Dropping for glory
July 3, 2012
Dan Carter drops the goal to beat the Irish © Getty Images
'And how often have the All Blacks done that ?', was the Sky commentator's understandably rhetorical response as Dan Carter's winning drop-goal shot between the posts in the final seconds of the second test against Ireland last month. Most Irish viewers were doubtless, for once, lost for words - or at least any that were printable. But the answer is straightforward - hardly ever.
None of the established international rugby nations makes less use of the drop-goal than New Zealand. Since January 1, 2000, they have landed 11 drops in 151 matches - less than once a year, or in terms of match time, once every 1398 minutes. Over that period they have scored 5511 points, making the 33 from drops a mere 0.5988% of their scoring.
Next lowest on the list is Australia, with 17 drops in 155 matches, or once every 912 minutes, with the points accounting for 1.18% - almost double the All Black proportion - of their 4311 points, while it will surprise nobody to find England at the other end of the table with 50 drops in 147 matches - once every 235 minutes, or nearly six times as frequently as the All Blacks.
Those 11 goals also take some examination. Six were landed against South Africa, three against Australia and one in the World Cup pool match against France last year. It was the first time the All Blacks had dropped a goal outside the World Cup or the Tri-Nations, or against any of the home nations, since Zinzan Brooke landed one of his whimsical party pieces in the 42-7 hammering of Wales at Wembley in 1997.
To find the last time an All Black drop made a difference to the result you have to go back nearly 20 years, to Grant Fox's effort in the 26-23 defeat of Australia at the Sydney Football Stadium on July 25, 1992.
All Black disdain for the drop is essentially a 21st century phenomenon. In 272 matches between the devaluation of the goal from four points to three in 1949 and the end of the 20th century, they landed 68 drops in 272 matches - an average of one every four matches. That put them well up the list. Only the uniquely drop-conscious France (169 in 418 matches, including 88 in 204 Five Nations clashes) and Scotland (76 in 281) scored more, with South Africa's 55 in 206 matches and Argentina's 67 in 228 also representing higher rates of scoring.
Given that the drop is a pragmatist's score, essentially the answer to tight defences in a close match; we can hardly be surprised that the All Blacks - historically the game's uber-pragmatists - should have been regular practitioners. Their reluctance to use it over the past decade or so represents a striking development in the game. Those who seek cultural/ethnic explanations for sporting development may be tempted to look towards the increasing Polynesian influence in the New Zealand game. After all, Samoa (4 drops in 81 matches), Fiji (2 in 85) and Tonga (4 in 77) have been even more sparing users than the All Blacks.
Another explanation, though, dates back to the 'tight defences' element. New Zealand has found few defences it cannot crack, scoring 660 tries in those 151 matches, an average of 4.37 per match. Of the other established nations only Australia (491 in 155) and South Africa (454 in 151) crack the three per match threshold and neither gets within a try a match of the All Blacks. If you can hope for seven points, three seems a poor substitute.
It means that drops is a rare individual category whose record books show little All Black influence. The individual leader is Jonny Wilkinson, with 36 in 97 matches for England and the Lions, followed by the great Argentinean Hugo Porta (28). England, whose spirit and outlook had something of a traditional All Black team about them, claimed 24 drops in 47 matches between the start of the century and the most famous three-pointer of Jonny's career, at Sydney's Olympic Stadium on November 22 2003.
Jonny Wilkinson slots the winning drop-goal back in 2003 © Getty Images
Rob Andrew (23 in 76) and Diego Dominguez (20 in 76) are the others to have reached 20 while Jonny's mantle as the man likeliest to land a three pointer has passed in recent years to Dan Parks of Scotland, whose career total of 17 eclipsed the previous Scottish record of 12 by John Rutherford.
Naas Botha's 18 in 28 matches are topped only in scoring rate by Guy Camberabero's 11 in 14 matches for France - Guy's son Didier also landed 11, albeit in 36 matches. Jonathan Davies's Welsh record of 13 in 32 matches shows, along with Botha and Rutherford's numbers, that this particular category is not a preserve of the more statuesque outside-halves. An honourable mention is due to Sir Ian McGeechan, all of whose 24 points in an extremely distinguished 40-match international career, came from drop goals.
But reading from the top you have to dig down as far as 18th equal, to Andrew Mehrtens' 10 drops in 70 matches, for an All Black. Carter's goal against Ireland was his 5th in 75 appearances at outside-half and 87 in all, placing him joint 61st on the all-time list - compared to 3rd place for penalties, top for conversions and 35th for tries. Even then he is far from the most drop-averse All Black outside-half. Carlos Spencer landed none in 31 matches while Stephen Donald, Nick Evans, Tony Brown, Luke McAlister and Leon MacDonald landed none between them in a combined 75 appearances at outside-half, 25 at starters.
That this may be a New Zealand thing is further suggested by the statistics for the period since the end of the 2007 World Cup, when the All Blacks have at last been displaced from their place at the bottom of the table. The drop still accounts for less than one per cent of their scoring (15 points out of 1897 in 58 matches), but Wales's five drops in 61 matches - many started by Stephen Jones, whose return of a drop every 15 matches at outside-half exactly matches Carter's - place them at the other end of the table from Scotland (17 in 47).
There are, though, moments when only a drop will do. That was the lesson clearly understood by one of the most drop-averse outside-halves of all time, Stephen Larkham (2 in 84 matches), but it didn't stop him winning a World Cup semi-final in 1999. It was one learnt extremely painfully by the All Blacks in 2007 at Cardiff, when the greatest team in the world failed to grasp what would have been obvious to Old Reptilians 3rds - that if you're close to the line of determined opposition with a couple of minutes to go and a point or two in it, you go for the drop. Carter's drop against Ireland, along with a couple landed by the All Blacks during their victorious World Cup campaign, suggests something else about them - that they're better than most at learning from experience.
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