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Ball shape points towards running game

Spiro Zavos24/9/07

JUST about every aspect of this World Cup has been analysed and commented on over the first three weekends of play - except the way the pointy, plum-shaped Gilbert balls used in the tournament are affecting the way games are being played.

The plum-shaped ball, a throwback to the original ball made by the bootmaker in the town of Rugby, a Mr Gilbert, in the 1850s and 1860s, seems to have a smaller sweet-spot for the kickers. My guess is that there have been more easy penalty kicks missed so far in this tournament than in the whole of the 2003 tournament.

Daniel Carter missed his first kick at goal of the tournament. Stirling Mortlock for the Wallabies and Stephen Jones for Wales missed kicks right in front at Cardiff last week. Ireland's Ronan O'Gara missed his first and crucial penalty with a dreadful shank against France on Friday night. Frederic Michalak, normally a dead-eyed kicker, evened things a bit later by missing a kick which had a similar lack of difficulty.

Then, in the game of the tournament so far, Tonga-South Africa, Andre Pretorius missed penalty after penalty for the Springboks. Even Jonny Wilkinson missed from quite close in during England's win over Samoa.

One of the reasons the Springboks are doing so well is that Percy Montgomery has been the deadliest kicker in the tournament so far.

The pointy Gilbert ball appears to flutter and drop as if it hits air pockets, making it hard to catch on the run and hard for fullbacks and wingers to field up-and-unders. In the first game of the tournament, and one of the great upsets in RWC history, Argentina hoisted virtually every ball they got towards a nervous and fumbling French back three.

The erratic drop of the ball gave the Wallabies a crucial try against Wales, when Chris Latham kicked high, chased and regathered a ball that Stephen Jones had missed after misjudging his positioning as it dropped suddenly short of him.

There has been one consolation for some of the players in that the ball seems to fly forever when it is properly struck. Some kickers, notably Latham, Montgomery, Carter and Nick Evans, have been bombing kicks over 70m.

Montpellier, where the Wallabies are staying for the group stage of the tournament, has a stunning plaza with a big screen where all the matches are shown in front of huge, enthusiastic crowds. Before the Tonga-South Africa match, I saw Stephen Larkham walking easily and quickly on his way to the plaza. There was no indication of a limp or any awkwardness in his walking after his recent knee operation.

Wallabies coach John Connolly believes the balls are less round than they have been in previous years. He said statistics showed teams are kicking more, particularly the Springboks, than they have in the past.

There were two advantages in this for the Wallabies, he thought. First, because the pointy ball is inclined to bounce more erratically, teams are using kicks, with wingers chasing through to put defenders under pressure, as a form of attack. George Gregan, for instance, engineered a try for Mortlock against Wales with a precisely placed centering kick.

Second, the prodigious distance the likes of Latham can get with kicks makes it an obvious tactic to bang the ball down the field, playing for position rather than running the ball.

It would be sad, though, if the RWC turned into a football tournament. There are indications in the first three rounds that this is the way many of the teams have decided to play their matches. The opening plays of the France-Ireland match resembled a contest that might have been played at the MCG. But as France got more confident, they began to play the total rugby they are famous for.

The Springboks, too, ran in a couple of spectacular end-to-end tries while under the cosh against Tonga. Only Ireland and England, of the so-called major rugby nations, have kicked the ball incessantly.

Is it a coincidence that both these sides have been among the least impressive in the tournament so far?



SPIRO ZAVOS - Sydney Morning Herald | Monday, 24 September 2007 | Comment on this article

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