The Art of the Drop Goal: Could it be key to England Rugby’s revival this World Cup?
The art and beauty of scoring a drop goal in Rugby union is undeniable and is a unique way of scoring points unlike any other sport. The ability of one player to kick a ball into undefended posts seems confusing; yet somehow is a perfectly reasonable tactic however at times underused.
Drop goals have created some of the most famous moments in our sport’s history: Dan Carter in the 2015 World Cup Final, Jannie de Beer’s five against England at Twickenham in the quarter-final of the 1999 World Cup to knock out England. And, of course, the most famous of all, Jonny Wilkinson’s one in the 2003 World Cup Final to secure the title in extra time for the first time in England’s history.
If executed correctly by a player, it's a weapon that can easily secure three points for a team and build a score. On Saturday evening, England faced a difficult task after an early red card to the retuning backrower Tom Curry. Argentina were already favourites going into the game, and England’s job got a lot tougher going down to 14 men.
As a result, up stepped George Ford. In a 10-minute period, Ford slotted three drop goals for England. The furthest was from around the halfway line. Ford’s boot scored all of England’s 27 points haul in the game.
Much has been said about the performances of England under Steve Borthwick with a stagnant attack showing little promise in the warm-up games. However, there is no denying that despite being slightly unconventional in not scoring a single try, England secured a vital victory in their pool on Saturday night. This gives them a small amount of breathing room for the rest of their group-stage games.
The drop goal in recent years has been an underused tool by many teams both at club and international level, with many only seeing it as a last resort to an attacking set or a match winner such as Freddie Burns in the 2022 Gallagher Premiership Final and last season with Owen Farrell slotting a late one for Saracens to beat Gloucester in a drama fueled game.
Across the entirety of the Gallagher Premiership last season, there were only 16 drop goal attempts, with only five being successful and 11 missed. In the 2021/22 season, it was slightly more, with nine successful attempts and 12 missed. Those stats for an entire season seem almost criminal for a method of scoring three points which is notoriously hard to defend against. It seems absurd that it is a tool so underused by many teams. Whilst tries are always the aim, it’s baffling that it is not used more often.
Ford said in his post-match interview that the drop goal is always part of England’s plans, stating the conditions they faced in the game and being a man down. In his post-match conference Borthwick was asked about the drop goal tactic and whether it would become Plan A going forward in the tournament. Borthwick’s response was incredibly coy. He instead focused on how World Cups tend to bring about more drop goals in general.
As a result, the question remains: could the drop goal be key to England’s revival? It’s certainly a tactic they know they can now rely on with Ford proving he can perform under the pressure. With England’s lacklustre attack still a problem, it could certainly be a tactic Borthwick may look to employ. Historically the forward pack has always been a strength for England and if they can get field position it may be an unstoppable tool.
Furthermore, after Ford’s impressive performance Borthwick faces a problematic dilemma surrounding the inclusion of his named captain for the tournament. Owen Farrell is still to miss England’s next game against Japan. If victorious, England are almost certain to top their pool and will look ahead to the quarter-finals. As a result, Borthwick will have to make a decision as to whether Farrell makes the starting line-up. This could be at fly half resulting in Ford being dropped or at inside centre thereby resurrecting the Ford-Farrell axis that worked so well in 2019. A tough decision lies ahead.
Despite the brilliance of Ford’s boot, England failed to improve their attack as Saturday showed. This is something that will have to be fixed in the upcoming pool games. If not, and they rely solely on the boot, then it is obvious that teams will target this in their analysis and look to give Ford no time on the ball.
Only time will tell for this England team who many thought could go out in the pool stages heading into the tournament. However, Saturday night proved that there is a lot of fight left in them and potentially a few more drop-goals!