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
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
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
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
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
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 -
Morning Herald | Monday, 24 September
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