Peter Jackson: Whatever happened to the drop goal?

Munster’s courageous recapture of Glasgow en route towards reinstating Limerick as Europe’s rugby capital raises a strange question this morning: What ever happened to the drop goal?

Peter Jackson: Whatever happened to the drop goal?

The nature of their clincher on Clydeside, aided and abetted by the opposition’s baffling aversion to taking the obvious late shot at goal, evoked memories of the humble drop being used to win one recent Grand Slam (Ronan O’Gara, 2009) and two extra-time World Cup finals (Jonny Wilkinson, 2003, Joel Stransky, 1995).

Above and beyond even those historic occasions, it reminded me of the greatest single exhibition of the art, of a sunny Sunday in Paris at the end of the last century when Jannie de Beer’s bombardment rained down on England from a great height – five drop goals in 32 minutes from a total range of 180 metres.

Had the Springbok fly half-cum-evangelist been in Finn Russell’s shoes at Scotstoun late on Saturday night, inside the 22, in front of the posts, his team two points down and time running out, instinct would have told him exactly what was required.

The drop goal is about as likely to win matches these days as Meryl Streep is to join The Donald’s Presidential party for Friday’s inauguration. How far it has gone out of fashion can be gauged from the fact that de Beer dropped five times more goals in barely half-an- hour during the 1999 World Cup quarter-final than Glasgow have dropped in five seasons.

Russell has almost everything to be the best attacking fly-half in Europe, an exquisite range of passing from one metre to 25, a precision kicking game and a hawk’s eye for the narrowest shaft of space. He has every other shot in his locker except the drop but then that can be said of the Warriors as a whole. They have dropped one goal in five seasons. Alarmingly, they are far from being on their own. Of the 38 English, French, Irish, Italian, Scottish and Welsh teams competing in Europe’s two tournaments, 20 have failed to register a solitary drop all season long, almost as if they’ve forgotten it exists.

What makes it all the stranger is some of the 20 are guided by prodigious goal-kickers – Dan Carter at Racing, Owen Farrell at Saracens, Johnny Sexton at Leinster, Dan Biggar at Ospreys, Greig Laidlaw at Gloucester, Jimmy Gopperth at Wasps.The mind boggles at what Naas Botha would make of that. Nobody mastered the art more completely than ‘Naasty Booter’ who had turned it into a cottage industry before leaving the Springbok brotherhood for the Dallas Cowboys in the 80s.

He dropped 210 goals and nobody, not even Wilkinson, has got anywhere close.

Three seasons ago Europe’s three major Leagues could only muster exactly half that number between them. During the first two post- Wilkinson seasons the total dropped to 74, then 46 despite manful attempts from the likes of George Ford, Francois Trinh-Duc and Ian Keatley to stave off extinction. The drop goal has been heading the way of the Dodo and Tyrannosaurus Rex for some time now, not that Munster are complaining.

Time to tackle Italian farce

Glasgow may well compound Leicester’s misery next weekend, win four games out of six and still miss the boat to the last eight by falling victim to the Italian giveaway.

Right from the outset last autumn, the Scots would probably have identified their most dangerous opponent as one not even swimming in their pool, Zebre. Their boundless generosity continues to make the Champions’ Cup sound like a misnomer.

There is nothing more certain about the final round of pool matches than that Wasps will fill their boots in Italy. Connacht and Toulouse have already filled theirs, each taking a maximum ten-out- of-ten from the softest of touches.

Zebre have lost all five ties by an average score of 12-58. Even if the Warriors take the maximum on offer in Tigerville and finish with 19 points, Toulouse and Connacht could easily do the same. In that event, points-difference over the six rounds becomes the decisive factor. Glasgow’s stands at +31, Connacht and Toulouse at +79 and +64 respectively, thanks to Zebre.

One point ought to be enough for John Muldoon’s New Frontiersmen to reach the last eight, provided they restrict Toulouse to four. The bigger issue is how much longer the organisers will take before ironing out the flaw in their tournament.

Wales all at sea again in Champions Cup

PRO12 teams may have out-performed those from the Top 14 and the English Premiership in Europe so far this season, but that cannot mask the continuing failure of the only home country to win three Grand Slams this century.

The knockout stages of the Champions’ Cup will be a Welsh-free zone again this spring, just as it has been for the last five seasons. Their sole contender, the Scarlets, at least managed the most honourable of exits.

They prevented Saracens superseding Munster’s all-time winning tournament streak by denying the somewhat depleted holders a 14th straight win. A converted try deep into red-clock time allowed the visitors to snatch a draw from a cracking tie.

A shame that so many in ‘Heart and Soul Rugby Country’ gave it the cold shoulder. The Parc y Scarlets was barely half-full, or half-empty, but then what did the organisers expect for saddling the faithful with the most anti-social of starts, Sunday lunchtime.

Age is but a number

All Black second-row Brad Thorn and his England opposite, Simon Shaw, went close to playing European club rugby at the age of 40 two seasons ago. Cardiff’s indestructible Tongan, Tau Filise, will go closer still, provided the Blues beat Bristol this week to secure their place in the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup. The most durable of props will be 40 in May which makes him a few months older than Munster’s marathon man, Peter Stringer, still awaiting his first appearance some weeks into his 40th year. Others were busy reminding the young ones there’s still no substitute for experience.

Europe’s Ageless XV: Isa Nacewa (Leinster 34); Joe Rokocoko (Racing 33), Casey Laulala (Racing 34), Ma’a Nonu (Toulon 34), Bryan Habana (Toulon – 33); Brock James (La Rochelle 35), Kahn Fotuali’I (Bath 34); Jean- Baptiste Poux (Bordeaux 37), Matthew Rees (Cardiff Blues 36), Tau Filise (Cardiff Blues 39); TomPalmer (Bordeaux 37), Pascal Pape (Stade Francais 36); Arnaud Mela (Brive 37), Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse 35), John Muldoon (Connacht 34).

Racing certainty

The experts, even those whose punditry comes gold-plated with a World Cup winner’s medal, get it wrong. As BT Sport’s otherwise excellent Ben Kay, ex- Leicester and England, said in The Times on Saturday: “With Leicester scrapping and Racing uninterested, there should be only one winner in Paris tonight.” There was, Racing by the length of the Champs Elysees: 34-3. He should have listened to the legendary baseballer, Yogi Berra: “Predictions are very difficult, especially about the future.”

Rankings

Champions’ Cup quarter-final rankings, as they stand after five rounds

Pool leaders: Leinster (21pts), Clermont (21), Saracens (20), Munster (20), Connacht (18).

Three leading runners-up: Wasps (17), Toulon (15), Glasgow Warriors (14).

Still in contention: Toulouse (14), Montpellier (11), Exeter Chiefs (11).

Champions Cup rankings after next weekend? Home teams: Clermont, Leinster, Munster, Saracens. Away teams: Wasps, Connacht or Toulouse, Glasgow Warriors, Toulon.

In that event: Clermont v Toulon, Leinster v Glasgow Warriors, Munster v Connacht or Toulouse, Saracens v Wasps.

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