Windy Wellington stadium has dubious honour
Many goal kickers have left Wellington wondering if they had ever experienced a tougher day at the office.
It turns out they hadn't.
A study of goal kicking performance in international rugby from 2002 to 2011 found Westpac Stadium was the single toughest venue in the world when it came to kicking goals.
Academic Ken Quarrie's paper reveals kickers at Wellington's waterfront oval had a lowly success rate of 67 per cent during the period with 158 successes from 236 shots at goal.
That's 10 per cent below South Africa's high altitude Loftus Versfeld and Wales' indoor Millennium Stadium, which proved the most user friendly of the 87 venues used during the period.
Few players have kicked more at Westpac Stadium than former Wellington and Hurricanes first five-eighth David Holwell and he wasn't surprised by the findings.
"It can just change in a couple of seconds. One second it's in your face, the next it's coming from the side. It's just so unpredictable," he said yesterday from his Whangarei farm.
"It would bounce off the sides [of the stands] and come at you from weird angles and it happened so quickly.
"You can't really try and judge it because it changes so quickly. You'd just aim down the middle and hope for the best."
Holwell, who scored 676 points in 76 appearances for the Hurricanes and played in stadiums around the world, said Westpac was the only venue where he would pause at the top of his mark and try to wait out the elements.
"Normally I didn't muck around too much, I was just straight into it, but there I did wait, particularly if it was a longer kick. I'd wait for it to die and it could change so quickly and sometimes it did and you were into it."
Holwell recalls a humorous moment during a practice session in 2004 on the day of the Canterbury Bulldogs rugby league match against the New Zealand Warriors.
Ace NRL kicker Hazem El Masri had wandered over and said "Mate, how the heck do you work out this wind?"
Holwell decided against trying to explain the riddles of a Wellington southerly.
"I said, ‘you're a pretty good goal kicker, so just aim down the middle. Don't even try and read it or it won't happen for you'."
It was good advice, with El Masri nailing all four of his kicks that night as the Bulldogs won 24-18.
Quarrie writes in his paper: "Wellington, New Zealand is renowned as an exceptionally windy city, and the fact the success rate at Westpac Stadium was the lowest of any stadium probably reflects that kickers find it difficult to adapt to the atmospheric conditions at the venue."
He also observes that nine of the 10 venues with the lowest success rates were in Australasia and six of them in New Zealand.
Dunedin's indoor Forsyth Barr Stadium is oddly low in the rankings, but likely warped by the problems kickers reported with balls there during the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
However, rating venues wasn't the primary goal of Quarrie's paper, entitled Evaluation of Goal Kicking Performance in International Rugby Union Matches.
The primary drive for Quarrie was to apply a more scientific measure to rating the prowess of the world's top goal kickers.
Rather than using raw percentages, he used a formula which took into account where kicks were taken on the field including distance and angle, the venue, the relative scores in the match at the time of the kick, and the time remaining in the match.
South African sharpshooter Morne Steyn came out on top as the best kicker in the world, with Dan Carter third. Carter would be second using the formula of only counting kickers with more than 60 attempts at goal.
Quarrie analysed 582 international matches and 6769 kicks, finding that 72 per cent were successful.
South Africa's Francois Steyn provided a stark illustration of how raw percentages can warp the perception of a kicker's skill.
The long-distance specialist leapt from 84th to fourth once Quarrie's formula was applied, though he had less than 60 shots at goal. The results suggested kickers can be the difference in a test match, but not that often.
In 33 matches (5.7 per cent) the study believed the outcome hinged on the success or failure of a kick by a team trailing by one or two points after which no further points were scored. Only 20 of those shots at goal (3.4 per cent) were successful.
When the kicking percentages of the two teams were reversed it would have changed the result of the match 14 per cent of the time.
Another interesting statistic to emerge from the study was that 13 points was the greatest deficit any team overcame to win a test during the decade studied.
That adds further weight to the All Blacks' incredible win over Ireland in the final match of 2013, when they came back from a 19-0 deficit.