During the final match of the first weekend of England’s resumed Gallagher Premiership, referee Karl Dickson stood over Wasps halfback Dan Robson as he waited for the ball to fully emerge from a ruck.
“Use it,” said Dickson.
Not a bad time for a cuppa, I thought, ducking up to the kitchen to put the kettle on, take the milk out of the fridge, line everything up and scrounge around for any stray chocolate biscuits, before returning to the sofa.
“Use it, now,” Dickson repeated.
I couldn’t be certain if this was a different ruck or if time had stood still. It turned out Robson wasn’t finished, stretching the friendship with Dickson and viewers, squeezing out a couple more seconds before eventually, mercifully, extracting the ball and putting it on to his boot.
The match, which resulted in a 34-21 win to Wasps over Northampton Saints, was entertaining enough. But having just sat through Faf de Klerk hogging the camera with his box kick in Sale’s 16-10 loss to Harlequins, it was almost enough to have me searching for tape of the recent Waratahs versus Rebels stinker for light relief.
Let’s straighten out a couple of misconceptions about the box kick. Commonly understood to be named after an imagined ‘box’, being the protected area behind the ruck from where the halfback kicks from, it was originally named for the area the halfback kicks to, being an imagined area behind the defensive blindside winger, in front of the fullback, bounded by the touchline.
Just as ‘lessons’ have now become ‘learnings’, time moves on and language and meanings distort and change over time.
Another misconception is that the box kick is a relatively new malaise. It’s not. Although there have been some important mutations.
Back in the day when I may have been guilty of a couple myself, we halfbacks weren’t afforded the armchair ride today’s untouchables are. As soon as you touched the ball, you were fair game for opposing halfbacks and flankers, so if you wanted to try a kick over the top you had to be decisive and get on with it.
It was also more of a surprise tactic. A quick scan of the backfield to see if the fullback was too central or too deep, a raise of the eyebrow to your blind winger, and it was on.
Today’s version is an exercise in equal measures precision and frustration. First, the halfback marshals his stray forwards and converts them from potential ball runners to blockers and leaners; to circumvent the law, loosely bound together by a gentle arm, as if preparing for a ‘baby elephant walk’.
Once fortifications are in place, the halfback then tickles the ball backwards with his toe, but only as far as the rearmost ankle. Heaven help him if a rush of blood or skill error sends the ball beyond that point – all hell would break loose as the referee would be obliged to call ‘ball out, play on’, and the halfback forced into the radical position of having to play rugby.
New laws or old, it is crucial for the halfback to work himself into good position; side on, weight balanced, ball set on an angle, from where he can take a step back towards his try line, then transfer his weight back onto his plant foot and execute the kick, partially back over his shoulder.
The piss-takers however throw in a few extras; a calming deep breath, adjustment of the socks, a few extra Zen moments, just because they can.
No prospect then, of any defenders being taken by surprise. Telegraphed as they are, with the speed and athleticism of today’s players, there is slim chance – unlike in amateur times – of these kicks finding the grass.
There are variations on the theme. From inside the defensive 22 a halfback might decide to take pressure of his flyhalf, eliminate the potential for a charge-down, and exit himself from the base. These kicks are designed to find touch; anywhere up towards halfway usually considered a good outcome.
Outside the 22 on the defensive side of halfway is fertile territory. Perhaps it’s not a day for the backline? Or the flyhalf isn’t penetrating with his kicks? Or the ball running forwards aren’t making headway against a fast-rushing defence, the recycle is slow, and while possession is being maintained, you’re only one more hit up away from an inaccurate clean-out and a penalty against, for the tackled player holding on?
Or perhaps it is the halfback himself, true to type, always wanting to be the centre of attention, rating himself as one of the players fans will have paid money to watch, who simply decides to do things his way?
Whatever, that’s a lot of scenarios that have led to rugby being overrun by this scourge.
Box kicks have evolved over the years to become shorter – twenty to twenty-five metres now the norm – to ensure a contest at the point of landing. If an advancing winger is able to make a catch on the fly, suddenly the attack has momentum, against a defensive line that isn’t set.
Or perhaps the ball is spilled and it bounces into space – fracturing the play, breaking the shackles and opening up a new attacking opportunity. Mission accomplished.
Perhaps. Contestable or not, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the ball is claimed securely by a defender.
Even the best exponents – De Klerk, Conor Murray, Aaron Smith, Tomas Cubelli – get it wrong on more occasions than they’d care to admit. Out on the full, too long, too short… possession given away without any territorial compensation.
Why not just hand over the ball to the opposition in the first place, rugby league style, instead of putting everyone through the pain of the set-up and the referee telling the halfback to use it, without any intention of penalising him if he doesn’t?
The reason is that you can’t – and shouldn’t – legislate against what is a fundamental aspect of rugby. A player in possession, in this case the halfback at the base of a ruck, must always have the choice whether to run with the ball, pass the ball or kick the ball. That’s rugby.
For the sake of the game as a spectacle, it’s also important not to artificially engineer outcomes which alter this fundamental balance. Sides should always be allowed a strategic and tactical choice as to how they go about things. And it’s a matter of taste as to whether a box kick is more or less attractive that repeated hit ups close to the break down.
But something can – and should – be done about tidying up a cause of frustration – the halfback being afforded way too much protection, and in the process, the play becoming static.
With Rugby Australia keen to experiment with seven Super Rugby AU law variations aimed at speeding the game up and making it more attractive, this one seemed to slip through the net.
Excited claims of increased ‘ball in play’ minutes counts for little if that stat includes the time taken for these kicks to be prepared and executed.
Three potential solutions spring to mind. Firstly, don’t allow the halfback the luxury of setting the ball up with his foot in an artificially created protected zone. As soon as he touches it, call the ruck over and make the ball live.
That would certainly fix the time-wasting issue, but against that, there are times when the halfback genuinely has to reach in and fossick around to release the ball, before clearing it. If not called clearly by the referee, every time, this would allow the defensive line to get a flyer, and anything that provides them with a head start, isn’t a good outcome.
Perhaps then, this could only be done in conjunction with setting the defensive lines back further, a clear space behind their last foot. I say this without conviction however, given how, outside of obvious transgressions, assistant referees are too often ineffective at controlling the offside line.
A second solution is to ban the protective blocking that occurs. Let the halfback kick, but without the benefit of his ‘line-backers’ blocking the attempted charge-down.
The binding that occurs in these situations is, in essence, ‘fake binding’. It’s a nonsense up there with rugby league scrums. Compel players to bind only to the main body of the ruck, otherwise ping them for obstruction.
A third solution is for the referee to not only call on the halfback to ‘use it’ faster, (as Ian Tempest did in Saturday’s Northampton versus London Irish match), but then to follow through on the deal and blow for a scrum against the side in possession, when they don’t.
A handful of those calls, and watch the game miraculously speed up!
Another accomplished box kick exponent is Wallabies, Montpellier, Exeter and Brumbies halfback, Nic White, who – right on cue – made his Super Rugby AU debut, off the bench, for the Brumbies on Saturday night.
It didn’t take White long to slide back into the groove – in only his second possession, arranging the customary protective wall and sending a kick skywards. White looked sprightly behind a pack that began to assume control in the second half, sending the Brumbies out to a decisive 47-14 win.
Things had started promisingly for the Waratahs with Ned Hanigan celebrating his 50th Super Rugby match by being captured on the TV coverage enjoying what looked suspiciously like a pre-match fiddle or re-arranging of the fruit bowl.
But when Canberra’s cold, sleety weather wreaked havoc with TMO Ian Smith’s monitor at the precise moment Ryan Lonergan snuck ahead of the play to open up the scoring, this match was always headed the way of the home side.
Pete Samu laid the icing on the cake with two impressive second-half efforts – one in each corner – the latter one of those ‘how on earth did he get that down?’ moments usually reserved for flashy wingers.
In Brisbane, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto was dacked early; in the process, conclusively proving that the pink undies craze hasn’t caught on at the Reds. After the defensive heroics of last week, the Reds enjoyed playing on the other side of the ball, running in eight tries against an always gallant, but undermanned, Force.
Taniela Tupou continues to go from strength to strength, somehow missing out on the scoresheet, but dominant in all aspects of the game, bar one.
It seems that the only thing missing for him to become a complete player is to add a box kick to his repertoire.