AUCKLAND, 11 Oct. - Rugby World Cup history suggested successful kicking would play a key role in deciding the outcome of the weekend's quarter-finals and so it proved in Saturday's match-ups between the northern hemisphere teams.
Rhys Priestland has been something of a RWC bolter for Wales but the fly half's steady displays have given his side a stable platform on which to build some impressive performances. It was the same at Wellington Regional Stadium against Ireland and he didn't waste any time before inspiring the first Welsh attack.
Priestland, playing into a first-half wind, opted for an up-and-under from just outside his own 10-metre line. He got some good hang-time as the ball held in the breeze and five seconds later centre Jamie Roberts claimed it just inside the Ireland 10-metre line.
The powerful Roberts made another 10 metres with the ball in hand before being brought to ground to set up an attacking platform for his team well into Ireland's half. Less than a minute later, after seven phases of determined carries and quick ball that criss-crossed the pitch, Shane Williams dotted down expertly in the right-hand corner.
Priestland added the finishing touch with a tricky sideline conversion to make it 7-0 to Wales with less than four minutes on the clock. Not only did the score put Wales in front, but it had a crucial ancillary benefit too: it affected Ireland's decision-making.
Ireland's first penalty came a few minutes later and, out of range in his own half, Ronan O'Gara opted for touch. From there the Irish built a 20-minute period of sustained pressure in Wales' half that prompted an huge defensive effort from the Dragons.
Impressive as Wales' defending was, kickable penalties were conceded under the pressure, three of them within a 10-minute period. But with Ireland seven points behind, O'Gara was instructed to knock the ball out for five-metre lineouts. Wales' breathless defence soaked it all up and despite heavy dominance in possession and territory, Ireland remained pointless.
The metronomic O'Gara had slotted 199 penalties in 115 Tests for Ireland before Saturday and succeeded with 16 of 19 kicks at RWC 2011, yet within the first quarter of the match his goalkicking threat was discarded in search of a bigger haul of points because of Wales' edge on the scoreboard.
In the 23rd minute, after they had been camped in Wales' 22 for more than seven minutes, the Irish earned a fifth penalty. O'Gara stroked the ball over from in front of the posts to break his side's duck, but those unkicked penalties had already done the damage.
Not turning pressure into points is rugby's No.1 offence. "We spent a lot of time in their 22 and we only came up with three points," lamented Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll. "It hurts a bit when you're having the opportunities but not really getting any points out of the territory."
To hammer home the point, less than five minutes after O'Gara's score, Wales full back Leigh Halfpenny belted a penalty over from the halfway line to put his side 10-3 ahead and the writing was on the wall.
Less than an hour after Wales' 22-10 victory, England met France at Auckland's Eden Park and judicious use of the boot was again pivotal in determining which team gained the ascendancy. Good kickers will tell you the key is to know when and where to kick, choosing the right time and place to put boot on ball.
Straight from the England kick-off Dimitri Yachvili hoisted a box kick from five metres outside his own 22 to five metres inside England's half. France's chasers arrived on cue, no clean catch and England had to scramble to regather loose ball. The tone was set.
When Marc Lièvremont selected Morgan Parra at fly half, it simply gave England's chief tormentor, Yachvili, the chance to do what he does best: boss his forwards and tease, manipulate and strangle the game in the No.9 shirt.
With less than 90 seconds on the clock, Yachvili was at it again from a defensive lineout 10 metres outside France's 22. Up went the box kick and it landed five metres inside England's half at the same time as three chasers. Still no clean catch, but England again managed to gather the loose ball.
Forward momentum is critical in rugby and with Yachvili simply kicking the opposition out of French territory, the English found it hard to achieve. "Their kicking game was great and their chasing game was great," said England manager Martin Johnson. "They got on top with that side of the game."
England scrum half Ben Youngs also employed the box kick early and even found more success than his French counterpart, gaining 25 metres from inside his own half when Lewis Moody hunted down the ball. However, it was Youngs' second attempt after nine minutes that showed how, if not executed properly, box kicking can be a risky strategy.
Tom Croft stole a France lineout on England's 10-metre line and Youngs again opted for the hooked kick but overcooked it, leaving Vincent Clerc with an unchallenged gather and a counter-attacking opportunity from just outside his own 22. In the phases that followed Toby Flood was penalised and Yachvili whacked over France's first points from 45 metres.
Jonny Wilkinson handed possession back to France when he kicked the restart into touch and a few minutes later Yachvili banged over another 45-metre penalty to extend France's lead to six points. Wilkinson got the next restart right, pushing Les Bleus back into their own 22, but again Yachvili's box kick put the ball back in England's half with a chaser on hand to smother any counter-attack.
The France scrum half's next trick was to turn his box kicking into attack rather than defence. From a ruck just inside England's 10-metre line, Yachvili launched the ball into England's 22, the chasing Clerc forced Youngs to fumble and Julien Bonnaire tackled Croft into touch for a France lineout. England did not come close to getting out of their half again until Clerc had scored France's first try.
Such was Yachvili's control of the match with pinpoint box kicking and expert marshalling of his forwards that after 25 minutes England could boast just 37 per cent of territory and possession and had never even looked like getting points on the board.
Desperate for chances, the English managed a short period of sustained possession after France's try. But Yachvili again killed their momentum, making the most of a ruck ball to box kick and send the ball back into England's half, where a charging William Servat even reclaimed possession after Mark Cueto's fumble.
An offside penalty followed which gave France a kick to touch in England's 22. A lineout win and four phases later, Alexis Palisson combined with Maxime Médard for France's second try. It came less than three minutes after Yachvili's fifth perfectly executed box kick had defused the England pressure.
Yachvili missed the conversion from out wide but his boot had already inspired his team to a 16-0 lead that eventually carried them to their fifth successive RWC semi-final.
While France coach Lièvremont was reluctant to single out players after the victory, his England counterpart was only too aware of Yachvili's influence.
"The aerial battle, set piece and kicking game put pressure on us for a key 20-minute period," said Johnson as he reflected on a first half in which his side were suffocated by the scrum-half's masterly tactical kicking.
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