Goalkickers struggle on 1st weekend of World Cup
Updated: September 12, 2011, 01:11
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WELLINGTON, New Zealand(AP) Goalkicking wins Rugby World Cups. In the last three finals - in London in 1999, Sydney in 2003 and Paris in 2007 - only four tries have been scored and 71 of 91 points have come from kicks.
Already, after only three days of the 2011 tournament, the arcane art of the kicker has assumed center stage, not because its practicioners have dazzled their audience but because of their mounting failures.
Goakickers are often perfectionists who spend hours honing their craft, learning the characteristics of every brand of ball and the nuances of the wind which affects its flight in any stadium.
But even the master, England's Jonny Wilkinson, who has kicked 158 conversions, 236 penalties and 35 dropped goals in his test career, found his skill deserted him in his first appearance at this tournament. He missed five of eight attempts in England's opening 13-9 win over Argentina; played in a roofed and enclosed stadium in which neither wind nor rain affected his aim. The Argentina goalkickers also missed a handful of chances.
Goalkicking even became an issue of contention in Sunday's match between South Africa and Wales when an apparently successful penalty attempt by Welsh fullback James Hook was flagged away the linesmen. The ruling was crucial in a match won by a single point by reigning world champions South Africa.
Hook also missed the last penalty attempt of the match nine minutes from fulltime which might also have won the game. He kicked four of six attempts while young flyhalf Rhys Priestland missed a handy dropped goal attempt late in the match which could also have altered the outcome.
Hook was bemused at the linesmen's decision on the penalty goal that wasn't
"I was running back because obviously I thought it was over,'' he said. "If there was any doubt I would have stayed there and watched it go over.
"(Referee) Wayne Barnes was in the same position as me. He obviously didn't give it and I thought it was over so I thought that (to ask the television match official) would be the best thing to do. Obviously not.'' The IRB issued a statement Monday confirming that Barnes and his linesmen could have referred the decision to the TMO if they were in any doubt, but didn't think it was necessary.
South Africa coach Peter de Villiers was also bewildered by the incident.
"I can't say (whether it was over). There are only two people who can really say it,'' he said of the linesmen who stood beneath the uprights when Hook took aim. De Villiers said South Africa goalkicker Morne Steyn wasn't always 100 percent sure if his kicks in practice were accurate.
"I stood there when Morne did his warmups and some of them supposedly he thought were over and weren't. Some can be but also could be behind the posts,'' de Villiers said. "That's the reason we pay big bucks (to referees). To get it right.''
De Villiers acknowledged goalkicking may become a bigger and bigger factor at this tournament as it moves into its knockout stages and defenses became more difficult to penetrate.
"If you look at all the games and you get to kicking, you've already assessed the fact that defense will be very hard at this tournament,'' he said. "So the more this tournament does progress, the more people are going to struggle to cross the gainline and looking after the ball will become very, very important.
"So you have to buy a penalty or two and that's why you have to have an above average kicker.''
Wilkinson's opening night blues were bad on Saturday but even he, usually meticulous, could not account for his failures.
"I don't even know how many I missed,'' Wilkinson said. "In kicking, you're judged on the outcome. But as kickers, you focus on what you're doing with the ball. That's what you focus on because at the end of the day with all these variables, you have to focus on the bit you can control.
"And today I felt really good.''
"I'm not going to apportion any kind of blame other than to myself. "I'm the one kicking the ball. It was the same for both sides. It was tough kicking out there.''