Thursday 6 June 2013

Leigh Halfpenny's Perfect Ten (+1).

The British and Irish Lions' tour of Australia is gradually grinding through the gears and they will hope for a more formidable test from their host's Super Rugby sides when they play the Queensland Reds on Saturday. The opening bout of the tour in Hong Kong against the Barbarians showed little more than Owen Farrell's ability to take a punch and still be able to deliver an improvised judo throw, while Western Force barely lived up to the second part of their name, even as 40 point underdogs.

Aside from highlighting the potential for serious injury that lurks in every professional game of rugby, Wednesday's first outing on actual Australian soil did provide a master class of kicking from arguably, the world game's current number one points kicker, Leigh Halfpenny.

Leigh Halfpenny, in Cardiff blue at the historic Ricoh Arena.
Halfpenny was presented with eleven kicking opportunities on Wednesday and duly kicked all of them. Six of the kicks were relatively straight forward, around 20 yards out and more or less central to the posts. Even allowing for the slight drizzle, these kicks are virtually automatic for a top class, international kicker. The real testers were the five conversions sandwiched in between these gimmes. Wider kicks for obvious reasons become much more testing, as the narrowing of the angles and the increased distance quickly takes average conversion rates for professional kickers steadily down towards coin toss territory. In addition a right footed kicker kicking from the right touchline finds landing such conversions very slightly more difficult than does a similarly talented lefty. Right footed Halfpenny was presented with three kicks from wide on the right hand touchline.

Leigh Halfpenny's 11 Kicks Against Western Force.

Kick Type. Pitch Area. Distance to Posts. Average Probability of Success.
Penalty. Central. 23 m. 94%
Conversion (Sexton try). Central. 14 m. 97%
Conversion (O'Driscoll try). Touchline. 42 m. 53%
Penalty. Central. 17 m. 96%
Conversion (Croft try). Touchline. 39 m. 61%
Conversion (Heaslip try). Touchline. 39 m. 64%
Conversion (Vunipola try). Touchline. 40 m. 59%
Conversion (Bowe try). Touchline. 41 m. 55%
Conversion (O'Driscoll try). Central. 15 m. 97%
Conversion (Farrell try). Central. 14 m. 97%
Conversion (Parling try). Central. 15 m. 95%

In the table above, I've listed each of Leigh's kicks, along with the likelihood that an average, first choice club and international kicker would be successful with each individual attempt. The probabilities are derived from the actual outcomes of 1,000's of such kicks over the last couple of seasons throughout world rugby.

I argued here that Halfpenny could be considered the world's best current kicker, but it was his excellence at distances in excess of 40 meters where he outshone all other current kickers. At distances of 40 meters or less he is still above average, but only just. Therefore, it is perhaps ironic that in a show of outstanding kicking ability, Halfpenny didn't get the chance to demonstrate that area of his talent where he really excels, namely from extreme distance. Halfpenny's figures indicate that he would have had around a 55% chance of converting BO'D first try compared to the league average 53% and each of the other ten attempts also show a small improvement against par.

The table above shows the likely frequency of the number of successful kicks made by firstly an average kicker and then by Leigh Halfpenny. The most common outcome, around a third of the time, would be for nine of the eleven kicks to be successfully kicked. A clean sweep from the eleven attempts is less likely with Halfpenny making such a sequence once every 18 attempts, whereas an average player would make all eleven once every 21 attempted sequences. So 11 from 11 is a reasonably unusual event, but it would have been much more newsworthy if he'd only kicked 5 successfully.

The kicking profiles of the Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell, two kickers who were also in the side on Wednesday are similar to Halfpenny's from 40 meters or less, so the Lions are well served with similar, high quality, normal range kickers. But if the requirement is there to kick points from halfway, good as Sexton is at this extended range, the Welshman will be the unanimous choice. Good as Wednesday's display was, Halfpenny hasn't yet had the opportunity to show just how good he really is as a kicker.

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