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Last Sunday with a conversion on the edge of Northampton’s 22, on the right roughly halfway between the middle of the pitch and the touchline, Rhys Priestland became the holder of an impressive record.
The Bath and former Wales No 10 went into Sunday’s fixture one behind the record of 28 successful consecutive kicks in the Gallagher Premiership, held jointly by Mark van Gisbergen of Wasps and a certain Jonny Wilkinson from his time at Newcastle Falcons. Having drawn level with Van Gisbergen and Wilkinson through a penalty, the outright record rested on Priestland’s conversion of Zach Mercer’s try. If he was nervous it didn’t show, splitting the posts.
The Bath fly-half struck a further conversion and two more penalties to take the record to 32 successful kicks and counting, as Bath completed an impressive comeback from 19-3 down to win at Franklin’s Gardens. Priestland hasn’t missed a kick in the Premiership since November 21.
“A lot of games I was involved in at the start of my career came down to me missing kicks and I found that quite tough to take and it’s quite pleasing now that, more often than not, if I am involved in a game and my kicking does have an influence on the result, it usually has a positive effect on it,” Priestland explains.
“Kicking hasn’t come easy to me; it is something I have worked hard on and I am just glad to be able to help the team out the last two weeks.”
Taking the record was all the more satisfying having been on a similar hot streak a couple of years ago, only for Aled Brew to leave Priestland with a tricky touchline conversion. In fairness, Brew had a decent excuse.
“Brewy (Aled Brew) ended up scoring a try but he didn’t put the ball down near the posts, he put it down as soon as he’d crossed the line, and I remember losing my rag with him on the field. I knew I was on a decent record then. I found out later that he’d broken his arm, so I felt a little bit bad for shouting at him and I ended up missing that kick,” remembers Priestland.
“This time around, I had no idea. Someone mentioned it to me after the Gloucester game, I think they put the stat up on TV, and I had people messaging me saying I needed one more to draw the record.”
Priestland’s maturation as a placekicker, given he’s now 34, has allowed him to look back on the times where he found the whole process a struggle. Two moments stick out in his evolution, the first being a piece of advice from Olly Barkley, the Premiership’s sixth-highest points scorer of all time, which seems fitting given Barkley spent over 10 seasons with Bath before linking up with Priestland at Scarlets for a season, a year before Priestland moved to The Rec.
“To be honest, when I was younger I probably kicked too much. I always had the mindset that you had to practice to get good and it got quite stressful about kicking and I’d keep kicking and kicking and my knee would be sore.
“I’d maybe kick 15 kicks after training and if I didn’t kick well I’d end up kicking more sometimes, just to make sure I’d finish with three on the bounce or something like that. I learned quite a bit from Olly Barkley when he came down to the Scarlets. He was watching me kick after training one time, I finished on the left touchline, I missed three or four on the bounce, he could see me getting worked up. I kept kicking and kicking, it kept getting worse.
“Olly just came up to me and said "you've got to relax a bit here, it's OK to finish on a miss or go finish in front of the posts if you feel you need to finish on a kick you've had". That's something I've really taken on board. Sometimes you just don't kick well. It's about being able to park, coming back the next and focussing on your process. More often than not if you do that the outcome will take care of itself.”
The other pivotal moment turned out to be a happy accident. Priestland returned to the Scarlets from Wales training during a fallow week, but without a key piece of equipment; his kicking tee.
“I used to kick off a low tee, to be honest I don't know why. I kicked one or two nice balls off it and thought 'this is the tee for me'. I used to stand in front of a kick and be so worried about the outcome,” Priestland recalls.
“We had a player at the Scarlets called Frazier Climo. After training I borrowed his kicking tee and instantly felt a lot more comfortable kicking off it. I went back to the Welsh squad and told [kicking coach] Neil Jenkins I was going to change my tee, and he wasn't too happy because it was in the middle of the season. It was my last year at the Scarlets and since then kicking off a higher tee I've felt loads more comfortable.
“That's one thing I always tell a youngster, try and experiment and find out what's good for you. Just because you've got one tee don't think you have to stick with that. I wish I had changed a lot earlier in my career and think it would have made a lot of difference.”
While there has been valuable input throughout his career from Jenkins, Mark Tainton, Dai Flanagan and also Darren Edwards, now in his mid-30s Priestland is practically self-taught.
“Kicking can be quite an individual thing. It's just me up on a field. Thankfully I've found something which works for me now.”
He will take his technique back over the Welsh border this summer, signing to join the newly rebranded Cardiff Rugby, no longer the Blues, after six years with Bath.
“It’s an exciting challenge and I know a few of the coaches as well and they are all pretty excited about what the future holds for Cardiff rugby now. It’s nice having Peely (Dwayne Peel) going back there as well. I played with him a bit when I first started and he’s done exceptionally well at Ulster and I am looking forward to learning off him as well.”
“I’m excited. Looking at that Blues squad, they have got a lot of young talent there, quite similar if you look at the age profile of the Bath squad. I am looking forward to going back and, hopefully, I’ll be able to work with a lot of good youngsters there and if I can pass on any wisdom, like I have tried to do here, then that’s great.” For now though, Priestland will attempt to keep his Premiership record ticking over, with the next opportunity coming against Exeter Chiefs on Saturday.