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The box-kick is a caveman tactic akin to the 'put-'em-under-pressure' approach of the Jack Charlton era  

Tony Ward


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Conor Murray's box-kick has been a regular tactic for Ireland over the last number of years. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Conor Murray's box-kick has been a regular tactic for Ireland over the last number of years. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Conor Murray's box-kick has been a regular tactic for Ireland over the last number of years. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

IN THE course of his mid-match commentary one of our more balanced pundits – an ex-international whose insight and opinion I respect – was heard to mutter under his breath (or so he thought) "not another f*****g box-kick".

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I have little doubt that it is a feeling of exasperation greatly shared. Every type of kick from chip, to Garryowen, to grubber, to box, to diagonal, and any other improvisation via the boot, has a part to play.

The analogy with golf in pulling out the appropriate club at the applicable time holds true.

It is part of the challenge of rugby and one that makes the game so mentally and physically diverse. It is complex, but if we are to believe the lore surrounding William Webb Ellis, the said gentleman picked up the strange-shaped pig's bladder to run, not kick, and most certainly not to box-kick relentlessly.

Repetitive

Aside from the repetitive scrum reset and mindless laws loaded against defending the lineout maul, there is nothing I loathe more in the modern game than the box-kick. In particular, I detest our over-reliance on a tactic that is at best Hail Mary and at worst giving away possession needlessly.

When I see a scrum-half – and now almost every scrum-half – nursing the ball (with the underside of his boot) at a pre-designed static ruck into that now familiar kicking posture, I cringe.

If that is why Webb Ellis picked it up and ran back at Rugby School then I, for one, have lost the plot along the way.

It is a caveman "kick and hope" tactic akin to the put-'em-under-pressure, lump-it-into-the-corner approach at te height of the Jack Charlton era.

Of course winning, or at least getting results, covers a multitude and Irish rugby is now where Irish football was then.

As a player, I could kick the leather off a rugby ball, if and when required. To this day, I can vividly recall a Munster Cup final (and they were massive back then) when, having lost the previous two in 1977 and '78 to Shannon, we dared not lose a third in a row at Thomond to Young Munster.

I carried out my brief to the letter with my interpretation of the box-kick in all its manifestations. I doubt I passed the ball once in the entire game to Seamus Dennison, Johnny McDonnell, Gerry O'Mahony or whoever in Garryowen blue was unfortunate enough to be alongside. We won 3-0 and my tribal patch in Limerick was happy.

In that regard, kicking a game to death in search of the bottom line result is nothing new.

My most influential rugby coach in the formative years was Fr Walter Kennedy at St Mary's College in Rathmines. He, too, was a Limerick man but with very different views as to how the game should be played. As his chosen out-half in my final three years in the school, he had two golden rules governing my game that I dared not break.

One was kicking away possession in the opposition 22, or 25 as it was back then. And the other which was ingrained from then on was to kick only to retrieve. In the possession game he propagated to 'kick and hope' was a no-no. To 'Wally' it was tantamount to rolling out the white flag in attacking terms.

However basic this might all sound, it is hugely relevant because, just like my trusted friend on commentary, I also bow my head and swear in attempted privacy every time a number nine takes that familiar shape. Bear in mind that back then, apart from the occasional dink over the top, the scrum-half passed and the out-half kicked. Not for a minute would I suggest that should be the way today, but there has to be an alternative to our slavish adherence to a tactic which arguably more than any other took us to a Grand Slam in 2018.

I repeat, it has its place but NOT every time. And if we need reminding that there is a better way then look no further than the Japanese. With respect to South Africa and England, it is Japan who left the most indelible mark at the most recent World Cup.

Yes, in how they entertained off the field, but even more how they did so against all odds between the lines. We have the talent and ability to go that route. We still lack an out-and-out playmaker of the Brian O'Driscoll class beyond our out-half and first receiver, but if there is a will (as the Japanese have shown) then there is a way.

Prudent

In Jordan Larmour (and yes he needs to be just a tad more prudent when counter-running from the last line), Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale we have serious attacking potential, but to see Stockdale (despite his size), Conway and Earls employed as Hail Mary kick-chasers represents a side bereft of ingenuity and/or attacking self-belief. The box-kick should remain a tool in the locker and a means to an attacking end, but to Irish rugby it has become a mind-numbing end in itself.

We got out of jail against the Scots and won a game we could have lost, hence the coaching reference to 'true grit'. Today that raw ingredient might not be enough. There is much more substance and balance to the Welsh. And yet at club level the Irish provinces are operating at a different level to the Welsh Districts.

Fact, not opinion.

The exception has been the Scarlets, and it is that coaching team at the national helm now. They also have on board one of the greatest rugby leaders of all time in Alun Wyn Jones. The Welsh skipper inspires; just listening to him in interview I want to dig out the boots. Jones will not afford Ireland the same get-out-of-jail card that Stuart Hogg did.

This is the game to make or break the 2020 Six Nations campaign for one or other of today's combatants and while we'll not rule out the draw I'm banking on the home nation to up the ante and squeeze it by five.

Online Editors