EVEN the most inexperienced golfers among us can relate to the sublime feeling of connecting with the ball sweetly, witnessing that little white blur arc away to a distance that can seem disproportionate to our physical swing.
There’s a distinctly similar feeling available in rugby, but there are increasingly less practitioners of the oval ball game who are experiencing that simple pleasure.
“As a rugby player, there’s nothing better than unleashing a spiral punt,” says Dan Carter in his video about the technique here on The Rugby Site.
The problem is that the spiral kick is something of a forgotten art in modern rugby, where the ‘safer’ option of the end-over-end punt has become the norm when kicking from hand.
More reliable, requiring a little less practice, but often less effective that a spiral would be. Carter has been a master of the technique in recent times, but Ronan O’Gara is a man for whom many of his greatest tactical performances were built on the spiral.
He is concerned by the apparent lack of love for what he sees as an integral skill in any self-respecting out-half’s armoury.
“The biggest frustration for me now is why aren’t people spiralling the ball? I’m beginning to wonder,” says O’Gara. “I actually woke up the other night thinking about it. Who’s spiralling the ball now?”
It’s a good question. Handré Pollard unleashed a beauty of a spiral recently for South Africa, prompting one of the commentators to remark, “The likes of Naas Botha would proud to see a good old torpedo kick back,” as if their viewers had never seen it before.
Perhaps they hadn’t.
A recent video of Gavin Henson firing a spiral over 60 metres for Bath has racked up almost 9,000 views on YouTube. “A good old-fashioned spiral,” the commentator terms the superb show of technique.
Ireland’s Johnny Sexton is another who pulls out the spiral kick from time to time, but the impression is that his best spirals are reserved for those games in which he is buzzing with confidence.
O’Gara works with the Ireland out-half at Racing Métro and explains that the pair do train the spiral kick. Using it on game day is a different matter though.
“Johnny practices it,” says O’Gara. “Yet for the amount of hours he’s doing, you don’t see it on a Saturday. For Ireland, when you’ve any bit of wet on the pitch, an end-over-end falls flat; a spiral goes like that [indicates a skidding motion off the table]. It’s impossible to defend.
“I know exactly why it’s not used – because it’s a confidence thing. They [players] don’t back their technique under pressure. It’s something that needs to be rekindled quickly. If you want to play out-half, it has to be your bread and butter.”
Jonny Wilkinson was one of the leading proponents of the shift towards the end-over-end style of punting the ball in the early 2000s, but O’Gara is at pains to point out that the Englishman still worked hard on his spiralling.
England’s tactics and view of the percentages of rugby demanded that
Wilkinson went for the safer option very often, although the spiral was still there to be used when necessary, even on the legend’s ‘bad’ foot.
“Jonny changed it a little bit behind that English pack in kicking end-over-end and being conservative in finding touch, but Jonny was well able to spiral off his right foot if he needed to.
“That’s the difference, whereas now people are just kicking end-over-end and hacking it into touch wherever they think.”
Perhaps the main issue is that the spiral is a difficult skill to carry out under intense pressure, given that the accurate release of the ball from the player’s hands is so crucial to its success.
While the action of the kicking leg is relatively similar to an end-over-end kick, there is perhaps greater demand on the follow-through. Like any skill, building unbreakable confidence in a player’s spiral kick can only really be achieved on the training ground.
With former masters like O’Gara bemoaning the rarity of the ancient art, who is going to take on the duty of keeping the spiral alive?
Do your players practice the spiral kick? How difficult a skill is it and does it still have an important place in the game? Do you prefer your players to use the end-over-end technique? How have you coached the spiral?