(Photo: Getty Images)
By Peter Jackson
At the Parc des Princes one sunny Sunday afternoon, Jannie de Beer launched five of them on a spiralling trajectory between the English posts. From start to finish, the bombardment lasted exactly 32 minutes.
The Springbok fly-half-turned-evangelist struck more often in barely half an hour of that World Cup quarter-final almost 20 years ago than the PRO14 has managed all season. The drop-goal seems to be hurtling out of fashion faster than a Mitchell Starc bouncer.
The figures for the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 are in the same ball-park as the PRO14, the sheer scarcity providing further startling evidence that de Beer’s party piece is rapidly going the way of the tank-top, flared trousers, winklepickers and the duffle coat.
Like most fashion accessories, each lasted until they began to look so ridiculous that none of the young dudes would be seen dead in them. Nobody could ever say that about the drop-goal, nor of any similarity with the dodo, a bird hastened towards extinction by its unfortunate handicap of not being able to fly out of harm’s way.
Until last weekend 27 of the 40 teams in Europe’s three major club competitions had not dropped a solitary goal between them all season. Of all the players employed in the PRO14 only two had done so, Gavin Henson twice for the Dragons, Carlo Canna twice for Zebre.
The aggregate total accumulated by the 12 English Premiership clubs stands at six, half of them accounted for by a Welshman, Rhys Priestland. The 14 clubs in France had managed a grand total of nine when Zack Holmes dared to drop two in one match, for Toulouse against Toulon.
In the Test arena, the old year closed with a miserable total of six drops or one for every 12 internationals. In other words all the international players across the globe in 2017 put together barely achieved in 70-plus Tests what de Beer did to England in the 32 minutes that might easily have cost Clive Woodward his job.
The Six Nations contained two drop- goals, Johnny Sexton’s for Ireland against France and Tomasso Allan’s for Italy at Twickenham. Four more could be spotted during the summer in far-flung places, at San Juan (Juan-Martin Hernandez for Argentina against England), George Ford at Santa Fee the following week, Elliot Daly for the Lions and Nicolas Sanchez for the Pumas against the All Blacks in New Plymouth.
And that, believe it or not, was that, the autumn frenzy of more than 20 Tests having come and gone without anyone thinking of doing a de Beer, let alone attempting it. One of Britain’s most accomplished masters of the craft offers a startling explanation – that most of modern-day kickers never think about dropping a goal.
Paul Turner’s 122 drops for Newport, Newbridge and Wales is still the most recorded for a British fly-half up to the end of the amateur era, enough to withstand the subsequent bombardment from Jonny Wilkinson which left England’s World Cup winner eleven short.
“Years ago drop-goals were always part of the game,’’ Turner, below, says. “Now it’s as if they’ve become a non-part. They’re an after-thought for kickers in the modern game.
“Drop-goals used to be the first option, not a last option. A striking example of that happened during my time as head coach of the Dragons. We were playing Edinburgh at Murrayfield and were crying out for a drop-goal to win the game.
“Nobody had a go. Mikey Owen was the captain and Ceri Sweeney was playing ten. I said to them both afterwards: ‘Why when we were almost under their posts didn’t you go for the drop?’
“They couldn’t give me an answer. Instead they gave an incredulous look which left me with the conclusion that it wasn’t part of their mentality. And you could have applied that to the majority of their peers.’’
It still applies. Owen Farrell’s drop for Saracens at Leicester on Christmas Eve was only the third of his career. Other prolific goalkickers like Jimmy Gopperth, Morgan Parra, Stephen Myler and Gareth Steenson are also in single figures.
“Bonus points with the emphasis on tries may have something to do with it,’’ says Turner. “Pitches are better these days and the ball is in play a lot more. The game generally is a little more open than it used to be and maybe that’s another factor.
“I remember watching Rugby Special as a boy and seeing Barry John drop three goals in the same match. That inspired me to learn everything I could about the art of the drop-goal and most important of all I learnt to kick them with either foot.
“I soon realised that forwards loved the drop-goal. They saw it as their reward for exerting pressure and gaining territory. Times change and the game goes in cycles so the decline of the drop over the last few years may be a temporary phase.’’
Drop-goals have had a recurring tendency to win the biggest matches, like extra-time World Cup finals (Joel Stransky, Johannesburg, 1995, Jonny Wilkinson Sydney, 2003), Grand Slam deciders (Ronan O’Gara, Cardiff, 2009), and Lions’ finales (JPR Williams, Auckland, 1971 and Jeremy Guscott, Durban, 1997).
There was a time when the lawmakers considered the drop-goal twice as valuable as the try, a form of art worthy of four points against two for a touchdown. Now that it has been seriously devalued, perhaps it’s time for a historical reminder that no kicker’s arsenal is complete without access to a shot off either foot at the drop of a hat.