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Feature: Biomechanics in Rugby - "The difference between winning and losing could be one kick"

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In September and October 2015, St Mary’s University, Twickenham will host New Zealand and South Africa during Rugby World Cup 2015, as a Team Base in conjunction with The Lensbury Club in Teddington. To find out more about the biomechanics of kicking we spoke to Sport Science Lecturer Dr Neil Bezodis about his research into Rugby. You only have to go back to the last Rugby World Cup in 2011 to find an example of how important the art of place kicking is to the Game. In the Final of that Tournament, on biggest stage in Rugby, Dimitri Yachvili missed France’s first penalty attempt two minutes into the second half. New Zealand were crowned world champions thirty-eight minutes later, winning by a single point. Had Yachvili converted that penalty it could all have been very different. It’s little wonder Rugby coaches put such an emphasis on place kicking in training. The techniques of the specialist kickers are thoroughly assessed and meticulously improved. University research plays an important part in this not least at St Mary’s School of Sport, Health and Applied Science (SHAS). In his research into the biomechanics of place kicking, Neil has painstakingly analysed the techniques of Rugby players from aspiring students to internationally capped professionals. His lab is fitted with special cameras that track movement and a platform that measures the forces exerted on the ground while the kick is taken. The data is relayed to coaches and used to improve the performance of place kickers with a detailed analysis of the force on joints and movement of the player. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach,” explains Neil, “kicking techniques are unique to the individual so our research is geared towards improving performance without giving players off-the-shelf solutions.” The players coming through the lab are often athletes at the top of their game so Neil’s team focus on establishing small improvements to make the difference. “Professional Rugby players and coaches want a solid evidence base in order to fully understand the skill of place kicking. With nearly half of all points scored in International Rugby over the last ten years coming from place kicks, it is essential the kicker’s technique is as good as it can possibly be.” Neil also helps to hone the technique of young players and has some advice for aspiring place kickers; “Make sure your non-kicking arm opposes the motion of the kicking foot. Our research shows kickers who are able to bring their non-kicking arm down across their body as the ball is struck are much more accurate over longer distances. Upper body technique should not be neglected; place kicking is a whole-body skill. “It’s also important to maintain a strong supporting leg upon the point of contact with the ball with a rigid and upright posture.” When September rolls around and Rugby World Cup 2015 begins, doubtless Neil and his research team will have a keen eye on the goal kicking techniques of the modern greats. We might not have quite such a close Final in this Tournament, but one thing is for certain; the success rate of the place kickers will be a determining factor for which team picks up the Webb Ellis Cup come October 31st.
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