Analysis: The Art of Kick-Off Reception – Rugby World | Candle Made Easy

With the help of elite coaches and data from Rugby Analytics, we take a deeper look at kick-off receptions and the skills needed in the modern game

Analysis: The Art of Prelude Reception

Kickoffs are often referred to as “third set pieces”. And there’s no denying the importance of a well-trained reception corps. Because how frustrating is it to watch the team you love rack up points only to spit out the next kick-off reception?

It was something that frustrated Scotland fans during their series-winning game against Argentina on Saturday.

When the modern game is all about waiting for the next kick, it pays to know your stuff.

“WWe have to look back at least four or five games to see how the next opponent kicks,” explains Dewald Senekal, Connacht’s striker coach. “And we have something like a pitch map to show where that ball is actually being kicked by them.”

Considered a student of the reboot, Senekal walks us through the homework.

“It’s about Try to track the trajectory (they like) – is it a long flat kick, is it a loopy short kick, is there a hangtime into the 22 or as far back as possible? That tells us something more about our opposition. So let’s map where these balls are actually coming down, where we’re going to catch these balls. And these court cards are very specific for left footed kickers, right footed kickers, different kicker profiles.

“We look at where the kick-offs go and then how we actually line up and make sure we have our best players – almost like specialists – in those areas.”

According to Rugby Analytics, good teams should claim at least 95% of restarts have been passed to them. As you can see from the chart below, which depicts every kick-off in the recent New Zealand-Ireland series, only one restart resulted in an opponent’s error when they aimed for the kick-off.

You can also see how many kicks were contestable and, in the center graph, which areas the two teams were targeting with their restarts throughout the series (all field cards are displayed left-to-right so you can see the concentration of kicks more clearly) . .

(Contestables, all kicks and wins from all matches between New Zealand and Ireland. Rugby Analytics)

In fact, we can look at the data from every single kick in the Home Nations series: Australia v England, New Zealand v Ireland, South Africa v Wales and Argentina v Scotland (grouped on the left side of the chart below). This gives you a sense of where balls were raining down.

As you can see, 58% of kicks were placed in areas that couldn’t be fought, but that meant the receiving team was usually pinned in their own territory (12% of catchers were stopped, man and ball).

Analysis: The Art of Prelude Reception

(Contestables across all series. Via Rugby Analytics)

Only once this summer was there a kick that didn’t go the full 10m. But we can also give you a bit more about the results overall.

Disputable restarts

(Restarts won or lost. Via Rugby Analytics)

The chart above shows how many restarts the receiving team lost overall across the June and July series – just 11. And as for Scotland, here are their own receiving-time serial numbers…

Kick-off for Scotland

(Scottish opening receptions in Argentina. Via Rugby Analytics)

In the third set-piece, you need to get the process right.

Components of the kick-off reception

According to Connacht’s Senekal, the inexperienced shot receiver runs toward the ball without assessing the trajectory or potential targets around him. But as long as you work with good kickers (he emphasizes making real drop kicks), you can teach players to chase balls in the air. However, you have to know what is important.

Senekal says: “We have a three-phase system from the moment the ball is kicked. So the first thing to do would be to determine whose priority is the ball. So when I yell “Dewald!” everyone knows I have priority, I’m taking over, or it’s on my line or my zone.

“From there I will try to get in line with the ball. That’s how it goes over my head. So I don’t have to make any last-minute adjustments to the side. Once your line is right, all you have to do is adjust forwards or backwards. Because sideways, plus forwards or backwards, is difficult.

“Then the lifters tail this guy. They don’t want them to cramp his movement, but the moment he says “set,” they know that’s where I’m going to jump. They know they’re getting close. These are the technical aspects of good communication. That’s for each unit of guys. So with Connacht, I know that Jordan Duggan will always go with Oisín Dowling because, for example, they work very well together.”

Leinster catch

Leinster’s Ryan Baird gets a restart (Getty Images)

In the modern game, many teams try to cover an entire field with groups of two – a knight and a lob. Gone are the old school days of each team plopping down a group of three (two lifters and one jumper, pre-tied) and hoping the ball would land in their nearest radius. The dream scenario is that you have a group of three catching the ball at its apex and this should forever beat any individual running and jumping after the ball. But you need flexibility.

And of course it’s not all forward here, guys. Rito Hlungwani, Stormers forward coach, agrees.

As he explains via the URC winners page: “We set our jump capsule (lock prop) very flat. We rely on our wingers to catch most of our breaks. The role of the “jumping” pod is to create a bubble in front of the winger only to slow down the opponent in pursuit.

“We are also working very hard to get them to come around the corner and clean up the post-bubble breakdown. We train this component as a mini unit on Tuesdays. Players also train it as an extra after sessions. The composition of the team line-up is also designed to create a run opportunity or an easy kick.”

As you can see from Bernard Jackman’s package above, there is an art to backing away – or at least moving sideways.

Senekal gives us a little more about the whole team’s approach to breaks, saying, “The guy that’s more important in (most) scenarios is the basket.

“Quite often there was a defender in the zone behind the forwards. This guy’s role is really important because obviously it’s such a difficult technique that sometimes you misread something and the ball flies over your head. So you want that basket, that back, that extra man. And his mindset has to be that you miss the ball every time.”

According to the Connacht coach, his group will not see a captain’s run without catching ten straight breaks overhead. And in training, a favorite exercise is getting behind the posts and scoring drop goals – from varying distances – so the forwards can line up in the area where the ball is likely to fall and work on their techniques. If the other backs are also available to work as “baskets”, awesome.

On other training techniques, Hlungwani says of the Stormers, “The only drills we do with limitations are using different balls because they move at different speeds. The most important would be tennis ball kickoffs. The pod and winger behind are chasing a tennis ball which is smashed with a racquet. Right after that we use a soccer ball and then a rugby ball. We believe these limitations will improve tracking and timing capabilities.”

Rito Hlungwani

Stormers forward coach Rito Hlungwani (Getty Images)

The coach’s message is clear: In the top game, nothing should be taken for granted at the opening reception. Trust and unity will also help your cause.

You can’t cover every base, however, and while you might keep drilling elements of it, it helps to be aware of the built-in limitations as well. As Senekal notes of cross-field spread, “The difficulty for a two-pod is that you can go backwards, but you can’t go too far back, which is why you have your basketman. It’s easy to walk forward, but many two-man pods have you pre-bound, making it difficult to move left or right.

“Short kicks into these zones are therefore more difficult to catch at 45 degrees sideways. So there are real ways to side-move guys with short kicks and really deny that.

“And then I always look to see if the opposition is using a hooker or a prop for a front lifter. Because if you step too short on these guys, they never catch a ball over their head like a lock or a back row in the alley will. It’s an ability they don’t have. So there are ways to pressure them.”

Remember the spooky moments when an important result is followed by a lost kick-off. It’s incredibly important. Which means investing time and brainpower for it. Of course, this is just the receiving side that we’re going to focus on. Then there’s the other world of possibilities at kick-off…

Data provided by Rugby Analytics. You can find them at

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