Perhaps the opening match of the 2020 Super Rugby season was a sign of things to come.

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The Blues had rushed out to a 14-point lead at halftime but the Chiefs came roaring back into the action in the second half and somehow found themselves five points ahead on the scoreboard deep inside the final quarter of the match.

Then, in the 75th minute, cool as you like, Aaron Cruden slotted a short-range drop goal to effectively take the game out of the Blues’ reach.

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Sam Smith reports from the world’s first live rugby match in Dunedin as the Highlanders take on the Chiefs in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Suddenly, the Blues found themselves more than just one try adrift. It was a massive mental blow for the home side and it forced Harry Plummer into kicking a penalty with minutes remaining when plugging the ball into the corner and going for the winning score would have been on the cards were it not for Cruden’s drop goal.

The drop goal has never been the most popular way of accruing points in New Zealand. Perhaps it’s because every shot at a goal is one less chance at scoring a try of a beautiful sweeping backline move, perhaps it’s simply because Kiwis have been heartbroken too many times by opposition sharpshooters.

Any All Blacks fan could quickly recall at least a couple of times that New Zealand would have benefitted from having someone drop back into the pocket to slot the three-pointer – the 2007 World Cup being the best example.

Whatever the case, the drop goal has become somewhat of a dying art in New Zealand. Way back in 1999, every single New Zealand Super Rugby franchise recorded at least one drop goal during the season. In 2018 and 2019, however, there were zero successful attempts.

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The Highlanders weren’t afraid to pull them out during the most successful periods of Jamie Joseph’s reign in charge, with Lima Sopoaga slotting four throughout their title-winning 2015 season (with Ben Smith and Marty Banks adding one apiece).

The age-old technique made a reappearance for the southerners on Saturday night, with super sub Bryn Gatland slotting a 35-metre attempt with just minutes remaining in the match to take the lead back from the Chiefs – who had just nudged in front thanks to Damian McKenzie’s own drop goal.

Given that drawn Super Rugby Aotearoa matches could now potentially be decided by a 10-minute golden point period, it’s no surprise that teams are already more comfortable pulling out the drop goal as an option.

“They’ve just slipped in [at training] every now and then,” Gatland told RugbyPass regarding whether there’s been a greater focus on drop goals in the lead up to the competition’s kick-off.

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“You come to the end of a training and sometimes you’re training team vs team and the coaches might give a scenario where you’re down by 2 points, you’ve got a lineout on the 22 and you’ve got a minute or whatever it is and it’s golden point.

“Even just throughout training, we’ll have a stoppage and one of the coaches will just go, ‘Right, here you go,’ then fire you a pass for you to take a drop goal. That puts you under a bit of pressure so that if it does come – and we didn’t expect it to come in the very first game – hopefully you’ve had some sort of preparation and it’s not a shock.”

Following Saturday’s match, there were also a few attempts taken by the likes of Beauden Barrett and Otere Black on Sunday when the Blues hosted the Hurricanes – though theirs didn’t quite make it through the uprights.

Did Saturday’s wild finish inspire Barrett to have a go the following day?

“Absolutely,” Barrett remarked after the match. “I think people are a bit more aware of it with the whole golden point situation but if you’ve got a penalty advantage and a handy position, I’ll always back myself.”

The fact that both McKenzie and Gatland potted drop goals during the opening game of Super Rugby Aotearoa is a bit of a record in of itself. The last time that two opposing NZ teams recorded drop goals against one another in the same match was in the 1999 Super 12 final between the Crusaders and the Highlanders, with both Andrew Mehrtens and Brendan Laney stepping up to the plate.

On that night, Mehrtens’ Crusaders emerged victorious – then the Crusaders broke the Highlanders’ hearts once again three years ago when Mitch Hunt casually slotted an outrageous attempt from almost 45 metres out. Hunt, of course, has now moved south to link up with the Highlanders – but it was Gatland who came up with the heroics on Saturday night.

“Once [McKenzie’s] went over, I had a chat to Nuggy [Aaron Smith] and Mitch on the way back to halfway before the kick-off and we just said that there was still plenty of time and the next job was to basically do a short kick-off and work to get the ball back,” said Gatland.

“The way the game was going, turnovers were happening so quickly.  When I was set up and ready, I thought that the longer we went, the more they were going to be ready to put pressure on for a drop kick so I just gave Nuggy a bit of an eyebrow – I didn’t want to clap my hands and make it too obvious.

“Brad Weber did put a lot of pressure on me. It might have gone from left to right but it kind of had to, because he was right on top of me – so it was a bit of a wonky one. I’m lucky it flew long enough.”

Don’t expect to see drop goals flying left, right and centre in the upcoming rounds of Super Rugby Aotearoa, however – there’s a time and place to pull them out. It’s clearly a practised skill that Gatland is ready to bring out whenever it’s called for, but it’s not going to be the go-to method for the Highlanders to score points.

“I don’t think it’s you ever want to have the plan to kick four drop goals and try and get 12 points, it’s more about creating scoreboard pressure,” Gatland said.

“If you saw that first game where the Chiefs played the Blues, Aaron Cruden had a drop goal to take them out by more than a converted try – that’s the kind of things I’m talking about.

“If you’re ahead but within a converted try or you’re behind by 9 points and not going anywhere then you put one over and the game changes completely. I think it’s more about putting pressure on the other team. If you have one early in the game and get the first three points, it just changes a team’s thinking.

“The drop goal is definitely something that can potentially be a weapon to a lot of teams moving forward and definitely something that teams should be keeping in their arsenal, practising for situations like what happened on Saturday night.”

Gatland’s thoughts mirror those of Cruden – who slotted that drop goal in round one but was on the receiving end on Saturday night.

“Just the way the game had gone and the situation we were in, trying to create a little bit of scoreboard pressure or give us a little bit of scoreboard safety was in the back of my mind,” Cruden told RugbyPass following that victory over the Blues.

“It’s a skill that I continue to practise and it’s something that my grandfather always made sure that I practised as well, always saying make sure that at the end of your training sessions, you do five or ten drop goals because you never know when you’ll need to pull it out. Obviously, that’s sort of paid dividends.”

Of the many players contracted for Super Rugby Aotearoa, just six have previously slotted drop goals in Super Rugby games: Gatland, McKenzie, Cruden, Hunt, Barrett and Dan Carter.

While we’re still in the early days of the competition, signs are strong that we’ll see more attempts in the coming matches – but only when the moment calls for it  – which only adds to the hype of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

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