Kickers' margin for error is inches
If there's one rule that's been introduced this season which typifies the classic saying that 'it's a game of inches' it's most definitely the rules surrounding 20-metre restarts.
Previously if the ball went dead in-goal from the attacking team, or the defending player caught the ball in-goal, the team was awarded a 20-metre restart, where the defensive team had time to reset their defensive line while the attacking team had the regular six tackles.
This has changed dramatically in 2014 though, with the new rules stating that if the ball goes dead in-goal from the attacking team or if it's caught on the full by the defending team, you now get not only a quick restart, but also seven tackles against the opposition.
This is a huge advantage for the team awarded the restart, not just because of the seven tackles, but also because the defensive lines are not set for the quick tap. They are usually chasing through an attacking kick trying to score points and are not structured when they suddenly have the roles reversed from attack to defence. This is where it becomes a game of inches, as you have to make sure you get it right.
It highlights the importance of having a good kicking game in the NRL. In tight games with defensive structures being near impossible to break at times, it's often left to kicks and the end of your set of six to capitalise on scoring opportunities or gain a repeat set. With teams being so equal and close, your last-tackle options and kicks can often be the difference between getting the two competition points or not.
With the new rules in place the margin for error is even more critical and this was never more evident as in last Saturday's game between the Roosters and the Raiders.
On three occasions in the first half the Raiders were attacking the Roosters' line, with the Roosters' outside backs able to dismantle the attacking raids twice with clean catches and on the other occasion the ball was kicked dead in-goal.
The premiers don't need any leg-ups to attack and they exploited the situation on all three of these occasions as they were able to create three scoring opportunities and capitalise on them to take an 18-0 lead at halftime.
If the Raiders were able to get a positive result in their favour on one or two of these occasions, through a try or repeat set, the whole dynamic of that first half would have been different. Once again it's a game of inches.
The kicking game is an area that often varies more than any other thing from week to week and coaches spend a lot of time looking at opposition teams' strengths and weakness when it comes to defending kicks. Some 21 per cent of all tries scored so far this season have been off kicks, that's one out of every five tries.
Attacking kicks are not just about trying to score tries, either. You will hear a lot of coaches using the term 'building pressure' which refers to attacking teams forcing the defending team to do a line drop-out and get a repeat set. This takes a lot of energy out of your opposing team and hopefully by doing this it can create opportunities later in the game.
As a coach there is a whole host of different intricacies that you will examine for attacking kicks. You have a good look at the opposition wingers and fullback, their positional play, their coverage to the ball and how well they can catch under pressure.
If these players are all good catchers under pressure then you may, as a lot of teams are now doing, try to isolate the smaller man in the defensive line (usually the half) and kick it on top of him and attempt to out-leap him.
There is then a whole range of different types of attacking kicks to consider. Do you go high and contest the bomb? Kick flat and over the top of their last defender, or just in front of him? Try the shorter bomb on top of their smaller halves? Or the grubber kick to make the bigger outside back bend down under pressure? The options are endless...
Kickers need to be able to deliver a variety of kicks with both speed and accuracy; this is why they spend many extra hours away from training perfecting these types of kicks. Other times it may be for 20 minutes after a session and just concentrating on the attacking and defensive kicks you want to employ in the coming week's game.
Souths halfback Adam Reynolds is a very astute kicker for such a young player and the Rabbitohs have scored five tries in 2014 on the back of his attacking kicks. They have on most occasions been able to build pressure from him his astute placement of kicks as well.
Queensland Origin and Melbourne halfback Cooper Cronk is another with a great arsenal of kicks that create many scoring opportunities for his team and for Billy Slater in particular. When it comes to his kicking game, Cronk is a perfectionist, who reportedly spends hours working at his craft to make sure that he continues to be innovative and the leader in the game.
When you're up against fullbacks that can quickly capitalise on any opportunity such as Ben Barba Billy Slater or Jarryd Hayne, it can be a very dangerous practice grubbering and bombing across the field in front of them. That is why the kick needs to be exactly on the spot so your chasers can contest the kick. If it's off the mark they can split your broken defensive line apart and race away, putting you on the back foot for the rest of your defensive set or in some cases behind on the scoreboard.
There is an old saying that the 'kick is only as good as the chase'. That is why communication is critical so that the team knows when and what type of kick is going to happen and that there is an aggressive chase. Every player needs to play some part in the kick-chase and must compete for the ball.
That's why coaches and players will spend many hours practising and developing different kick-catching strategies, depending on what teams they are playing. Many NRL clubs now employ specialised kicking and catching coaches, who are often ex-AFL players who help players develop kicking and catching techniques.
It's a game of inches. And every inch counts.