Drop-outs have stimulated a drop-goal renaissance, but is the law good for the game?
Is the drop-goal back in fashion?
Prior to this season, it appeared the drop-goal was fading into extinction, and it was not difficult to understand why.
Rugby is survival of the smartest. The improvement of pitches, the increased expectation to entertain and the value of four-try bonus points objectively devalued the drop-goal.
Perhaps more significantly, drop-goals are hard. The classic instruction to ‘take three’ through a drop-goal when the defence is on top masks how challenging they are to make. A team must have a steady ruck, the scrum-half must fire a perfect, long pass, and the player in the pocket must convert a kick that involves bouncing an odd-shaped ball, all while desperate forwards are charging at them.
Unless you have a player like Jonny Wilkinson (who, lest we forget, missed three drop-goal attempts in the 2003 World Cup final), ‘taking three’ is often not the best option analytically.
The drop-goal, though, might be on its way back. This season’s introduction of goal-line drop-outs can offer recipients a long but unopposed shot at goal.
The explanation? In open play, clearance kicks out of hand can reach a high enough trajectory to give chasers time to close down the recipient. When taking a drop-kick, the choice between height and distance is much closer to being a binary one.
If the drop-out is kicked for territory rather than to compete, the result can be this:
Those three points from the boot of Dan Robson gave Wasps a lead they would not relinquish at Gloucester, keeping their Premiership play-off hopes just about alive.
“I always practice,” Robson said after the game. “Especially with these goal-line dropouts now, I have seen George Ford do it a few times for Leicester. The opportunity is there. I back myself and my ability and luckily it paid off.”
Although kicks like Robson’s are still quite rare (there have been a combined seven drop-goals in the Premiership and United Rugby Championship this season) teams are catching on. The Sharks’ Boeta Chamberlain has four drop-goals this season, for example.
Perhaps fittingly, New Zealand appear to be the trend’s great resisters, as no Super Rugby team from the nation has attempted a drop-goal yet this season.
The All Blacks have been caught out in the past by their apathy towards the drop, most infamously in the 2007 World Cup quarter-final loss to France but also in the 36-34 defeat to South Africa in 2018, and whether the Kiwis eventually follow the crowd is something to monitor.
Regardless, many rugby fans will welcome the drop-goal’s resurgence. However, is it good for the game?
The law change does deter sides from a persistent pick-and-go strategy when near the opposition try-line. Under the old regulations, a team could attack the fringes knowing that they would receive a five-metre scrum, still a superb attacking position, if they were held up. Now, a drop-out is awarded in such scenarios, encouraging attacks to be more expansive and rewarding defences who thwart such onslaughts with a chance to clear their lines.
Yet, how much of a reward is this? If teams kick a drop-out long, they offer a free shot at goal. If they go short, they risk giving away possession in their own 22. Moreover, teams can force a drop-out by kicking the into the in-goal area and making the opposition ground the ball.
It would not be the first time a law change had unintended consequences. Just look at the endless modifications to the scrum, or how the policy preventing teams from forcing uncontested scrums led to Italy playing with 13 men against Ireland, despite having only one player sent off.
On the one hand, when a player is held up, it would be unjust on them to reward the defending team excessively. Making a side choose between field position and preventing a drop-goal attempt seems fair when considering the level of pressure that has led to a drop-out.
Attacking teams do possess more incentive simply to kick the ball into the in-goal area – hardly an appealing strategy for spectators. Still, this approach could result in kicking the ball dead and giving away a scrum from where the ball was kicked, so it is not risk-free. And remember, drop-goals are never easy, particularly from almost 50 metres away.
Teams will adapt, too. It would be shocking if analysts are not spending time meticulously weighing up the different options from a drop-out, so the new law provides an interesting tactical wrinkle that will only become more nuanced.
Above all, the law supports a core skill of rugby. Drop-goals were once worth more points than tries and, though those days are thankfully over, the method of scoring is as much part of the game’s identity as passing, support runs or the line-out.
It preserves a small but pivotal part of rugby’s fabric and goal-line drop-outs, for the time being at least, are providing necessary evolution.
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