Over the last eight full Premiership Rugby seasons, there has been a noticeable drop in how often teams choose to kick from hand in general play. Across the 2008/09 and 2009/10 seasons there were between 2700 and 2900 kicks made throughout the season, a tally which has dropped to a low of 1903 last season. This trend is surely a tactical change, perhaps brought about by a desire to keep the ball in hand or possibly a ploy to gift opponents as little possession as possible.
Surprisingly, even though the amount of kicks in general play has decreased over the last eight seasons, the number of tries being scored directly off these kicks has not fallen as a result. Previously, around one in every 82 would have been a kick that assisted a try, by way of a well-placed grubber or pinpoint cross field kick. However, this has averaged out to around one in 50 over the last couple of seasons. This, coupled with the decline in general kicks, may show that teams are now less willing to put boot to ball unless it provides a genuine territorial advantage or leads to a good try scoring opportunity.
The percentage of tries scored each season by sides returning a kick provides another reason for Premiership teams to shy away from handing possession over with the boot. In 2010/11 just under one in eight tries came by way of a kick return. This figure has risen from 12.4% to over 16% in each of the last two seasons. This may not seem like a dramatic rise however the small details are what coaches focus on and the fact that a loose kick is now more likely than ever to be punished, it is no real surprise that there has been a decline in teams wanting to kick away possession.
One of the stranger trends, perhaps, is the rate at which forwards are kicking the ball. Over the last five seasons the percentage of kicks made by forwards has increased. Although it is a small rise it may well show that the skill sets of backs and forwards in the last few years are becoming more aligned. The men packing down in the scrum are expected more and more to be able to pass the ball as well as the backs; maybe they are attempting to kick as well as the men behind the scrum too.
Most other kick types have fallen over the seasons, aside from grubber kicks and crossfield kicks, the latter not being a type that has ever been used much and therefore hasn’t seen much of a change as a result.
The grubber kick on the other hand has been used between three and four times per game across each of the last seven seasons, and in the last three seasons has been used more often than the bomb. This is perhaps because the grubber is often an accurate kick which in the wider channels can be used to keep teams pinned back by aiming low kicks in behind the defensive line.
Interestingly the chip has been used less often, a tool that used to be utilised against aggressive rushing defences, it was only used 1.2 times per game last season, compared to almost three times per game in 2009/10.
Perhaps one reason why it has not been used so much is that it has not yielded a good rate of ball retention but instead has given possession over easily to the opposition and for this reason a well-placed box kick can be so effective. Similar to the bomb, the box kick is put high in the air to give chasing players time to contest for the ball, however with the scrum half able to take more time over his box kick this is perhaps why it is used more often than the bomb. The bomb is also usually kicked by a fly half, who when he receives the ball is five to 10 metres behind the scrum half, already lowering the maximum distance that could be gained by a kick.
Since the dramatic rise in box kicks in 2013/14 from the season before, there has also been a sharp rise in the amount of kicks that are collected by that same team who put boot to ball. Out of all kicks that remain in the field of play, 22% were won back by the team who kicked, up seven percent from three seasons earlier.
This shows that sides are veering towards playing a lower risk gameplan and attempting kicks that are more likely to end up back in their own team’s hands, or at the very least gain some important territory.
Putting points on the board is the main aim and kicking off the tee is as important as ever.
However it appears there is a decline in the willingness of teams to attempt kicks that may not provide straightforward three-point opportunities. In 2011/12 there were over 750 kicks attempted from distances of 40 metres or more, a number which has fallen dramatically year on year since a fractional rise in 2012/13. The total of kicks from 40+ metres last season sat at just 475 and it is a similar story for kicks from 50+ metres too. Other than a minor rise in 2014/15 the number has generally dropped. This may help to explain why the rate of successful penalty kicks has risen over the last number of seasons.
In the entire 2015/16 Aviva Premiership Rugby season so few drop goals were kicked that we can list them individually: one each from Tom Heathcote, Danny Cipriani, Elliot Daly and Freddie Burns. It is a far cry from 2001/02 when 73 were landed, and 27 December 2004 at Madejski Stadium when five drop goals were scored in a single Premiership Rugby game between London Irish and Northampton Saints.
While attempts are clearly decreasing, so too are success rates. In 2011/12 almost one in three drop goals yielded three points, whereas last season less than 15% made their way through the posts. It may be that with the drop goal being used as a point-scoring tactic less often, players are not practising putting them through the sticks as much or are simply not used to the pressure of slotting one in a match situation.