Watching Colin Slade deliver a pinpoint cross kick – with his left, weaker foot – for James Horwill to score in his final big match last weekend warmed the cockles of my heart.
Yes, it was the (UK) Barbarians versus England at Twickenham, and the pressure was off, but you just have to admire moments of exquisite skill in this game of ours which has seemingly been usurped by automatons and behemoths.
Slade, now plying his trade in France’s south-west with Pau, will never go down as an All Blacks great. But he did play 21 tests and enjoyed several decisive moments, such as slotting the winning conversion in Brisbane as the 2014 All Blacks edged the Wallabies in what turned out to be Ewen ‘Link’ McKenzie’s final international as coach of Australia.
The one skill that Slade performed better than anyone else in New Zealand during his time there was kicking effectively with his so-called ‘weaker’ foot. It is a rare skill, rarely mastered, even in an age when professionals have more time to work on their skills than ever before.
Some of the great No 10s were adept at shifting swiftly and painlessly onto their left boot. Jonny Wilkinson and Hugo Porta spring to mind. Beauden Barrett is more than useful off his left boot. Dan Carter’s final play as an All Black was a right-footed conversion in the 2015 Rugby World Cup final. And yet, he was not one to readily switch foot, preferring to use his guile and passing skills under pressure or even do one of those infernal banana kicks.
Slade, equally at home in the custodian’s jersey, was as good as anyone at the top level, and that piece of magic last weekend, missed by many, is a prime example.
Quite simply, being able to kick off either foot – ambipedal, thread the needle, one might say – can get your side out of trouble when under the pump or drive your team onto attack with a long, raking, accurate punt. You can just see those first fives, or any back for that matter, who is not confident. They will try and run their way out of trouble. That spells disaster if the defensive line is disciplined.
Rugby World Cup success will come down to moments in time, goal kicking, referees’ calls and above all else, errors. Which first five, or any other back, will not switch to their weaker foot when they have to, because it is not second nature and has not been practised until it is second nature? Who will cost their team because they have not practised this skill assiduously since the age of 10?
Watch closely when the 10s try and clear their lines with a marauding loosie in their face. Watch for charge downs, knock-ons and brain explosions. Then contrast that with the player who is supremely confident in his skill, has done the yards over many years and calmly switches foot to clear or even do a Wilkinson and kick the winning pot.
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