We’re all familiar with it. That collective groan that surrounds you at a stadium or pub when Conor Murray launches another box kick into the sky.
“What’s he doing?” is the usual reaction. Parents of scrumhalves in every Irish province must be blue in the face from trying to justify this kind of behaviour to friends and strangers alike.
Everyone understands the need to clear your lines. It’s not putting it off the pitch that bothers people. It’s understandable. The most important thing in rugby is possession.
Without it you can’t score. Without it you can’t win. Why would anyone relinquish control of it by kicking it back to the opposition?
Scratch beneath the surface and you see that we should be cheering instead of groaning. When Conor kicks the ball it’s often in a part of the pitch that Ireland are under pressure to get out of. Rugby is all about building pressure. The perfect solution is one that transfers maximal pressure onto the opposition by challenging their composure, courage, skill level and work rate.
That’s where the box kick comes in. It has undergone metamorphosis from being a means of getting the ball down the pitch to being a means of getting the ball back.
Like counter attack, it has become a weapon in the arsenal of many teams. Ireland have the best executor of this skill in the world at their disposal in Conor Murray. It’s no surprise that this facet of the game is utilised so much. Even if it’s to the disdain of the average supporter.
Combine a good box kicker with powerful air marshals and you have the recipe for a cocktail of calamity on the receiving side. Irish players have been aerially supreme in 2015, to the extent that the national side can now go into games with the expectation of dominance in this area. The psychological effect of this is immeasurable.
Rest assured that seeing Tommy Bowe pluck the ball out of the sky 30 metres down the pitch will give the Irish players as big a lift tomorrow as any Peter O’ Mahony turnover or penalty in the scrum. The box kick has become as good a method of physically dominating your opponent as any other collision on the pitch.
Players like Dan Biggar, Felix Jones and Rob Kearney have built reputations as warriors of the sky. It’s an unenviable task to collide with someone, partially blind, five feet off the turf. Strange then that they love it so much.
This opportunity for physicality has more than one benefit. Back three players will tell you they can’t wait for the first box kick of the game. I spoke to one this week who explained that as a full back or winger, you will often go through the first 10 minutes of the game without touching the ball or making a tackle. In this case an attacking box kick is the perfect way to get these players into the game.
Not only that, it gives them the chance to have a massive impact early on. The first aerial contest will often set the tone for the rest of the game. Every contestable box kick means an opening for a player to do something huge. Who wouldn’t want that?
Even if a kick is overcooked tomorrow and Scott Spedding gathers with ease, he’ll have a defensive line with no fractures in his face. The French will have to retreat to secure the ball. Creating something from slow ball on the back foot is difficult, even with the flair of Michalak and the destructive force of Bastareaud.
Ireland will feel confident that they can handle whatever is thrown at them.
With this wisdom, the cynic will still find holes to poke. People fail to grasp why Conor would box kick around his own ten metre line. Surely it’s better to keep the ball in hand and wear the opposition down? It may surprise you that there are times when it’s more dangerous to have the ball than not. This might sound ludicrous but statistically robust analysis shows that after six phases, the defending side is more likely to score than the attacking.
That’s right — if you continue to hold onto the ball then you have a higher chance of ending up under your own sticks than the opposition’s.
Anyone who watches European rugby will have seen sides like Glasgow, Saracens and Clermont be more dangerous off turnover ball than anything else. A knock on or loose pass can easily lead to seven points.
When a team goes through multiple phases in this part of the pitch, play will usually have become somewhat pedestrian. There is little to be gained from continuing to ask a pack of forwards to generate go forward ball out of nothing. Precious energy will be burned without reward. Statistics show that a team is better off conceding possession and working to get it back. What better way to do it than by unleashing someone foaming at the mouth for a bit of action, like a hawk hunting a pigeon?
These factors combine to explain why Ireland will be hugely reliant on the box kick tomorrow. Dave Kearney and Tommy Bowe will fancy their chances against Noa Nakaitaci and Brice Dulin above ground level at least. It will make for a fascinating aerial encounter.
I’ll be licking my lips at the potential carnage each time.