Are box kicks killing the game of rugby?

31 March 2019 - 00:01 By LIAM DEL CARME

When applied gratuitously, it is one of the most infuriating sights in a sport struggling to find universal appeal.
You've seen it. The forwards, tightly huddled like riot police, form a human shield around the ball. They inch forward before the ball goes to ground and it is at this point the scrumhalf starts surveying his options.
The referee barks an instruction and scrumhalf rakes the ball slowly towards him, still peering like a meerkat over what is directly in front of him. He then turns sideways, which ultimately betrays his intentions. A box kick is about to be sent into the heavens, amid many prayers it doesn't.
It is one of rugby's great percentage plays in which limited risk can meet generous reward. Even marginal gains are deemed worth it.
One of the box kick's best exponents remains one of its foremost proponents, but former Springbok scrumhalf Fourie du Preez has a caveat. "It should really only be used as an attacking weapon.
"A lot of teams do it and they don't quite know why. It is a good way of applying pressure and potentially getting the ball back," said Du Preez.
Cheetahs defence coach Charl Strydom agrees it perhaps shouldn't be used so frequently. "It takes a long time and it is boring to watch. Guys do it because they really don't want to make play in their own half," he said.
While it is widely used, not every team feels they are sufficiently skilled for its habitual use. "We don't use it," said Strydom. "We kick very few box kicks and that's because of the personnel we have. The guys in Europe use it a lot because it is an easy way of getting the ball back if your scrumhalf kicks the ball in the right spot 95% of the time. Also, if you have big wings a it creates a lot of one-on-ones. It should be a 50/50 contest for the ball," explained Strydom.
Even if you are not endowed with elasticity or height, technique can be honed.
"When we beat the All Blacks three times in a row around 2009 it was one of our weapons against them," reminded Du Preez, an erstwhile high priest at the discipline. "They then invested a lot of time and effort in getting better at it, to the point where they started using it as a weapon.
"They do it a lot and no one is noticing. Teams feel the pressure. It is one of the reasons they and England do it well. It is also one of the reasons Ireland went up to No 2 in the world last year," said Du Preez.
Scrumhalves well versed in consistently delivering the hot payload will have the inside track when Rugby World Cup (RWC) squads are assembled later this year.
"That's actually true," said Strydom. "That's why they talk about Cobus Reinach potentially coming back. A guy like Francois Hougaard couldn't kick the ball on a tickey. He has a great attacking game and I think his kicking game has improved in Europe but they are still looking for a guy who can kick well.
"I think Rassie (Erasmus, the Springbok coach) will definitely go for a scrumhalf in the Conor Murray mould. He can land it time and time again on the same spot. As much as scrumhalves have to be able to pass, this is a discipline coaches are placing a lot of emphasis on."
Strydom has his reservations about the premium placed on box kicks.
"I don't think it is necessary in the modern game. You might as well pass the ball back to the flyhalf who can kick it but then you lose 10m in the chase.
"The box kick slows things down but that is the way Test rugby is played.
"I recently asked Juan Smith (former Bok flank) which games tired him more. He said he tired less in Tests, especially at the RWC because the game was so static," said Strydom.

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