entire Red Roses squad.
Where the two teams kicked from on the pitch was also interesting. A little over half of the Red Roses’ kicks originated from between the 22 and halfway lines in their own half whereas this rises to more than 70% in the men’s match. The men also kick more from the centre of pitch whereas more of the women’s kicks were on the edges.
The differences in strategies is also evident in the percentage of possession kicked in the two games against Italy that secured their 2020 Six Nations titles. The men kicked three times more often.
So why this stark contrast? Here’s Wasps Ladies director of rugby Giselle Mather: “In the men’s game now there’s a lot of kicking in the middle area of the field whereas in the women’s game we tend to run it more, we’re looking at handling and carrying. In the men’s game, the defence side of things is so strong that a lot of men’s teams prefer not to have the ball, to advance up the pitch without the ball and by kicking.”
Test centurion Katy Daley-Mclean, who called time on her England career in December, believes there’s a better balance when it comes to kicking in the women’s game because there’s more room to keep ball in hand.
She says: “There’s space on the pitch so you’ve got both options; there’s still the opportunity to move the ball to the edge and make space or go through the middle. The guys look like their only real option is to kick long and press. Then you see the Bath-Wasps game…
“The kicking game is just not as good to watch. The one I hate is the long kicking battle in the 22s. We don’t have as many people on the pitch with the same length of boot in the women’s game, but we find that more space will open up after the second or third kick.”
Who kicks is another area where there is a disparity. England men kick a lot more from nine – Youngs actually kicked more often than Ford against Wales last November – whereas the women use the box kick minimally.
Middleton says: “I’m not a massive fan of box-kicking. All our nines – Claudia MacDonald, Leanne Riley and Mo (Natasha) Hunt – can box-kick really well, but you only have to be a little bit out for the opposition to counter-attack. That’s why I’m wary of it.”
That’s not to say box-kicking is rare in the women’s game. For example, Mather uses it a lot at Wasps: “If you kick from nine, chasers have to be on the back foot of nine; from ten, the forwards can’t move until they’re put onside.”
Although she does serve a warning about caterpillar rucks and how having a lot of forwards concentrated in one part of the field means that teams can then be caught short of numbers if the opposition shift the ball quickly. As an aside, many would like the caterpillar to turn into a butterfly and fly away.
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There are other areas that could see a shift in focus when it comes to kicking. Daley-Mclean thinks the union version of league’s 40:20, the so-called 50:22 kick where a team that kicks indirectly into touch from their own half into their opponents’ 22 or their own 22 to their opponents’ half would throw into the lineout, would help to create space.
“That could really change the game,” she says. “It would keep wingers closer to that touchline and would also make kickers more accountable. At the moment they’re kicking long, the other team kicks back, but it’s not done anything, you’re almost waiting for an error. For us, it’s always about finding grass or competition, some form of challenge.”
That ‘challenge’ could be the next step forward when it comes to kicking in the women’s game. While that contest under a high ball is common in men’s rugby, it’s not so in women’s. England players like Emily Scarratt and Abby Dow are adept at chasing those high kicks and competing to catch them, but they are more an exception than the rule.
Mather says: “On the whole players wait for them (opponent) to catch it and land, then smack them. Defensive takes players are okay at but the chasing take is a harder skill. We’re doing competitive aerial work now and in five years I think you’ll see it all over the place as players become more professional.”
The hope is that women’s rugby does not resort to kicking at the level we’ve recently seen in the men’s game, though. Spectators like to see the ball kept in hand, sweeping attacking moves and powerful carries through the middle of the pitch.
Yes, the weather can lead to a need to play more of a territorial kicking game, but some tactics we’ve seen in recent men’s Tests could be filed under ‘kick first, think later’ such has been their apparent aimlessness.
Jones is right that rugby goes in cycles and perhaps the stricter breakdown laws, making the risks of taking the ball into contact higher, have seen teams retreat to more boot options. After all, it’s just 16 months since the World Cup final when England kicked the ball only 19 times. Look at the breakdown of kick-pass-run in the most recent men’s and women’s World Cup finals and the figures are quite similar.
We haven’t seen as many kick-fests in the men’s Six Nations as last autumn while the hope is that the women’s championship can gain more traction in the public consciousness after moving to a standalone window in April.
A combined audience of 1.91m tuned into the Red Roses’ two November fixtures against France on the BBC and Daley-Mclean says: “It’s letting more people access it and it’s an opportunity to change the perception of women’s team sport. For the people that say ‘I don’t care’, I’d challenge them to watch 15 minutes of those BBC games.”
Given the negativity there has been around the men’s playing style, the Women’s Six Nations could be a welcome antidote.
This article originally appeared in the March 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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