Kicking guru Mick Byrne shares secrets
Not many people can tell you what effect the position of a valve or the pattern of the grip on a rugby ball will have on its flight path.
Even fewer can recite the names of every Gilbert or adidas rugby ball produced in the professional era then give you the pressure level required for maximum distance.
A few minutes with kicking guru Mick Byrne and there is no doubt the All Blacks have the best in the business.
The Australian has changed how, and how far, New Zealand's top players kick a ball.
The most recent examples are first five-eighth Aaron Cruden, who has added about 15 metres to his punt, and fullback Israel Dagg, who has been thundering back huge clearing kicks all season.
Last weekend in Cardiff, wing Julian Savea surprised the Welsh chasers when he dropped a pin-point cross-kick into the corner of Millennium Stadium.
It's led many to wonder if ball technology is creating a bevy of accurate, long-range punters and place kickers.
But Byrne says materials and design are not influencing distance. He notes adidas has signed an agreement with the IRB not to produce balls that fly any farther than the current crop.
Big advances have been made in how a ball flies through the air, but he puts increased length down to the better training techniques.
"We've been putting 10 or 15 metres on our athletes' punting for the past few years with the same ball. It's not to do with the ball, it's the development of the athletes' technique.
"You may be able to recall some players kicking further than they were three or four years ago. Aaron [Cruden], Stephen [Donald], there are other examples.
"They are consistently kicking it five to 10 metres longer than they were with the same ball."
It's a common sight these days to see two All Blacks standing 15-odd metres apart banging endless kicks into each other's hands.
There is no run up, just the swing of a leg and the thud of the ball.
"It's about understanding where you are powerful over the ball and understanding technique," Byrne said. "It's the same technique for everyone, but each player has a different way of getting there. Where's your most powerful position?"
Byrne discovered a common error was robbing players of both power and functionality on a rugby field.
"A lot of players, when they step into contact, leave their upper body behind on their last stride. That's the big key for me. It's about bringing your upper body with you on that last stride.
"A lot of people will get into a good position as they're running in but in the delivery stride they stick their leg out and lean back. It's like playing a golf swing off your back foot. You get a few, but there's not a lot of power or consistency."
On a rugby field players often don't have the luxury of a run up before they kick, so Byrne teaches the kickers to generate power from a stationary position.
"We try to get as much power into the delivery stride as we can without having to wind the whole body up. We're not relying on momentum. You step, then bang.
"The quicker you can get into that powerful position the more flexible you are in what you can do with your kick."
More control creates accuracy as well as distance and Byrne says that's becoming more crucial with every year due to improving defensive setups.
"The old adage used to be that if a team kicked it was a win for the defence. I'd say you haven't forced us to kick, we're using it as an attacking option. If you give us that space we'll use it."
Nobody is better at that, he says, than Dan Carter. He compares his ability to kick at the advantage line, to a fast bowler deceiving a batsman with a slower ball.
But Byrne says that space is becoming harder to find. Banana kicks no longer fall into space and players are adapting.
When he started in rugby union in 1998 with the Wallabies, Byrne says kicking was done in isolation, where now it is done in the context of a game.
That allows halfbacks to discover the effectiveness of dinky kicks over the ruck, fullbacks to try long running return kicks, and the first five-eighth to perfect cross kicks in game situations.
Another big change has been the steady replacement of the spiral kick with the drop-punt.
Byrne would love to see the classic spiral return and reckons Carter can rake off enormous distance when he gets his going.
For the average kicker he says the spiral adds five to 10 metres in distance, but he has accepted it is becoming an unnatural skill to the next generation of players.
What hasn't become unnatural is goal kickers with success rates in the mid to high 70 per cent range.
Byrne notes it's not unusual now for kickers to have better success than past greats like Grant Fox, John Eales and Michael Lynagh.
Unlike distance, ball technology plays a bigger part in accuracy and Byrne has played a big role in helping design a ball that flies straight and true if hit correctly.
Just as a golfer doesn't want a perfectly hit drive to suddenly veer to one side because of the dimple effect, he believes a place kicker should be rewarded for a good strike.
His pet peeve is "drift", an effect created by air flowing through and over grooves on a ball, which, even when the ball flies perfectly end-over-end, will see it move three or four metres to one side.
The placement of a valve will also influence the ball's rotation or spin depending on how it's kicked with its weight creating momentum.
And, for those still wondering, the ideal pressure level for a rugby ball is between 9.5 and 10 PSI.