Some revealing facts can be laid bare today about the once symbiotic relationship between Munster and the drop goal, a weapon that never seemed to fail in the hands of Ronan O’Gara.
Those weaned on the master alchemist turning molten metal into pure gold on epic European occasions and Grand Slam deciders will be justifiably concerned over one suspicion lingering from another Saturday night of rolling thunder at Thomond. The Munster arsenal is not what it used to be.
If that sounds almost like sacrilege, then consider the facts: 80 matches and counting since Munster last dropped a goal in any competition — centre Rory Scannell at Cardiff Arms Park in the PRO12, as it was then, March 4, 2017. More than five years and counting since the last Munster drop in Europe’s blue-riband tournament, by Ian Keatley against Saracens in Limerick, October 24, 2014.
His fly half successors, JJ Hanrahan and Tyler Bleyendaal, have dropped one goal between them, by the New Zealander for Canterbury seven seasons ago. Far from offering that as a critical point, it should be said in their defence that the drop has long gone out of fashion.
Owen Farrell’s 1,236 goals for Saracens and England includes a mere four drops. Dimitri Yachvili managed fewer still, two out of 1,211 goals for Gloucester, Biarritz and France. Leigh Halfpenny’s career total of almost 800 does not include any drops because the Welshman has yet to kick one.
In a bygone age, the Springbok Naas Botha turned the drop goal into a cottage industry, a total of more than 200 inspiring the nickname ‘Nasty Booter.’ Twenty years ago another South African, the evangelist Jannie de Beer, gave the finest exhibition I have ever witnessed: five drops in 32 minutes during a World Cup quarter-final, all but one from beyond the English 10-metre line.
As the man himself will tell you: ‘’The Lord gave me the talent. The forwards gave me the ball. It was a team effort.”
Of the 40 clubs, provinces, regions in Europe’s three major Leagues last season, almost 70 per cent, 27, didn’t drop a solitary goal, amongst them Leinster, Ulster, Saracens, Racing.
Munster, therefore, are in good company but they know better than anyone that there are times when the drop is not merely the best option. It is the only one.
Joel Stransky and Jonny Wilkinson realised that in winning the only two World Cup finals to go to extra time. Nick Evans’ wondrous low-flying projectile dug out of the mud after 29 phases for Harlequins against Stade Francais ten years ago took some beating.
Two years later O’Gara knocked it into a cocked hat, raising the art to untouchable heights after 41-phases to beat Northampton in Limerick. Just to show it was no freak, he gave an encore the following week at Castres.
That the execution is often fiendishly difficult, without the small matter of the result depending on the outcome, may explain why so few are spotted.
Hanrahan needs no advising on that subject but Munster still owe him a debt of gratitude, for the monstrous touchline conversion that gave them a draw they didn’t deserve.