Should teams kick for goal at every opportunity to amass points? Or is opting for field position – and tries – a better way to twist the knife? Read our April 2020 issue debate

Face-off: Take the points or kick to the corner?

England rugby supporter
“Do you remember England losing to the All Blacks by one point in November 2018 after choosing to kick a penalty to the corner rather than at the posts? I do.

Games can be won and lost by the finest of margins. So why is rugby apparently not applying the philosophy of maximising marginal gains that we hear so much about in other sports?

These days sports at the highest level seek to optimise every aspect, to nudge every variable in their favour. We now see nutritionists and psychologists, tight-fitting shirts and GPS trackers. So why aren’t the statisticians in rugby advising players on such a crucial issue which can so clearly make the difference between winning and losing?

England v New Zealand, 2018

Misguided? England lost 16-15 to New Zealand in 2018 after spurning easy points (Visionhaus/Getty)

Over the past three years Owen Farrell’s success rate with the boot has been 78% – an average of 2.3 points per penalty kick. The probability of a kick to the corner leading to a converted try would have to be greater than one in three to be seen as a better option statistically.

Ken Quarrie, chief scientist for New Zealand Rugby, took a look at Super Rugby. He calculated that teams opting for a lineout within 15m of the opposition try-line were scoring only 27% of the time – not matching the ‘one in three’ target.

So it’s a no-brainer! There has to be an overwhelming and astonishingly good reason not to kick for goal from a penalty.”

Damian Stevens of Namibia

Having a pop: Damian Stevens of Namibia kicks a penalty during last year’s World Cup (Getty Images)

Rugby World writer
“Rugby is a game of guts and emotion and instinct, not cold calculation. Scientists can do their maths but what about the context and momentum of a match?

Consider a team under the cosh against Exeter or Leinster. Seeing them kick to the corner must fill them with dread as they contemplate the physical and psychological pressure set to follow in defending their line.

The Chiefs won’t necessarily score directly from a lineout maul but use it as a bridgehead to launch phase after phase of forward drives in the 22. Often they don’t even bother with the lineout but merely tap and run a penalty.

Ask a team whether they would rather face that or see the opposition kick for goal and most would leap at the chance to take the three-point hit and get back upfield to try to exert pressure of their own.

Josh Adams scores for Wales v South Africa at RWC 2019

Risk and reward: Josh Adams scores in the RWC 2019 semi – after Wales opted for a scrum from a penalty

It’s not just that. Kicking to the corner whips up the crowd, generating noise and a buzz that gets players’ adrenalin pumping. Michael Leitch fed off that when deciding not to kick at goal against South Africa at RWC 2015 and his reward was the greatest upset in sports history.

And even though, in the same tournament, Chris Robshaw’s decision to go for the corner against Wales didn’t pay off, he was staying true to principles.

Be honest England fans, you wanted to beat Wales that day, not just draw. People are essentially greedy and Robshaw went for broke. Rugby is all the richer for such boldness.”

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This debate first appeared in the April 2020 issue of Rugby World.