Braam van Straaten was talking balls at the Australia squad’s hotel in Wellington on Thursday morning. Virtuo reality to put it another way.
Is the ball being used in this tournament, the Gilbert Virtuo, a dud, as teams such as England have been claiming, with Jonny Wilkinson’s success rate dropping by nearly 100% this tournament? Or is it, as the South Africa outside-half Morne Steyn contended this week, little different to the ones used in other tournaments and should not be blamed for a kicker’s lack of accuracy?
Van Straaten, the former Springbok who, as Australia’s kicking coach, is helping plot South Africa’s downfall in Sunday’s quarter-final in Wellington, went further than anyone had in this tournament when talking about the ball.
“It is the best I have ever kicked with,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with it. I do not agree that it has a different sweet spot. When it comes to goal-kicking, it is all down to technique. I tested the ball during the Tri-Nations and had no problems with it.”
Never a World Cup goes by without complaints about referees, restrictive commercial deals negotiated by the tournament organisers, hotel beds, the weather and match balls.
“This ball is a mixture between soap and a balloon. It slips through your fingers when you try to pass it and flies like a loose rocket when you try to kick it.” So said the France outside-half, Didier Camberabero, in 1991, the last World Cup when Gilbert did not provide the ball.
Since then it has been the Gilbert Barbarians, Revolution, Xact and Synergie, the rubber used in 2007 when the New Zealand outside-half Dan Carter was among those who complained about it after missing five kicks out of nine against Scotland at Murrayfield. That was also a tournament when a South African, Percy Montgomery, adapted to the ball better than any other kicker.
Carter’s gripes were not taken seriously by the organisers who wondered, privately, whether the All Blacks had an ulterior motive. They were one of the few teams taking part in the tournament who were not supplied by Gilbert. Was it a pitch to get the contract for their supplier, Adidas, in the 2011 tournament?
Five of the 20 teams who have taken part in this year’s World Cup are not supplied by Gilbert: New Zealand, Wales and Italy are the only ones in the Tri-Nations or Six Nations. Wales have put England’s problems into context: despite having to use a relatively unfamiliar ball, their goal-kickers have a high success rate and landed 10 out of 10 against Fiji in the Hamilton rain last Sunday.
“The ball travels truly,” Van Straaten said. “Kickers have to get the fundamentals right, staying in the process, and then you will get a good strike on it, even in a windy stadium like the one we will be playing in on Sunday. You will look for good rotation and good penetration in the kick and that will get the ball through the poles.”
It would have been convenient for Van Straaten, who once kicked seven penalties in a match to defeat New Zealand, to blame the ball because Australia’s kickers have not been the most accurate in the tournament. He declined the chance to make excuses.
Wilkinson complained after the game against Argentina that the ball did not go where it was supposed to. Wilkinson was not the only kicker to struggle in the closed Otago Stadium and, titter ye not, a boffin in Dunedin this week claimed that a problem could have been caused by gases released in the non-open air.
Are the balls more pumped up than the players? A complaint in 2007 was that match officials overinflated the balls in the early rounds, making them harder to kick. This year, a different type of bladder with a new valve has been added to improve the stability of the ball, or so Gilbert says: “It retains the air in the ball more effectively than other bladders.”
And deflates some kickers. England got themselves in such a stew over Wilkinson’s goal-kicking problems that they worked out at the start of the game which of the eight numbered match balls had the sweetest spot for him and tried to make sure it was given to him for every conversion.
England were rumbled and shamed but banning two of their management team for the final group game against Scotland amounted to nothing more than a sacrifice. They were prepared to do anything to get Wilkinson back in the swing with the knockout stage looming.
They failed and Martin Johnson has bolstered his running options by including in the line-up to face France Toby Flood in the midfield outside Wilkinson, only a few weeks after dismissing the idea because it was far too close to a World Cup to be experimenting.
Johnson has been forced to take what for him is a gamble by Wilkinson’s failure to bend the match ball to his will. It is all a plot to get England running, except South Africa’s Steyn has been landing his kicks from everywhere.
Strikers in football do not blame the ball when they miss clear chances, even if goalkeepers have been known to remark on excessive movement in the air. The balls are the same for everyone, but not everyone is having a ball.