Kicking is the purest form of art in the world. And I’ve been to the Louvre.
There is nothing more gorgeous to the eye than a high, arcing torpedo that curves gently from right to left before beginning its violent, lightning-bolt descent towards the ground.
Similarly, a penetrating left-foot drop punt into the forward 50 from Nick Malceski/Stuart Maxfield-in-2003 is truly a sight to behold.
If I were to equate both forms of kicking to an artistic movement, I’d say that the spiral kick is Italian Renaissance painting of the early 15th to late 16th Centuries. These grandiose works, often commissioned by or for the Catholic Church, had an emphasis on nature, anatomy, light and perspective.
The drop punt, conversely, would be more realist. A direct rejection of romanticism, this type of kick is purely functional and reflects the changes brought forth by the Industrial and Commercial Revolutions, not to mention the horrors of late 19th and early 20th Century war.
In summary, there is no one way to kick a ball, just as there is no one way to paint a portrait.
But to consider the perfectly executed drop punt or spiral kick as just a vision of beauty is to neglect the science behind it. Like the incomparable polymath Leonardo da Vinci, who embraced and excelled at art and science, a great kick, too, is these two pursuits combined.
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While I’m not familiar with the history of the spiral kick – or the drop punt for that matter – I’m going to take a stab at how I believe these two art forms took shape from their humble beginnings to what they are today. Fuck Google; I’m going to write my own history here.
The torpedo’s origins date back to the late 19th Century. A precocious German scientist, who was recruited by the Nazi Party to develop missiles, is said to have discovered a mathematical formula for the perfect aerodynamic kick.
As is well known, the US tapped a number of ex-Nazi scientists under Operation Paperclip. This scientist was later to become a leading figure in NASA’s space program, with his understanding of aerodynamics key to the moon mission.
The equation allegedly involved the complex interplay of several variables: X (the radius of the ball squared multiplied by π) , Y (the trajectory of the ball drop), Z (the force of impact). Alas, it was never made public, with the Nazis allegedly burning the information on the basis that it would have incited a moral panic.
Despite the scientist’s influence on space travel, aerodynamic theory and the development of wind tunnels, his greatest legacy is arguably that of the spiral torpedo, which was later to be mastered by a number of rugby league greats, including the great late 20th Century thinker Andrew Johns.
Meanwhile, many historians claim that the 1950s explosion in brutalist architecture helped to accelerate widespread adoption of the drop punt. Such buildings, which became popular for government projects, were seen as a reaction to “the lightness, optimism and frivolity” of some 1930s and 40s architecture.
The drop punt embodies this newfound “moral seriousness.” The whimsical spiral kick of the pre- and interwar periods was spurned for a functional, anti-bourgeois form of disposal. And the Sherrin, with its firm leather exterior, symmetrical stitching and basic red aesthetic, lent itself to this brutalist style of kicking.
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The zenith for the drop punt came not in AFL, where it is the default kicking style, but when it achieved crossover into rugby league.
Darren Lockyer and Laurie Daley were perhaps the first players to legitimise the drop punt when kicking for touch. In fact, the last rugby league player I can recall who solely used the spiral kick was Ricky Stuart, himself a former dual international (and perhaps also the greatest exponent of a spiral pass to have ever played the modern game).
Since the mid 90s, the drop punt has been crucial in rugby league. Strategically it makes sense – it is an accurate style of kick that enables the kicker to position the ball more effectively. I would randomly assert that 90% of effective 40/20s are the result of a drop punt. The drop punt is straight up and down, deliberate, whereas the spiral kick is a more languid, fluid motion that carries with it a heavy risk/reward outcome.
In a changing rugby league world marred by Super League, proposed mergers, latent steroid abuse and general 1990s ennui, the drop punt made sense. Much like the Australian constituency in the aftermath of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor government, the rugby league populace was shocked, scared, and in dire need of a “safe pair of hands.” It came in the form of the drop punt.
The drop punt – ever the relentless expansionist – has also forced its way into rugby union: the traditional home of the torpedo. While the rounder ball shape of the Summit – which enables it to loft high into the air, in turn providing great relish to the kicker – is more conducive to the torpedo than, say, the Steeden, union kickers have noted that drop punts are indeed a safer bet.
But for me, that’s the best thing about the spiral torpedo. The risk/reward is extreme. For every two great torpedos, you will likely fuck the third attempt up entirely.
It’s like voting Kevin Rudd into office. It might work. But there’s a good chance that the idea of something new, shiny and different is better than the reality.
The failed spiral kick looks ugly, sure. But when executed to perfection, it is a thing of beauty. Just don’t forget the science behind it.
By Dave Edwards