Sterling Gold: How kickers win you games
It has always been impossible to overstate the importance of a successful kicking game.
To win matches you must excel at the four "P's", namely possession, position, pressure and patience. How, when and where you kick the football has a direct bearing on all of these pursuits.
When boot is put to ball it is all about gaining a "result". Obviously the scoring of a try is the ultimate but extracting the maximum benefit possible is not always about a four-pointer.
It is no coincidence for example that of the 24 matches played this season, the team that has amassed the greater kick metres during the course of the contest has gone on to win 20 of these games.
Depending on the situation the best and smartest kick available may be as simple as rolling it over the sideline to give the team a much-needed breather or to wind the clock down when leading.
During a contest I mentally give a mark out of 10 for each kick that I see, allowing me to determine its quality.
At the NRL level a coach is looking for at least an 8 out of 10 in each instance and if his kicker(s) aren't achieving that on a regular basis then you can bet the side will be struggling.
Clubs that boast a smart kicking game have invariably put a lot of thought and time into getting it right.
They know it does not just happen but realise that there has to be an actual plan in getting their men in the right positions to execute.
This is especially crucial when coming out of their own end. Little things like making sure their kicker does not get jammed on the short side without much open area to aim for, or being on the wrong side of the play-the-ball with their kicking leg exposed to the pressure of chasers coming through, must be avoided.
Like all important areas of a team's game plan, their kicking has to be tactically spot on.
Ultimately however it does come down to the talent, skill, vision and intelligence of the individuals who carry the responsibility.
In the first three rounds we have seen some absolute master classes from the competition's very best.
On the opening weekend it was Jamie Soward who set the benchmark with a dominant display against the Gold Coast in setting up the Dragon’s 25-16 victory.
It was a remarkable performance by the young five-eighth who absolutely kicked the usually unflappable Scott Prince off the park.
Soward kicked the ball 15 times for a total of 550 metres and drove the opposition mad by constantly turning them around and spearing the ball into the corners.
From a multitude of long kicks on only two occasions they were caught on the full. This provides a great advantage because it denies the kick returner an extra 10 to 15 metres whilst picking up the same for your own chasers.
The constant pressure felt by the Titans saw them kick the ball dead in-goal five times denying them a potential 30 extra tackles in the opposition quarter. This is usually one of the greatest strengths in their armoury.
The icing on the cake were three precision chips by Soward which led to tries.
There is a high degree of difficulty in getting such kicks spot on and this was particularly evident in the Ben Creagh try where the ball was lobbed into his path in the midst of defenders Clinton Toopi, William Zillman and David Mead.
Darius Boyd scored the other two, including the controversial incident in which referee Phil Haines was run in to by the Titan’s full-back. I’m not suggesting Jamie deliberately put the ball close to the pocket referee but it did prove to be a clever area in which to kick.
In round two it was another left footer in Newcastle's Jarrod Mullen who excelled.
Also up against a quality kicking opponent, the Knights stand-in skipper completely overshadowed Johnathan Thurston to set the Novocastrians on a winning course against the Cowboys.
He did this early on with three consecutive strikes in a six-minute period which put his side immediately on the front foot.
It began in the 5th minute when a towering bomb landed just outside the Cowboy’s try-line and was taken by Ashley Graham. With nowhere to go he was forced in-goal for a line drop-out re-start.
At the end of the next set of six Mullen cross-kicked to isolate winger Michael Bani which allowed Akuila Uate to fly high and knock the ball back to Wes Naiqama to score.
Jarrod's next kick was a booming 40/20 which he launched from 36 metres from his own line and found touch 11 metres from the Cowboys' try-line. For good measure he followed this up with another 40/20 later in the first half but to the opposite sideline.
North Queensland failed to recover from this early onslaught, at one stage trailing 34-6. In the end Mullen kicked 11 times for 383 metres in comparison to Thurston's five for 94 metres.
Finally last weekend it was the collective effort of the Wests Tigers in this department against Canberra that was most impressive.
The consistency of their kicking game can sometimes be awry, with 80 minutes often featuring a mixture of the brilliant and ordinary.
On Saturday night the various contributions of Benji Marshall, Robbie Farah and Robert Lui were well thought-out and maintained pressure on a Raiders outfit who struggled to contain a flamboyant attack that still managed to be controlled and patient.
In the opening fortnight Tim Sheens' men had struggled to get the ball in-goal to force line drop-outs and attain back-to-back sets.
Against the Bulldogs and Warriors they had only received two re-starts but had been required to begin from under their own posts on five occasions.
They changed that in round 3, with Canberra racking up three drop-outs to the home side's nil.
Throw in their first 40/20 of the season off the boot of Benji and they are putting together the kind of statistics that win football games.