What's the secret behind the perfect rugby kick?

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1. Alive and kicking

To succeed in international rugby union a team needs a top quality goal kicker. With fewer tries being conceded in the Six Nations championship, points scored with the boot have taken on a greater significance.

In the first five years of the millennium the tournament produced an average of 73 tries per season. A decade later this average fell to just 48. Analysis of nearly 600 international matches over a 10-year period has shown that goal kicking accounted for 45% of all points scored.

With tighter, rugby league-style defences and better team discipline, a side that squanders its penalties or conversions cannot expect to win a Test match.

2. A lonely job

With modern goal kickers expected to be near flawless, James Hook provides a personal insight into taking the big pressure kicks.

When the heat is on, a kicker falls back on his carefully-honed routine. From cleaning the mud off his boots to tossing a few blades of grass into the air, each has his own tried and trusted pre-kick ritual...but then it all comes down to the biomechanics of the kick itself.

3. How we kick

Kicking involves far more than just a hefty swing of the leg. It's a much more complicated process which also involves the torso, the arms, the shoulders and hips.

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To master this skill the best kickers, like Leigh Halfpenny of Wales, must work on this complex body movement until it becomes second nature.

4. Changing styles

As rugby union has evolved from an amateur pastime to a professional sport, the game's approach to the place kick has been refined and perfected.

Midland Counties v South Africa in September 1906: The fashion was for the kicker to ask a team mate to lie prostrate propping up the ball for him with his finger. The kicker's approach is head-on with the toe making contact with the ball.

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This style was still evident as Scotland took on England at Twickenham in March 1938. In windy conditions the human kicking tee is still occasionally used.

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By the 1960s the kicker placed the ball on a lump of soil dug from the pitch with the heel of the boot. The ball is angled forwards, towards the goal posts, suggesting the kicker will kick the bottom end of the ball.

As a style it was first used in the 1930s. But by 1972 most kickers, like Barry John of Wales, preferred to kick with their instep rather than toe. This meant placing the ball upright, rather than tilted towards the posts.

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Each kicker develops his own ritual. Here's Gavin Hastings of Scotland lining up a shot at goal against Ireland in February 1987. The ball is tilted slightly back towards the kicker.

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Sand replaced mud as the kicker's tee of choice, as shown here by Eric Elwood of Ireland in 1994. The tee was hand-crafted from sand brought on in a bucket.

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The most prolific of Test rugby kickers, Dan Carter of New Zealand, opted for a sideways stance before his round-the-corner approach to the ball.

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Neither Carter nor Jonny Wilkinson, seen here preparing to kick for England in Paris in 2007, took an overlong run-up. Just a couple of steps was all it took.

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Jonathan Sexton of Ireland with the plastic kicking tee now universally used by kickers in rugby union - much to the delight of groundsmen around the world.

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5. Thorburn’s 'monster'

Click or tap on the hand and drag the arrow across to see Paul Thorburn’s colossal 1986 Five Nations penalty for Wales against Scotland.

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Thorburn’s kick was measured at 64.2 metres and was regarded as the longest successful kick in an international Test match. Wales beat Scotland 22-15.

6. What makes a great kicker?

Which aspect of a goal kicker's game do you think is the most important?

Character

Ronan O'Gara

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Character

Ronan O'Gara

In the pressure cooker atmosphere of Test rugby a cool-headed goal kicker is more likely to repeat his action smoothly.

Physique

Chris Paterson

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Physique

Chris Paterson

The best kickers have similar muscle fibres to sprinters, which allow the muscles to contract very quickly, adding to the power of the kick.

Practice

Neil Jenkins

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Practice

Neil Jenkins

Repeated practice allows a kicker to 'groove' his action until it becomes natural to repeat it under mental or physical stress.

Technique

Jonny Wilkinson

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Technique

Jonny Wilkinson

A kicker can have the right physique and a good temperament but without the correct technique he is unlikely to be as accurate.