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  • Writer's pictureBruin Sports Analytics

The Phasing Out of the Drop Goal

By: Brayden Yee

Jonny Wilkinson famously kicked this drop goal to win the 2003 Rugby World Cup, which remains the only one won by a northern hemisphere team
Source: The Guardian


The sport of Rugby has evolved over the years, with one of the methods to scoring largely falling out of favor in recent times. Similar to American Football, there are 3 main ways of scoring. Tries are similar to touchdowns, though they only score 5 points, where the player has to make it across the “try line” and ground the ball. Conversions after tries are similar to the ones seen in football after a touchdown, with the differences being that they are 2 points, and are taken 22 yards away from where the ball was grounded. This means that if the ball was grounded at the edge of the try zone, the conversion is also going to be taken towards the edge of the field. Lastly, there is the penalty goal, which is similar to the field goal in Football, which is taken by a team if they get a penalty. A penalty goal is taken at the point of the penalty, and is worth 3 points if made. The drop goal is the last way to score, and is most similar to the field goal as well, though the player has to kick the ball while play is still going due to Rugby’s mechanic of continuous play. For example, a player could pass the ball to another player, who would then kick the ball into the posts to score a 3 point drop goal.

Throughout the years, the drop goal has dropped significantly in popularity. Notably, the 1995 and the 2003 Rugby World Cup finals were won with drop goals being the difference in points. Compared to the 2003 edition however, there has never been a Rugby World Cup with a greater number of drop goals made. There are many variables that can be potentially related to the sharp decline, which will be displayed in graphs below.


The data collected for analysis were obtained via the official World Rugby Statistical Reports from 2015 and 2019 in addition to the 2023 Rugby World Cup Stats Centre. The data is specifically only from Rugby World Cup’s since teams will often employ their best strategies for the competition.

As it can be seen in the graph above, there is a clear indication that the drop goal has declined in popularity over time. Similar to American Football, a drop goal can be taken as a way to put the game to a two possession differential, so why would the drop goal be declining in popularity despite many games still remaining tight on points?

One possible reason for the decrease in popularity of the drop goal was that penalties conceded allowed teams to make alternative attacking plays aside from a drop goal. When a penalty is given, a team can choose to take a penalty goal attempt or a line out attempt. A line out is similar to a throw-in in Soccer, where a player throws the ball into play for the teams to contest. Usually, a line-out as a result of a penalty will be an attacking play to attempt to score a try. These two methods of racking up points is a reason to deter a team from attempting a drop kick. Penalty goals are usually easier than drop kicks, and tries score more points.

Though there is a moderate correlation between the drop goals made and the amount of penalties conceded per game on average, there isn’t quite enough evidence to say that penalties alone are a determining factor for why the drop goal has decreased in usage.

Another possible reason that is associated with penalties is the amount of cards given, as cards are also penalties. Similar to Soccer, yellow and red cards exist due to player infractions, and the team is punished when receiving a card. A yellow card sends the offending player off the field (the sin bin) for 10 minutes, while a red card sends the player off for the remainder of the game. During the time off, the team cannot play at full capacity, always playing with one man down. When a team receives a card, it means that the other team can be more involved in an attacking play or a penalty goal.

As seen in the graph’s above, there is an inverse relationship between the amount of drop goals made, and the number of cards being given. There is also a stronger relationship between the two variables. The increase in cards can be explained with the changing of rules to make the sport safer. This includes rules about head contact, which commonly results in a player being sent off. This is the most probable reason for why the number of drop goals has decreased in Rugby World Cup games, as a card will deter the attacking team from kicking a drop goal. If one team has a player advantage, they are more likely to go for an attacking play, to score a try, instead of attempting a drop goal.

In addition to the teams getting a player advantage when the player is sent to the sin bin, the team with the disadvantage will have to make up for the deficit by using a greater amount of energy defending. This results in a team being much more tired as a collective when they are back up to a full team. As a result, the opposing team will use this to their advantage, knowing that the other team is more tired, resulting in more attacking plays as opposed to drop goals.


The drop goal has been a part of the sport of Rugby since its inception, however, it has seen a decline in popularity over the last few decades. The decline can be attributed to the increase in cards given, resulting in more attacking plays since a team would want to capitalize when their opposition is a man down. The drop goal still sees its uses however, with teams often attempting to kick one to put their opponent out of reach even if they score a try. The decline may result in a positive change however, as the increased prominence of attacking plays are usually seen as being more entertaining to viewers of the sport.


2015 World Rugby Statistical Report



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