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Jonny Wilkinson, Physicist Extraordinaire

Jonny Wilkinson

On this side of The Atlantic, there is growing interest this week in Jonny Wilkinson’s balls, and more to the point how he kicks them. Wilkinson’s drop goals are testament to his keen understanding of the physics of aerodynamics, fluid mechanics, and possibly even the Bernoulli effect. Perfect fodder for a physics science project.

However, it’s not all about the shape of the ball nor the swing of the leg, according to UK research published this month. The prodigious kicking success of England rugby player Johnny Wilkinson may rely more on what he does with his arms than his legs, according to a paper published in the journal Sports Biomechanics. Scientists at Bath University analysed the kicking techniques of professional and semi-professional rugby players to see which technique is most successful.

They found that players who swing their non-kicking-side arm across their chest as they make contact with the ball are the most accurate kickers, particularly over longer distances. It could be that the increased momentum produced by this arm movement helps the kicker control the amount of rotation in their bodies so that when they kick the ball their body is facing the target for longer.

Although Wilkinson’s trademark posture in lining up for the kick is well known, it is his arm movement you should watch out for in Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final, it might just signal defeat for the Springboks. Or, maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part. Two RWC victories in a row, could it happen, could England swing it?

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