Opinion: Do Leeds need a new goalkicker?

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Last night’s clash between Leeds Rhinos and Castleford Tigers was decided by the smallest of margins with Luke Gale’s 40th minute drop goal – which made it 25-10 – proving the difference as the Tigers won 25-24, exacting a degree of revenge for their Grand Final defeat last October.

As it goes, the Rhinos outscored the Tigers with five tries to four but, ultimately, the conversion success rate cost the hosts as much as their poor first twenty minutes – Luke Gale’s 100% kicking record for the game bettered Leeds’ Kallum Watkins who only succeeded with two of five conversion attempts. That has left many Rhinos fans claiming the club need to bring in a recognised goal kicker to ensure that the vital goals are scored – but is that right? Is Watkins that bad?

Looking at his record, perhaps not. Yes, last night wasn’t great and, in fact, this season itself he hasn’t been particularly impressive with the boot; thus far in 2018 he has a kicking percentage of 56%, scoring ten and missing eight. However, if you go back to 2017 his record is shown to be much better. A percentage of 82% for his kicking is up there with the best, missing just nine attempts of his fifty four.

While Watkins didn’t have as many attempts as some of his kicking opponents last season, his statistics read rather favourably. Considering that each of the four players he is compared to in the below table are recognised goal kickers, the fact that Leeds’ skipper is beating Danny Brough and is on par with Liam Finn and Luke Gale is rather impressive – granted, he has had far less attempts but Watkins only resumed regular goal kicking duties in the second half of last season.

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Perhaps Leeds fans’ issue then is that they have been spoilt with impressive goal kicking in the past, most notably when Kevin Sinfield was the kicker at the Headingley club. However, despite having a superb record with the boot, it didn’t start off as impressively.

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While Sinfield is regarded as the best kicker in Super League history if only in terms of consistency and longevity, a look back to the 2003 season – when he took over first choice kicking duties – his success rate was three in four. Indeed, it took him to his third season before he matched Watkins’ 82% record of last season. There were even times thereafter where he dropped below an 80% success rate. Nevertheless, it is clear that Leeds boasted one of the best goalkickers in the game and it can’t be argued that they haven’t yet properly replaced him.

While folk are suggesting that a recognised goalkicker in the ilk of Sinfield, Gale or Sneyd, the vital question must be who would that player replace in the Leeds starting thirteen? The current half back pairing of Joel Moon and Richie Myler is blossoming into a very effective one – perhaps the latter could be an alternative to Watkins and resume a role he has fulfilled in the past. The Rhinos’ squad and, indeed, their starting thirteen is strong and would be lessened by the withdrawal of any player in it. As such, it is vital that Leeds’ fans keep faith with the decisions of Brian McDermott in this area. After all, Watkins himself acknowledged his disappointment in his kicking last night but alluded to the fact that it was the first time he had a very late match winning kick attempt – something Sinfield, Gale and Sneyd will have experienced at one time or another. Plus, despite people’s lack of faith in the Leeds captain’s abilities with the boot, it didn’t stop the Rhinos winning the Grand Final last season. Throw in the fact that Watkins crossed for two of his team’s tries last night and it leaves it incredibly harsh to blame his boot for Leeds’ loss.

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