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Sexton, Farrell, Halfpenny or Biggar - who should kick for the Lions?

Neil Jenkins is the kicking coach again and expects his kickers to put pressure on Beauden Barrett.

THERE AREN’T MANY areas where the Lions have a probable advantage over New Zealand for this summer’s Test series, but place-kicking is one of them.

Warren Gatland’s squad includes four world-class kickers in Johnny Sexton, Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Biggar and Owen Farrell.

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While the selection of the starting Test XV will have a big say in this, it will be intriguing to see who emerges as the first-choice place-kicker for the Lions.

England’s Farrell is most people’s favourite at present, but Halfpenny carried out this role in the 2013 Test series success over Australia, while Sexton is in superb form off the tee and Biggar has shown cojones at times in recent seasons.

Neil Jenkins is back as kicking coach for this summer’s tour – his third consecutive tour in the role – and he is a man who knows better than most about successful Lions kickers, having starred in the 1997 series against South Africa.

The former Wales international will be central to the process of deciding on the Lions’ first-choice place-kicker this summer and says it will be no easy task.

“It’s quite difficult because I was involved last time,” says Jenkins. “There were a couple of tough conversations last time and Leigh ended up doing it. He’s a world-class kicker but so is Owen, so is Johnny, so is Dan.

“We’ve got a couple of very good long-range kickers as well in Stuart Hogg and Elliot Daly, and Conor Murray’s not bad either. Conor’s doing a bit better now. So you’ve got seven goal-kickers there who could do the job.

“Depending on selection and who’s playing, I’ve got no issues really. Any one of them could step up and do the job at Test level. They’re world-class goal-kickers and they’ve been there and done it under severe pressure at the highest level.

“At this moment in time, there certainly wouldn’t be a number one.”

Based on raw percentages, Sexton was the most accurate of the four leading contenders during this year’s Six Nations, with a 100% return from his eight shots off the tee.

Leigh Halfpenny kicks a penalty

Halfpenny came in at 88.5% with 23 success from 26 shots, Farrell was at 78.1% with 25 out of 32, while Biggar did not kick for Wales.

Those raw percentages don’t tell the complete story and that’s where the excellent GoalKickers.co.za proves so useful, taking into account the difficulty of each kick – elements like distance, angle, score difference, side of the pitch and foot used – to deliver a truer rating of goal-kickers.

With those qualifiers in place, Halfpenny was the best place-kicker in this year’s Six Nations, with Sexton in fifth and Farrell in sixth. Interestingly, Paddy Jackson was ahead of Sexton, while Scotland’s Finn Russell was second and Camille Lopez of France was third.

Last time out in Australia, Sexton had hoped to be the Lions’ place-kicker as he led the team from out-half.

However, Halfpenny got his chance early in the tour and took it, meaning Sexton missed out. Some out-halves would argue that they thrive with the added responsibility of the place-kicking, the confidence gained in that area positively affecting the rest of their game.

Jenkins can see sense in that point, and agrees that there will be disappointment when it comes to the New Zealand tour.

“Johnny was outstanding four years ago and there was a tough conversation with Johnny that in the one game that Leigh would kick on the night,” says Jenkins. “Leigh was outstanding that night and it never really came around that Johnny got another chance.

“But Johnny hasn’t missed in the Six Nations just gone and he’s exceptional at what he does, incredibly accurate.

“Look, somebody’s going to be disappointed, there’s no doubting that, but you’d like to think that whoever is doing it it’s going to be best for the team and the right choice and the right person when the first Test comes along.”

Johnny Sexton

Whoever it is, the Lions expect to have a clear advantage off the tee. It seems certain that they will need tries to beat the prolific All Blacks, but Jenkins says they feel they can pressure Steve Hansen’s men in the kicking battle.

Out-half Beauden Barrett is not the most reliable kicker off the tee and this season has even seen his younger brother, Jordie, assuming the responsibilities for the Hurricanes.

While Barrett is going to ask the most demanding questions of the Lions’ defence, there is some hope that his place-kicking will not prove to be a weapon for the Kiwis.

“Is there anyone better than Beauden Barrett? In his all-round game, I’m not too sure at this moment in time,” says Jenkins. “He’s an outstanding player, that’s for sure, and he is certainly going to be one that we’re going to have to keep an eye on.

“He’s incredibly fast, sees things incredibly quickly and his kicking game – ie. the cross-field kicks, his little chips and finding space – he’s very good at.

“There’s probably a question mark over his goal-kicking and maybe we can exert some pressure in that area, in terms of with the goal-kickers we’ve got and hopefully in the Test matches they are known to be very tight, so making sure we take our chances when they come around.

“Let’s try and maybe put a bit of pressure on Beauden that way, but as a rugby player he’s one of – if not the – best in the world.”

Barrett’s kicking out of hand is excellent, as Jenkins mentions, and that extends to his restarts, an area in which the All Blacks very often thrive.

Beauden Barrett

They regularly drop short, contestable restarts just over the 10-metre line and the Lions will be working hard to negate that strength this summer. Jenkins will be overseeing the Lions’ restarts – as well as their exit strategies – and knows he has a big job on his hands in this department.

“It’s a massive part of the game. If you’ve just scored, the last thing you want to do is lose the restart and give them an attacking play in your half. Kieran Read is very good at it when he’s looking to win the tap-backs and they vary their set-ups and vary their kicks.

“Barrett and Aaron Cruden are very good at them, so it’s a massive part of the game and will be a massive part of the Test matches.

“When we play the provincial sides, I’m sure they might use an attacking restart as well so it’s something we can practice as the tour progresses and try to get ourselves in the best possible shape to nullify them in that area.”

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