Allan Massie: Drop goals not just for last seconds of games

Stuart Hogg scored the winning drop goal against Connacht. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS
Stuart Hogg scored the winning drop goal against Connacht. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS
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So Glasgow, in what was a somewhat careless, even ragged, performance contrived to come away from Galway with a bonus point thanks to Stuart Hogg’s very late drop goal. The drop goal has rather gone out of fashion, so it was good that he remembered it’s still a part of rugby, and worth what is sometimes a rather easy three points. Often it seems as if it is only the rather old-fashioned sort of fly-half – Duncan Weir, for instance – who remembers that it is often possible to score points that way.

Of course, more tries are scored now than used to be the case, partly because the ball is in play for longer periods, partly because the laws, and referees’ interpretation of them, tend nowadays to favour the side in possession, especially when they are in their opponents’ 22. So there is always the temptation, even good reason, to go for yet another phase in the hope that this time the gap will appear and a try will be scored. Consequently, it seems that the decision to go for a drop often looks like a failure of ambition. Moreover, at the top level of the game, most tries are now worth seven points because the standard of place-kicking is so high. A drop goal is therefore worth less than half a try. Nevertheless, it’s a rare match in which at some moment going for a drop goal doesn’t look like the intelligent option – and not only in the dying minutes of the game. It is still a way of keeping the scoreboard ticking over, something not to be disdained.

Of course, captains now very often turn down the chance of a penalty goal too, preferring to kick for the corner. Until recently, New Zealand sides nearly always chose to take the points. Now they are so confident of their ability to score tries that they opt to go for a possible five or seven-pointer rather than settling for a probable three.

Now that everything is tracked and analysed the statisticians can presumably tell us how often a kick to the corner and a lineout five metres from the try-line lead to a score – doubtless also how the percentages change if the kick is not so accurate and the lineout is ten, 12, 15 metres from the try-line.

On a completely unscientific guess, I would estimate that one in four five-metre lineouts will lead directly or indirectly – that is, after a number of phases – to a try, with the odds shifting a point for every five metres further back.

Obviously, the percentage chances for a successful penalty kick at goal will also vary, depending on position and weather conditions as well as on the skill and confidence of the kicker. Nevertheless, I would guess that considerably more often than not, a team has a better chance of getting three points from a kick at goal than five or seven from a kick to touch.

If Glasgow just snatched a win last week, Edinburgh’s defeat in Swansea was more disappointing than surprising. Being away to Ospreys and Ulster is a tough way to start the season, although Edinburgh will be more than disappointed to have lost against Ulster last night 
after leading for most of the game.

One is struck yet again by the tight hold that Joe Schmidt and the IRFU keep on the provincial sides – an evidently much tighter one than Gregor Townsend and the SRU do on Glasgow and Edinburgh. At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be any requirement on Dave Rennie or Richard Cockerill to give Scotland players a late or leisurely start to the season. In contrast, there are quite a few Irish internationalists not yet being thrown into the fray.

Still, both Munster and Ulster kicked off with a win last week, the Cheetahs and the Scarlets being their victims. Both teams were, of course, at home and all the Irish provinces usually have a very good home record.

Today sees the third round of the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship and New Zealand will probably be overwhelming South Africa as you eat your breakfast. 
Perhaps not, for the Springboks are tough opponents. Yet the manner in which the All Blacks disposed of Australia in the first two home-and-away games was impressive – frighteningly impressive for anyone lining up against them.

Nothing was more striking that their ability to fasten on any Australian mistake and launch a devastating counter-attack. Fly-half Beauden Barrett scored four tries himself, the fourth a couple of minutes after he had been denied what at first seemed a valid score. A stand-off scoring four tries in a single match? We’ve had stand-offs who might manage one in a season.