The Box-Kick Examined

The much-maligned box-kick is causing something of a stir amongst rugby fans around the world. That “stir” is especially evident amongst South African fans who seem wholly divided on the box-kicking strategy adopted by the Springboks at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Springbok scrumhalf Faf de Klerk has been the target of much opprobrium, together with some humour, for his box-kicking. There are some that have called for his head, suggesting that somehow the Springboks would be a better team without his presence, whilst others have made him personally responsible for a tactic that is quite obviously part of the team’s overall game plan and tactical strategies.

Do not blame the scrumhalf! If you do not like the strategy, target the coach!

I, for one, am not a great fan of the box-kick, but I do know and understand the objective of the strategy, and the value of a good box-kicking game! 

My dislike for the box-kick is embedded in my preference for festival type free scoring free running rugby, with the ball being moved around the field from hand to hand and players running, stepping, and slicing their way through their opponents.

My personal preference is all about spectator entertainment, but I realise that it is certainly not all about winning!

Spectacular rugby does not translate directly into winning rugby. More often than not it tends to be highly entertaining, but losing rugby.

The more contained, disciplined, focussed the rugby, the more likely it is to be a winning style of rugby. 

The box-kicking strategy of the 2019 Springboks is certainly focussed on producing winning rugby.

Perhaps the time has come to think our way through this one single rugby tactic and its pros and cons.

The History of the Box-Kick.

The box-kick has been part of the game of rugby forever and a day.

Back in the dim and distant past rugby was a wholly different game to the one we see today. 

One of the integral parts of the game, especially forward play, was the dribble. The ball was kept on the ground in front of an advancing pack of forwards. Nobody in their right mind would dive on the ball on the ground in order to secure it! In those golden days of yore, to go down on the ball was simply suicidal as anything down on the ground was fair game for the boots and studs of the forwards. There were none of the protective laws of today. If you went to ground on the ball you were fair game. The forwards would trample you into a slab of well pounded “tenderized” steak as they flooded over you and attempted to dribble the ball towards their opponent’s goal line.

In those days the forwards would work hard at taking the ball towards their opponents goal line by dribbling it with their feet, a throwback to the roots of the game in round-ball football. 

It was a simple process. They would bind together loosely, forming a “ruck” and would then advance the ball downfield as a difficult-to-stop snarling, kicking, punching Roman Testudo. (Look it up!)

One they reached a suitable attacking space on the field, or their advance was stopped by a counter-dribbling bunch of forwards, they would “ruck” over the ball, releasing it to their halfback who would either pick it up and pass it to his three-quarters, or he would simply box-kick it in ahead of his forwards again, running to put them “on-side” and allowing them to start dribbling the ball forwards again.

As the game of rugby developed and handling skills became more and more important, the game evolved, and those rucks often became mauls as the forwards picked the ball up and drove forward with it tucked under an armpit. The dribble was still an integral part of the game, but mauling had become equally important. As the game changed, so too the box-kicking strategies of the halfbacks developed.

In 1938 the British & Irish Lions toured South Africa, and the match reports of those days make interesting reading. More than one report sent back to England by the travelling scribes accompanying the Lions specifically refers to the accuracy and frequency of the South African box-kicking that forced the Lions to turn and defend time and again as the Springboks surged forward following the ball! The scribes were effusive in their admiration for the strategy!

Match reports of the Lions tour to New Zealand in 1959 also talk of the accuracy of the tactical kicking by the scrum-halves of both teams. The Lions had learned to use the strategy too, as had the New Zealanders. 

The box kick has been an integral part of the game of rugby since the inception of the game, and it is likely to remain so unless the often wholly misguided lawmakers and their administratively inclined bosses decide to change the entire nature of rugby and do the unthinkable, and ban if from the game.

The Modern Box-Kick.

In 1963, Wales and Scotland played out a famous Four Nations tournament match in which there were no less than 111 lineouts – about five or six times more than the modern Test average. 

Wales won that game by six points to nil, and the two scores were one penalty and one drop goal.

Clive Rowlands, later to become the coach of Wales, was the Welsh scrum-half that day, and he made full use of the law of the time which permitted unlimited kicking directly into touch. At every set-piece, and every lineout, and at every loose ball won by Wales, he simply box-kicked the ball straight into touch to set up another lineout.

His fly-half on the day was David Watkins, said to be one of the finest attacking talents of his generation. We are told that Watkins only touched the ball five times in the entire 80 minutes of that Test: “Once to collect a Scottish kick-off, twice to pick up their grub-kicks ahead, and twice only to catch passes from my scrum-half”, as Watkins commented ruefully afterwards.

That specific game finally provided sufficient stimulus to the somewhat moribund lawmakers of the time to rethink aspects of the law, and then for the law to be changed. It took them seven years to decide, and then they changed the law, in 1970, so that kicks from outside the 25 yard area (today’s 22-metre area) that went straight into touch were no longer rewarded with a territorial gain. 

The lineout would take place opposite the spot from where it was kicked.

In 2008, the rule was again changed, with teams unable to kick directly to touch if they had taken the ball back into the 22 area themselves.

The intention was obvious. The attempt at reducing the number of kicks to touch was intended to increase in ball-in-play time and reduce the number of stoppages in a game of rugby.

This is still the law today.

What is the Box-Kick?

The box-kick is a tactical kick used by scrum-halves in attacking or defensive situations – usually at a scrum, line-out and breakdown, and most usually on the blindside (Short side) of the field.

The Defensive Box-Kick

The most common use for a box kick is as a defensive option, commonly referred to as an “exit” option from within the 22m zone, where the ball can be kicked directly into touch.

Why use a box kick instead of a pass to a kicker back from the gain-line who should have more time and a better angle to make a longer kick? 

There are two answers to this question: 

Any pass back to a designated kicker, most often the flyhalf, is a) predictable and thus a target for swarming kick-blockers, and b) a pass back nullifies some of the potential distance gain over a box kick.

A second aspect that favours the box-kick as a defensive kick is that a deeper pass means that most potential kick chasers are in front of the kicker so they cannot start chasing until they are put on side. A box-kicking scrumhalf is further forward, so that wingers and other players can start the chase from an onside position behind him. They can get going instantly! He can also get his forwards onside far quicker than the kicker who kicks from much deeper.

The Attacking Box-Kick.

This is the kicking strategy used by South Africa that sits at the root of many of the fans disenchantment with the box-kick.

There is a perception, somehow, that the box-kick is “negative play” –  suggesting that the team are “kicking the ball away” as they cannot think of anything positive to do with the ball, so they get rid of it.

This is very far from the truth.

The entire box-kicking strategy is based on the already well-established kicking strategy found in rugby, that of kicking the ball into a space on the field where the team is confident that they can chase the kick, contest the landing of the ball, and either get it back, or force an error by your opponent.

The strategy is well established and used by many teams around the world.

All Black flyhalf Beauden Barrett says, “Kicking is definitely positive. It’s getting the ball to wherever the space is as quickly as possible… you just have to get the ball to where the space is.”

England have long used the strategy as an integral part of their game plan, with plenty of proficient kickers in their back-line in the shape of scrum-half Ben Youngs, flyhalves George Ford and Owen Farrell, as well as the likes of centre Henry Slade.

They often use an aggressive box-kicking game off their number 9, Youngs, to establish position and win the ball back on their own terms. A couple of years ago they used this tactic to target the young All Black full-back Damien McKenzie.

We all know that Damian McKenzie is probably the most dangerous counter-attacker in the world of rugby. If he is given time and space in which to move he can be devastating. 

England chose to kick on him! Their tactic was simple, longer box-kicks targeting space as close to the 5 metre line as possible, with a three-man chase blocking all of McKenzie’s outlets. They pinned Damian McKenzie against the touchline, forcing him to either kick back, or take the tackle. They certainly did not mind handing Damian McKenzie the ball, and they trusted their chasing forces!

South Africa use the box-kick for exactly the same purpose.

The goal is for the ball to come down as close to the 5m line as possible. The kick is chased by a flying winger in the 5m channel, and two other, usually looseforwards, slightly infield of the winger.

The ideal is not to directly contest the ball in the air, that has become  dangerous ploy given the modern tendency of referees to “protect the man in the air” – the ideal is to control the receiver’s movements after he makes the catch!

If the chaser has done his job, he can wait for the catcher to come back to earth with the ball in his arms, and then tackle him with the intention of driving him back towards his own goal line, or into touch. The supporting chasers, usually looseforwards, are required to join the contact and turn it into a ruck. They will, ideally, then counter-ruck over the ball and achieve a turnover.

In addition to the chasers working to isolate the receiver, the box-kick serves to cause the opposition to have to turn and fall back, either as “blockers” to try and prevent the chasers from getting to the ball, or as support players that have to go back past the receiver and set up defensive lines.

In addition, the box-kick followed by three designated chasers allows the rest of the kicking team to set up across the field as either a defensive line, or for an attack if a turnover is achieved.

It is good, structured rugby.

The box-kick is not intended to look for distance, it is not a tactical kick for the corner or for position on the field. The entire goal of box-kicking is to make them contestable by the chasers!

Quite simply, the box-kick is a tactical strategy designed to put enormous pressure on defenders, whilst creating opportunity for the offence, rather than simply to “kick away possession” as so many fans are suggesting.

In addition, the box-kick is also a superb option when a turnover is achieved. This is especially true when the turnover is achieved after an opponent’s backline was on attack. Whenever a backline is attacking their fullback and wingers will be close to the attacking line looking to get involved. 

On a turnover they are usually out of position if an accurate box-kick is employed by the scrumhalf.  The attackers now become defenders and have to turn and scramble back into position to cover any line break or kick by the opposition. (A box kick from a turnover must be made immediately and from a good flat position, depriving the opposition of time to recover.)

The Game Plan

The box-kick is clearly part of the Springbok game plan.

For the kicking strategy to be successful there has to be superior communication. Chasers must know that it is coming, and they must know their job. They have to time their run to contest the ball without endangering the receiver in the air.

The box-kick is a tactic that must be polished to perfection, with all of the skills involved will be practiced regularly.

These skills involve the entire team.

First and foremost the scrumhalf – he must practice his kicking almost as much as he practises passing the ball from the ground. It is a skill-set that does not come naturally to all scrumhalves.

Secondly, practice is required for the “screen” of players at the lineout or breakdown that set-up to protect the scrumhalf as he executes the box-kick. All players must know and understand the requirements for a protective screen and how to set it up.

Third, the chasers need to know and understand their roles, when and how to chase, when and how to contest the ball once it comes down, what their basic roles are in creating the ruck and counter-ruck, and what to do in the event of a turnover being achieved.

Finally, the rest of the team must know their role in setting up after the box-kick to form the defensive/offensive line that supports the chasers. Those that are required to stay deep for a potential counter-kick need to understand their role and the spaces that they must cover too.

The box-kick is not some desperation tactics that is used when a team “runs out of ideas” as some have suggested.

These things must be practiced, communicated, and practiced again and again until they become part of the machine. (Do you still want to be a coach?)

Conclusion:

The box-kick is an integral part of the game of rugby. A well-executed box-kicking strategy is a thing of beauty, it creates all manner of pressure on the opposition, and creates opportunity for attack if it is well contested.

At the very least, it forces the opposition to have to run from behind, and in the modern era of superlative defences, that is not always a great option.

Yes, a poorly executed box-kick can be a risky option.

If the kick is executed poorly, especially if it goes too deep, you can give away possession too easily, giving the opposition space to attack into.

If the chase is badly executed the entire design of the box-kick becomes pointless.

One final point:

Those that decry the box-kicking strategy as anathema to imaginative, attacking rugby are perhaps missing one crucial aspect of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. 

The teams are all there with the single-minded purpose of winning the William Webb Elis Trophy.

As we go into the final weeks of the tournament the risks become bigger and bigger with every passing game, and the opposition become better and better.

The knock-out phases of the tournament scream out for low-risk rugby with a massive focus on making as few mistakes as possible.

Carrying the ball becomes a higher risk option. 

Why go through seven or eight phases and risk losing the ball when you can box-kick and contest? Transfer the risk to the opposition. Be happy to play without the ball.

At the end of the day, it is all about winning, and each and every coach is looking for the system, the strategies, the tactics, and the edge that will deliver victory.

Certainly, with just two weeks to go in the 2019 tournament it is far too late to think about making radical changes to team strategies!

6 COMMENTS

  1. Bill, fascinating article, as always. I thoroughly enjoyed the first history of the game part but also the very logical tactical analysis that came after.

    Two questions arose:
    1. Can you please suggest some book(s) that might help me find out more about the early days of the game?
    2. Can I translate this article in Romanian on my personal blog?

    Thanks a lot! Looking forward for more articles like this!

    Ps: are you familiar with this channel

    ? I see a lot of similarities between you two, I guess you’ll like it.