Drop Goals: A slice of World Cup magic
by Karen Bond
Ninety-two drop goals have sailed between the posts in Rugby World Cup history; some of them have been match or even World Cup winning kicks, others totally unexpected and the odd one or two pure self indulgence.
One that definitely falls into the latter category is Zinzan Brooke’s three-pointer for the All Blacks in their semi final with England in 1995, the back row stunning his teammates by unleashing a 40 metre plus effort.
“Is there any more famous drop goals?” laughed Brooke, a World Cup winner with in 1987 after making his debut in the Pool match with Argentina. “The short story is I used to practice all the time in my backyard, you know left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot.
“The moment I decided to do a drop goal was when it was actually bouncing along the ground, the ball bounced straight in front of me, straight between the posts and it was at that moment that I thought right this is going to go through the posts.”
Ironically England’s place in that semi final in Cape Town had come courtesy of a drop goal from fly half Rob Andrew, one that secured a 25-22 victory over Australia, the side that had beaten them in the final four years early.
“I knew as soon as I’d hit it, I knew the moment that is left my boot that it was gone,” recalled Andrew. “It was just one those, it was so sweet it just flew. It was just meant to go over.”
The drop goal may have proved England’s match winner in 1995, but at the same stage four years later they were undone by a fly half who simply couldn’t miss, South Africa’s Jannie de Beer kicking a record five drop goals in a 44-21 victory in Paris.
“It was almost a helpless feeling because they actually set them up as well – they took the ball up and they were getting momentum and giving De Beer a lot of time and we couldn’t get anywhere near him,” recalled England captain Martin Johnson.
“At the end of the day you think is it three, is it five, how many has he put over? You couldn’t remember, it was the most surreal second half I have ever been involved with.”
Van der Westhuizen added: “You know we got the ball the Jannie, he kicked it, we got the ball to Jannie, he kicked it. At that stage we decided on the field, ok, what we’re going to do is get the ball to Pieter Muller, set it up in the field, Jannie will drop back and we kick, because he’s got his foot on.”
First for Larkham
De Beer, who never played for South Africa after the World Cup, had sympathy for England, admitting: “Afterwards on the video you can actually see that it must have been demoralising for them, you’re not doing anything wrong, but points get scored against you.”
However if Brooke's drop goal was unexpected, so too was Stephen Larkham's in South Africa's next match, particularly as the Wallaby fly half had never kicked one in international rugby before.
"It was one of those kicks that just seemed to work," recalled Larkham. "Off the boot I suppose it was a terrible drop, but it sailed off the boot, looked like it was going to hook badly and then just sort of straightened up.
"It was just one of those things, I don't know if it was the most memorable moment of the World Cup, but it was certainly very memorable for me - considering I hadn't kicked one before."
However two drop goals stand out from the crowd by virtue of having been kicked on the biggest stage of all – the Rugby World Cup final. Ironically the attempts eight years apart both came in extra time and turned nations into World Cup winners for the first time.
Change of tactics
The first, deep into injury time in the 1995 final between South Africa and New Zealand, was not a planned move as Springbok scrum half Joost van der Westhuizen recalls: “as I put the ball in, Joel just shouted ‘cancel, give me the ball!’”
Fortunately for South Africa, Van der Westhuizen ignored the planned move and passed instead to his halfback partner Joel Stransky, who calmly dropped the goal that put the Springboks within touching distance of the Webb Ellis Cup at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
“As I struck it, I hit it sweetly, I looked up and saw it was spinning perfectly, the trajectory was good, I knew it could never miss,” admitted Stransky, who kicked three penalties and two drop goals in South Africa’ 15-12 victory over the All Blacks.
“So I turned and went straight back because we had seven minutes to go. We had seven minutes against an unbelievable All Black side to hang in there.”
However if Stransky’s World Cup winning drop goal wasn’t planned, Jonny Wilkinson’s effort with 30 seconds of extra time remaining against Australia in the 2003 final certainly was, with the scores locked at 17-17.
What if ...?
Wilkinson had already missed with a couple of attempts, but there was an air of inevitability about it as scrum half Matt Dawson flung the ball back to the fly half, who kicked with millions around the world flowing its trajectory towards the posts.
“I suppose Jonny ideally would have liked it on his left foot, but he had missed three already on the left, so I thought, go on, try it on your right,” recalled Dawson. “I made him look even better than he is I suppose; he’s now ambidextrous as well as everything else!”
Fittingly the final word falls to Wilkinson as, without his right boot, England and the northern hemisphere would be heading to France for the sixth Rugby World Cup still seeking that elusive first touch of the Webb Ellis Cup.
“Had that one missed at the end, then God knows what might have happened. But thankfully, it didn’t,” concluded Wilkinson, mirroring the thoughts of English rugby fans around the world.