Kicking the Ball

As mentioned earlier, there is no fourth down to tell a rugby team when to punt. They have to make up their own minds whether it would be better to keep trying to run the ball or to punt it. This decision is most often made by the fly half whose stats will include details of how often he chooses to run, kick or pass. Fly halves who kick too often are generally considered a bit cowardly, though if they are good punters they can be very effective, and if they know that their centres are getting creamed every time they get the ball then they have little choice.

The trouble with punting is that it gives possession away to the other side. Punting tactics are therefore centered around how to avoid the turnover. The most obvious option is to kick to the sideline. If the ball goes out of play then a lineout results and your forwards may be able to recover the ball. However, it is illegal to kick directly out of play unless you are within your own red zone. The exception for kicking from within the red zone makes it easier for defences to make emergency clearances. If a kick from outside the red zone goes directly out of play the result is a lineout to the opposition in line with where the ball was kicked. Rugby punters are thus experts at kicking the ball with spin so that it bounces out of play when it lands. That’s another reason why the Brits make excellent kickers.

The other option is to attack the kick receiver (generally the full back or one of the wings). This is hard because from the moment a punt is made everyone in front of the kicker is offside and cannot participate in play until they have got back behind him. Sometimes a very fast wing can get up and pressure the kick receiver, but a more common tactic is to go for hang time so that the punter has an opportunity to run forward, put his colleagues onside, and pressure the receiver himself. This is known as an “up and under” kick, or a “Garyowen” after the Irish club that invented the tactic. The disadvantage of the up-and-under is that it doesn’t make so much territory as you are going for height on the kick, not distance.

A few special types of kick happen in a rugby game. Obviously there is the kick-off and there are also drop-outs. A drop-out happens if the ball goes out of the back of the end zone, or if the attackers move the ball into the end zone but it is grounded by the defence. In gridiron this would result in a scrimmage on the 20-yard line, but in rugby play is restarted with a drop-out from the 22 meter line (i.e. the edge of the red zone, just like gridiron). The kick is called a drop-out because it must be made using a drop-kick, just like kicking a drop goal.

With both kick-offs and drop-outs the ball must go at least 10 meters but can go as far as you like. The usual tactic is the equivalent of an onside kick, letting the ball hang in the air so that your own forwards have a chance to get at the defence and recover the ball. This is an instance where rugby focuses on possession rather than territory and gridiron focuses on territory rather the possession.

Of course the best way to secure the ball after a punt is to kick it somewhere where there are no opponents to receive it. If there is no one in deep defence, presumably because the defending full back and wings are committed elsewhere, then the attacking team may send a long kick towards the goal line for their wings to chase. Smart centres may also use a short kick ahead as a means of turning the defense. That works fine as long as they can get to it again before the opposing deep cover arrives. Remember that once a player has kicked the ball ahead he cannot be blocked or tackled. The opposition just have to turn and go after the ball, although sometimes they get in the way and try to make it look like an accident.

Kick receivers who are within their own red zone may signal for a fair catch, known as a mark in rugby. If they do so the opposition must retire 10 meters and allow the receiver to punt in relative peace.

You will often see kick receivers jump into the air when catching the ball. This isn’t always necessary, but it is in some ways a safety tactic. Tackling a man in the air is viewed as very dangerous and results in a major penalty, so if the receiver jumps he knows he will be allowed to catch the ball before getting hit. He knows that as soon as he reaches the ground he may get hit, but by then he should have the ball under control.


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