World Cup could finally be death of box-kicks and caterpillar rucks

Jack van Poortvliet – World Cup could finally be death of box-kicks and caterpillar rucks

Jack van Poortvliet hoists a box-kick during England’s 20-10 victory in Cardiff – PA/David Davies

The waiting is almost over. Next Saturday in Cardiff, England and Wales stage an intriguing World Cup warm-up as both sides bid to build momentum, settle combinations and finalise selection. After weeks of fitness training and strategising, balls will be kicked in anger. And the method behind those strikes will be interesting to monitor.

Over recent years, caterpillar ruck routines and box-kicks have been viewed as an occupational eye-sore unique to the professional game. Joe Simpson, the former England scrum-half, recently suggested that the practice would rank narrowly below scrum re-sets as the most tedious on-pitch action. Well, this World Cup could finally endanger the caterpillar.

Kicking variety has been a prominent theme of England’s camp. Jack van Poortvliet followed George Ford, his former Leicester Tigers team-mate, in praising the All Blacks’ early burst against South Africa on July 15.

“Sometimes certain teams can get caught kicking just off nine [from scrum-half] and not posing a threat kicking in other parts of the field,” Van Poortvliet said. “New Zealand went through that game kicking off 10 [from fly-half]. They would maybe do a two-shift pass and kick off [Beauden] Barrett.

“Them kicking from a different point meant they were kicking onto someone different than who South Africa expected and they got back a large amount of balls in the air.”

Drilling into the data vindicates Van Poortvliet’s view. New Zealand kicked 28 times against South Africa during that 30-15 victory, recovering possession from 11 of them – a remarkably good return.

What is more, Aaron Smith and Finlay Christie, the All Blacks’ scrum-halves, were responsible for just four kicks in total. When Smith did hoist his first high ball in the 12th minute, it came as a surprise, directly from a midfield lineout move in South Africa’s half. The speed of the kick pitted Will Jordan in an aerial one-on-one against Makazole Mapimpi. Jordan climbed higher, but spilled.

By contrast, South Africa’s scrum-halves – Faf de Klerk and Grant Williams – combined for seven of their team’s 16 kicks. The Springboks did not recover possession once.

Earlier this month, Ford made the point that box-kick routines work both ways. Caterpillar rucks cocoon the scrum-half and shield the strike, yet they also give defences time to reorganise and arrange ‘escort runners’ to protect the catcher. Ponderous and predictable tactics do not pose as many problems, which brings us back to Cardiff.

In England’s last meeting with Wales at the Principality Stadium, Van Poortvliet and Alex Mitchell accounted for 17 of the visitors’ 36 kicks. Tomos Williams and Kieran Hardy hit 17 of Wales’ 38. England looked marginally more assured and accurate in the aerial exchanges. Thanks in part to Owen Farrell’s spiral bombs, England recovered possession from five of their own kicks, Wales doing so from three of theirs. Freddie Steward’s towering presence in the back-field was hugely significant as well. In truth, a 20-10 triumph for Borthwick’s charges should have been more convincing.

Over the course of last season’s Six Nations, Wales kicked the most from scrum-half, with 40 per cent of their total kicks coming from that position. England (38 per cent) were next, with France (35), Ireland (31), Scotland (29) and Italy (25) following them. Variety usually brings deception, although there are clever means of kicking from the base of rucks. At Twickenham, Antoine Dupont shaped to strike the ball with his right foot before swivelling and sending a left-footed kick skipping over the turf for a 50:22.

A third of all the kicks in the 2023 Six Nations were made by scrum-halves, according to Opta, which exactly mirrors the 2019 World Cup. As a hint of how effective box-kicking was in Japan, when accompanied by coordinated and aggressive chase, De Klerk amassed a personal total of 67 kicks – 22 more than any other player – for the eventual champions. The vast majority of those will have been box-kicks.

South Africa obviously lasted the distance, but that number is instructive. Gareth Davies (45 kicks) and Ben Youngs (44) were third and fourth for the entire World Cup, playing at scrum-half in teams that reached the last four and beyond. Japan fly-half Yu Tamura (46) was in second. More fly-halves, and perhaps centres and full-backs, may end up high on 2023’s list.

Anyone hoping for England to abandon box-kicking entirely will be disappointed. Richard Wigglesworth, their attack coach, is one of the skill’s most prominent exponents ever. Recovered high balls remain an extremely fruitful basis from which to attack and territorial pressure underpinned the success of Borthwick’s tenure at Leicester. Wigglesworth, Youngs and Van Poortvliet all contributed heavily.

That said, it sounds as though England have explored different options and have scope to occupy their back-line with kicking playmakers such as Henry Slade, Elliot Daly and Max Malins as well as Farrell, Ford and Marcus Smith. On their way to the Premiership title, Saracens showed the value of spreading the ball through the hands in their own half, if only to see how a defence reacted and put boot to ball further wide.

Borthwick has promised an approach that will present unexpected challenges to opponents. With him and Wigglesworth at the helm, England should at least be organised, smart and tough to beat. Canny kicking, with pesky caterpillars perhaps less common, will be in their plans.

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