Because kicking on goal has gone out of fashion

Marcus Smith shoots on goal - Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

Marcus Smith shoots on goal – Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

In recent seasons, the question “why don’t they get points?” appeared more frequently in my match notes than any other.

During Gloucester’s defeat to Sale on Saturday, I wrote it again, underlined three times. In the first half, Gloucester turned down four eminently kickable shots on target in favor of a corner kick, a five-metre scrum and a touch penalty, none of which they converted.

Gloucester ended up losing 25-23, leaving director of rugby George Skivington to grit his teeth in the aftermath. “Rewinding a decade ago, people took the stitches,” Skivington said. “I played in a Wasps team where Lawrence Dallaglio always pointed his sticks”.

A statistical analysis by Opta confirms the premise that taking points went out of fashion in English rugby faster than double denim. In the 2012-13 Premiership season there were 1,121 penalties and 542 tries, a ratio of two penalties for each try. With one round of matches left in this shortened Premiership season, those figures have all but been turned on their head, with 320 penalties and 780 tries. Now for each penalty there are 2.4 tries.

Clearly there is a large degree of outcome-based hindsight bias as to whether kicking on goal or a corner kick was the right option. It’s the one that will likely haunt Chris Robshaw, the captain of England’s 2015 World Cup squad, to the end of his days. There are myriad variables from the score line, shooting conditions and the confidence of the forwards in their maul or scrum. There would be no point in kicking on goal if you’re six points behind going into added time, nor in a crazy match like Harlequins v Bath where teams were scoring tries at will.

In Gloucester’s case, the decision is left for the players on the pitch to judge the progress of the match, although after their previous missed chances in the first half, Skivington sent a message to Adam Hastings to kick on target. “I threw the shirt near the end there, but for the most part they have a choice,” Skivington said.

“Me and Luds [Lewis Ludlow] discuss it a lot. We have a field chat just to touch on the basis of the thought process.

Adam Hastings playing for Gloucester Rugby against Sale Sharks - Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Adam Hastings playing for Gloucester Rugby against Sale Sharks – Dan Istitene/Getty Images

“Our bat has been a pretty good weapon for us and we thought if we could get it to spin it would lead them to question themselves. He created a lot of pressure, penalties, but we didn’t bring home any points.

“When we faced Exeter here at the start of the season, I don’t think we shot on goal once and scored six tries. We supported each other. That was the attitude today. We left three tries out there on penalties which we didn’t convert through our own fault.”

Looking at the year-to-year relationship between penalties and tries, there appears to have been a big change between 2015 and 2017 and then again since 2020.

Skivington believes this was the “Exeter effect” of teams copying the Chiefs’ pattern of corner kicking and close-range touch penalties.

Even a team-by-team breakdown is fascinating. Harlequins kicked just 10 penalties all season (out of the 92 awarded in the opposition’s half) while scoring 76 tries. Each team has scored more tries than penalties, but it is telling that table top Saracens have by far the lowest try-to-penalty ratio (73 tries out of 49 penalties). They also have the highest percentage of penalties taken in the opposition half (47%), followed by Sale (35%) and Northampton (45%).

This seems to suggest that the more successful teams place a higher premium on taking the points on offer. There is certainly an element of arrogance in refusing shots on target at the start of a game. As Skivington says, you can build pressure through a maul but you can also build it on the backboard. There’s nothing wrong with building an edge.

Until we get to the expected value of a corner versus a shot on goal, teams will continue to rely on their leaders’ instincts, which may run counter to what those in the stands are seeing, such as it took place in Gloucester’s European Cup exit.

“The best example I could give you is La Rochelle where we were one point up and had a penalty,” said Skivington. “Luds wanted to go to the corner. I radioed ‘go for the sticks’. In my opinion, if you get four points clear in a knockout match it means they need to score a try to win. This is one I called off Luds on and ended up losing in the last couple minutes. There was a big debate about the way home.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *