Drop goals set to play an integral role at Rugby World Cup again
Rugby World Cup history is littered with teams that have been felled by a drop goal and, on the evidence of Saturday's round of international matches, there could be a few more to add to that tally when the knockout stages of this year's tournament begin in October.
Jonny Wilkinson became a global icon when his right foot sent the winning drop goal sailing through the posts in the final eight years ago to defeat Australia in Sydney. Rob Andrew became the first Englishman to kick the Wallabies out of the tournament in 1995, while Jannie de Beer pulled the trigger a record five times for South Africa against England in 1999 at the quarter-final stage.
On Saturday, Morne Steyn, the South African fly-half, scored all of the Springboks' points in their 18-5 defeat of New Zealand. His haul included a sweetly struck drop goal and he also missed with a follow-up attempt soon afterwards. He was not the only one to train his sights on the posts.
In France's 26-22 victory over Ireland in Dublin Francois Trinh-Duc scored a drop goal from just inside Ireland's 22 having replaced David Skrela at fly-half early on in the match. He missed another attempt in the second half, while Argentina had two unsuccessful shots in their 28-13 loss to Wales in Cardiff. Scotland's Dan Parks was unlucky with his effort in the 23-12 victory over Italy in Edinburgh.
The drop goal has barely featured in the past 12 months of elite-level rugby. There were only three drop goals in this year's Six Nations, compared to 12 in 2010. In last year's extended Tri Nations there were five attempts but none were successful.
Since the points awarded for a try in rugby union changed from four points to five, four World Cup finals have been staged. Those matches have yielded a total of 132 points with only 20 points coming from tries. Where running rugby may rule in the pool stages it seems that the boot decides who lifts the Webb Ellis Cup.
It is the primary reason why Steyn may have successfully wrested the No 10 jersey from Butch James after orchestrating the victory over an understrength All Blacks. He took complete control of the Springbok back line, kicked his penalties from distance and his defence was superb, too, making 10 tackles in what was a suffocating Springbok defensive effort.
Peter de Villiers, the Springbok coach, has enlisted the help of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, the men who have masterminded the Cape Town Stormers' scramble defence. The Stormers conceded the fewest tries out of any team in this year's Super 15 and all the hallmarks of the duo were there in Port Elizabeth.
Although the All Blacks made 21 line breaks and 14 offloads, the South Africans had almost every move covered.
Jean de Villiers, a Stormers player, and the forwards Willem Alberts, Victor Matfield and Heinrich Brussouw acted as the linchpins that held together a line that was breached only once, by Richard Kahui.
The performance of Brussouw was particularly noteworthy. He was virtually impossible to play against at the breakdown and in only his second Test match for almost two years he received the man-of-the-match award.
"Our scramble defence was excellent and it was pleasing to see the guys starting to understand the structures as well as they are," De Villiers said. "What was most pleasing for us was that this game showed we are now coming together as a team. Defence is all about teamwork and playing for each other, and the guys did that. This was a test of character for us as we were under huge pressure."
It was a vast improvement on last weekend's loss to Australia at sea level and the Springboks will take huge confidence from the win, despite New Zealand playing without eight of their front line players.
Argentina started their 2011 campaign by including six players in Cardiff who helped the team finish third at the last World Cup in France.
Although Wales were much the slicker side Felipe Contepomi, the Argentina captain, was not too concerned and believes his team will improve ahead of their opening game against England on September 10 in Dunedin.
"That was our first Test for a long time," Contepomi said. "I think we are moving in the right direction, we just need to solve these errors. We need to enter into the small details building towards the England game. Hopefully, we will arrive in a better way."