The Dead Eye

Does New Zealand rugby have an elite goal kicking problem?

Richie Mo’unga eyed up the ball, then the posts and then slowly dragged his gaze from the posts back to the ball in the line he wanted to kick through. The scoreboard said Crusaders 32 Hurricanes 34 and the clock chirped in over the scoreboard’s shoulder with the information that there were two and half minutes left in the game.

Make the kick and the Crusaders would be level. Miss it, and a home record that spanned four years and 36 Super Rugby games without defeat would be in the utmost jeopardy with barely any time to rectify the situation.

Mo’unga dragged the kick wide, bringing his kick completion rate for Super Rugby Aotearoa of 78.7%. That roughly tracks with his career average of 77.2% over 518 attempted kicks and his year on year average since 2017 but success/miss percentage alone is an incomplete way of calculating the effectiveness of a goal kicker. Goalkicking.co.za has been tracking kickers all over the world for the last few years and, in my opinion, they are doing groundbreaking work when it comes to assessing this crucial part of the game.

Their website does an excellent job of explaining how they rank kickers but I particularly like how they take things like angle, distance, side of the field relative to the foot used and the score differential at the time of the kick to determine pressure. If we look at those criteria on Mo’unga’s missed conversion, we can see that it was an incredibly difficult kick for a right-footed kicker, especially when you factor in the scoreboard and time pressure.

For me, the most interesting metric they use is their Value Added calculations. As per the website;

Value Added indicates the value-added on the scoreboard by the goal kicker relative to other professional goalkickers. It is the number of points the kicker scored more than expected given the difficulty of his kicks. The higher the kicker’s Value Added the better the performance. A kicker with a negative Value Added actually lost his team points due to poor kicking relative to other professional goal kickers and given the difficulty of his kicks.

This methodology opens up a whole new way of looking at goal kicking outside of the raw number of how many did you make/miss? This opens the possibility for contextual analysis of kickers performances over the course of a season and a number of years. When you assess goal kickers who have taken at least 50 attempts at goal over the last 9 years and filter by their Value Added score at the bottom end of the list, you find a few notable names.

* Not inclusive of #CRUvHUR stats

Jack Carty is rated as the worst kicker in the game with regards to the number of points he’s lost relative to other professional kickers. I would temper than by bringing the context of the general weather conditions in the Sportsground as a real factor but these numbers suggest that Carty missed left 65 points behind him when compared to the number of points an average goal kicker would have scored given the kicks he was faced with.

You can’t sum up the value that Jack Carty brings in just this facet of the game – he’s an excellent creative presence at #10, for example – but it is an interesting way to bring his 70.6% goalkicking percentage into a broader context.

Italy’s goalkicking issues are reflected heavily on this chart with three of their primary kickers over the last number of years showing up in the bottom ten of this ranking with a combined Value Added score of -145 points compared to the average goal kicker.

Ian Keatley’s presence on this list is another notable name on the list from a Munster perspective and backs up a general perception about his goal kicking on the whole over the last few years. I think Ian Keatley is a much better player than his goal kicking percentage or Value Added score under these metrics would suggest but it certainly scans with the perception that he left more than a few points behind him over the last number of years (prior to his move to Benetton) in a way that wasn’t satisfactorily explained by his raw goalkicking percentage.

There are lots of really talented players on this list – Russell, Cooper, Cipriani just to name a few – so this isn’t a value judgement on their quality as a player. Even then, Russell has/had Laidlaw (82.5% kicker with +92 career VA) and Machenaud (80% kicker with +26 career VA) to kick for him at club and test level.

My point is, the #10 doesn’t have to be the primary goal kicker as long as someone is.

Beauden Barrett’s presence as 10th worst on the list from a Value Added perspective is certainly noteworthy when you consider the perceptions that already exist about his goalkicking.

For the most part, that goalkicking issue hasn’t really hurt the All Blacks for most of this decade since Barrett’s breakthrough, mainly because they had regularly blown teams away in such a manner that a few missed kicks didn’t factor into the result. That problem arose post-2015 World Cup when other sides began to catch up with the All Blacks. Closer games mean goal kicking becomes incrementally more important.

For example, Leigh Halfpenny has a goalkicking percentage of 85% from 646 attempted kicks. He has a Value Added score of +131, which means he has scored 131 more points compared to the number of points an average goal kicker would have scored when presented with the same kinds of kicks that he was.

Under the same criteria, Barrett is running at -34 since he burst on the scene. For me, the first time that Barrett’s goalkicking started to become an issue was the 2017 Lions tour where he missed five important kicks in the last two tests. His missed kicks in the second test of that Lions series were a particular issue and that trend held as the All Blacks progressed through the cycle.

If we look at Barrett’s kicking heatmap from 2017, we can see some of the issues.

He was running at 27% between the Near Right 15m tram and 50% from the long right side. That means he attempted 11 kicks from the Near Right 15m Tram and he missed eight of them. That goes some way to explain why he was kicking at 72% that year with a Value Added score of -4.

2018 and 2019 were all sub-80% years for Barrett but 2019 was notable in that it saw a decrease in his kicking responsibilities for the test side as Mo’unga broke through as a regular starter.

Did low kicking percentages and VA score playa part in Barrett’s move to fullback at both Super Rugby and test level? Damian McKenzie’s injury played a part, yes, especially when we consider New Zealand’s gameplan modifications stretching back to the Lions series. If we look at the World Cup year after McKenzie’s injury – he started at fullback in New Zealand’s November tour of 2018 – Barrett’s move to #15 makes a tonne of sense if you factor in that it allowed Mo’unga to start as their primary goal kicker.

On the whole, Mo’unga wasn’t that much better of a kicker than Barrett from a Value Added percentage over the course of his whole career, but if we look at the two years before 2019 we can see how it might have come about.

Goal-kicking, like any skill, can wax or wane with any player depending on dozens of criteria – some quantifiable, some not. If you’re a hooker, for example, a shoulder issue that isn’t enough to keep you out of a game might affect your ability to get full extension on your high lob throwing action or your flat laser. That will affect your throwing percentages in a way that might not be fully explainable depending on your usual output. It can be written off as “bad form” but it can be anything to a mechanical issue, to a system issue, to a personal issue that’s causing the issue.

If anything, goal kicking is more dependent on those invisible quantifiables but with the added pressure of the whole stadium looking at you standing alone over the ball with, at times, the entire game on the line. With this in mind, it’s natural for some kickers to fluctuate in their percentages season to season. Mo’unga’s overall kicking record is 77.1% from

Mo’unga’s 2018 heatmap shows an imperfect kicker but a predictable one.

Mo’unga Heatmap 2018

He was pretty reliable up the middle of the field from close range and has workable percentages from the Near Right 15m Tram. He started to drop off on the left side outside the 22m line but you can see from the heat map that he has a solid idea of where he can kick from and where he can’t.

His 2019 is pockmarked by some bad misses up the middle of the field but he was holding steady on both flanks. Again, not perfect by any means but relatively predictable.

Mo’unga Heatmap 2019

Mo’unga was below 50/50 on the Near Left 15m Tram but no lower than that anywhere else besides far long-range. Again, it seems like he has a good handle on where he can kick from and where he can’t. For me, it isn’t just that Barrett is a 72% kicker over his career as a kicker at an elite level, it’s that he’s quantifiably unreliable game to game in a way that isn’t predictable.

What do I mean by this? It means that Barrett does not seem to have a reliable handle on what he can and cannot make week to week. It isn’t that Barrett is a “bad” goal kicker – he often makes really difficult kicks from tricky angles in big games – it’s that he, or the people directing him to kick, don’t have a handle on what his makeable range is.

This is Beauden Barrett’s career kicking heatmap.

At what point do you look at Barrett’s kicking percentage and success percentage heatmap and think that he’s inconsistent with regards to his kicking position? You can see Barrett is only kicking north of 80% in three kicking positions.

One of those is Straight In Front Inside The 22m and sits at 96%. Even then, 96% is a little low for that position, the easiest place on the pitch to kick from. The other good areas are Far Left 15m Tram (89%) and Left Far 10m (100%) and… that’s it. Everything else is comfortably sub 80% with the right side of the field being a particularly tough area for Barrett.

When you compare this heatmap to an elite kicker like Leigh Halfpenny, you can see why it’s a problem in an environment where the top five teams in the world have palpably closed the gap on the All Blacks.

Halfpenny is consistent on both sides of the field and rock-solid up the middle of the field at 89% and 85% from the near and middle distance.

Leigh Halfpenny Career Heatmap

Halfpenny only drifts into the yellow on the Far Left/Right 5m Tram and drops to 38% from his own half.

In this environment, you can see why Hansen would want to get a growing kicker like Mo’unga into the starting lineup. Mo’unga only turned 26 this May and appears to be growing as a test level playmaker and, you would assume, a test level kicker. Mo’unga is kicking at 83% so far in 2020 but is showing vulnerability on the right side of the field.

Richie Mo’unga Kicking Heatmap 2020

This doesn’t include his kicking stats from #CRUvHUR but, as you can tell from the GIF in the beginning, he missed from the far-right tram again to bring his percentage there down to 16%. I think it’s fair to say that Mo’unga is still a work in progress as an elite kicker but the real key lies elsewhere in my opinion.

For me, that is Damian McKenzie and Jordie Barrett.

If you look at Damian McKenzie’s 2019 pre-injury, he was absolutely nailing his kicks. He was running at 85% from 35 kicks and +6 VA with two poor misses from the middle distance straight in front blotting his copybook.

Damian McKenzie 2019 Kicking Heatmap

His kicking numbers in Super Rugby Aotearoa have been massively encouraging. He’s running at 83% from 24 total kicks with a +2 VA and looks to be really pulling this part of his game together as he matures.

Damian McKenzie’s Super Rugby Aotearoa Kicking Heatmap

When you throw in Jordie Barrett’s career goalkicking record of 74.8% from 206 kicks with +11 career VA at just 23 years of age you have two viable goalkicking options who are already specialist fullbacks.

Jordie Barrett Career Heatmap

Could we be looking at the goal kicking options that could push the All Blacks into the post-Beauden Barrett era? All of McKenzie, Mo’unga and Jordie Barrett have more predictable kicking hot zones and better recent records from a raw kicking percentage and VA perspective. All of them are still maturing as top-level kickers too, which might not be true of Barrett as he’s not the primary kicker for the Blues on the evidence of Super Rugby Aotearoa to date.

Beauden Barrett’s quality in every other facet of the game except goal kicking is without question so the question has to be this; can you accommodate his talent at #10 or #15 without an elite goal kicker elsewhere in the side?

Could a combination of Mo’unga and one of Damian McKenzie and Jordie Barrett give the All Blacks the playmaking ability to compensate for the loss of Barrett while bolstering their goal kicking options? It’s all to play for.