Lineouts are a bit like a magic trick — or better still, a magic show. A magic trick doesn’t work just because of what the magician does at the crucial moment; it relies on a much wider deception to get you watching one thing (or a number of things), so that while you’re distracted the magician can pull off his sleight of hand.
The more people are watching, the harder it is to pull off a trick. Pulling off a quick magic trick for one or two people is one thing, but pulling off a magic show with a number of tricks and a bigger audience is another thing all together.
One of my favourite movies about magic is The Prestige, starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. In the movie Caine’s character tells us that a magic trick comprises three parts:
- the first part is called The Pledge, in which the magician shows you something ordinary and makes you believe there’s nothing out of the ordinary about it;
- the second part is called The Turn — the magician takes that something ordinary and does something with it, such as making it disappear;
- the third part is called The Prestige, which is the hardest part, because for it to be a really good trick, where the magician made something disappear, for example, or made it appear to be something else, he has to bring it back or restore it to its original form.
Magicians use all sorts of props for magic shows, such as pretty girls, flashing lights, smoke, their outfits, and of course their wands.
Lineouts are a magic show because you’ve got to deceive eight forwards on the field who are watching your every move, and with each team having around ten lineouts on average per game you can’t keep repeating the same trick, or your audience will work out your secret and the trick won’t work any more. You can add opposition reserves and coaches to the audience members and in professional rugby (and even sometimes in club rugby) you can add in analysts who study a team’s every lineout move.
Of course there aren’t many props on the rugby field (apart from the four who hold up the scrum) so the magic of lineouts is a little harder. When I’m analysing lineouts I look at three parts, which are similar but slightly different to the three parts of a magic trick as described in The Prestige:
- Structure (The Pledge) — how many players are in the lineout, where are the jumpers standing, where is the best jumper standing, where is the space etc. The aim here is to make the lineout look quite ordinary with some obvious areas the opposition should target. So for example, if you run with a five-man lineout with a three-man pod at the front with a lifter, jumper and lifter and two other jumpers at the back of the lineout space, it looks quite ordinary and maybe even obvious that the throw is going to the front pod, so the opposition will mark up against that pod probably with their best lifters and jumper.
- Movement Speed (The Turn) — where we take that ordinary structure and do something else with it and as quickly as possible, so for example if the opposition has marked up on that front pod described above, the jumper and rear lifter in that pod can simply step aside and allow the front lifter in that pod to move all the way back to the jumper and lifter at the rear of the lineout to form a new pod. If the movement is quick enough the opposition won’t have enough time to react and the jumper in that pod will be unopposed. In that case we’ve turned something ordinary into something else ordinary but much more effective. Of course sometimes no movement across the ground can be just as effective.
- Action Speed (The Prestige) — where the trick in the lineout all comes together. In the example above, if the opposition don’t mark up on the front pod we use that pod to jump as quickly as possible and leave something ordinary exactly as it was but just make it more effective. If the opposition works out that you’re really going to throw to the rear pod and moves players back with your front lifter, you cancel that option and throw quickly to the front jumper, who doesn’t even need to be lifted. Of course where this part gets really tricky is when you run the same play over and over again with multiple options within the structure as quickly as possible so the opposition can’t react fast enogh to compete.
The keys in lineouts are therefore the starting structure, speed of movement across the ground (if any) and then speed of the action. Of course there is a fourth issue to look at in lineouts, which is that the techniques of your lifters, jumpers and thrower need to be sound so that the ball arrives at the spot where it’s supposed to be at the same time as the jumper’s hands arrive at that spot. For the purposes of this article I’m not going to cover those areas, and will assume those players can perform their roles more often than not. I’ll look at those aspects in another article.
One of the most important things about trying to defend lineouts is being able to read the opposition and cut through all the magic: working out who’s a decoy and who’s the real intended receiver, or if it’s your lineout, where the defenders are and how to avoid them.
The Wallabies had plenty of trouble with their lineouts in last week’s game against the Springboks, losing four of their twelve throws and losing another to a throw not straight (58% won). There were two other lineouts where the ball was turned over immediately after it had been won – Nathan Sharpe on a short throw at the front and Radike Samo when he was illegally upended by Rossouw. As a result, only five of the twelve lineouts (42%) produced clean ball to attack with. Add back in the winning penalty against Rossouw and that rises to 50%. Those headline numbers are of value as a snapshot of the performance but to really understand what was going on we need to dig further.
Here’s a summary of the Wallabies lineout performance against the All Blacks and Springboks in 2011:
|TN1 v Spingboks||TN3 v All Blacks||TN4 v Springboks||TN6 v All Blacks||RWC v Springboks|
|Lineouts Thrown To||11||10||7||10||12|
|Times Lost Through Not Straight Throw||0||0||0||0||1|
The performance against the Springboks last week was clearly the worst performance of 2011. One of the reasons the Wallabies struggled so much was that they were up against one of the best lineout operators in the game: Victor Matfield.
In this match the Wallabies used a four-man lineout once, a five-man lineout seven times and a seven-man lineout four times. While there were some variations thrown in they essentially used four different lineout types – two in their seven-man lineouts and two in their shorter lineouts.
The table below shows my classification by type for each lineout in the order they occurred.
|4||5 man||A||D||3||Not Straight||2|
I then looked at the success rate for each type, summarised in the next table:
Types 3 and 4 were the 7 man options and they worked well with a 100% success rate. Type 4 was the long throw to James Horwill that we saw earlier this year when the Reds played the Crusaders.
Following is the video of the Horwill long throw option and the same move used against the Crusaders earlier in the year. Why does it work? The opposition look at the fact that Horwill moves to the back of the lineout where he has no lifters with him and therefore they assume he’ll have to come forward again to lifters if he’s to be an option, so they focus on the lifters further forward and the other reason it works is that the timing is absolutely perfect. Remember, the laws say Horwill can’t cross the 15 metre line until the ball leaves the thrower’s hands. Looking at these lineouts in real time you may argue it’s very close, and you’re right, but when I slow the footage down to frame by frame (that’s 24 frames per second) the timing in both cases is spot on. That obviously took a lot of practice but it worked well in both matches.
As part of the magic show, the Wallabies showed the Springboks an over-the-back option with this first seven-man lineout, which distracted them and put them on alert in case that was used again, after which the Wallabies threw to the front on the next three occasions they used the seven-man option.
The problem for the Wallabies was in their shorter lineouts (types 1 and 2), where they won just three of eight (37%), which included the short throw to Sharpe, so these eight lineouts produced just two wins with the ball available to attack with (25%). So let’s look at what went wrong with these lineouts.
The setup for all of the shorter lineouts was essentially the same: a lifter at the back and front and the remaining members of the lineout all being jumpers grouped together in the middle.
The differences between the types were that:
- Type 1 included the front lifter stepping out of the lineout and moving back in the lineout to allow one of the first two jumpers to move all the way to the front. There were two variations within that type where in the first the jumper who came forward first could turn and come back to lift the next jumper coming forward or where in the second the jumper that came forward first could stay at the front and the front lifter who was moving back would become the lifter for the next jumper moving forward;
- Type 2 used no movement and on both occasions the throw went to jumper number three straight up from their starting position.
The order in which these two types were used is also important in the magic show. Type 1 is a front ball and type 2 a back ball so the order the Wallabies used was type 1 and then another type 1 (to get the Springboks watching the front) and then a type 2. This worked well as the first type 2 they used produced a clean opportunity for the jumper as the Springboks didn’t read it and didn’t get up to contest, however the throw wasn’t straight. Then the Wallabies went back to two more type 1s before throwing in another type 2. However, this time the Springboks read it very well and simply outjumped the Wallabies. Then the Wallabies went back to two more type 1s. Whether this pattern through the match of two type 1s followed by a type 2 was a pre-planned pattern or it just turned out that way, we have no way of knowing.
The three losses using type 1 were caused by different issues as shown in the following video:
- The first (lineout number 2) used the first variation where the second jumper comes forward, turns and lifts the front jumper. In the following clip I’ve also included an example of where this worked well (lineout number 7). The issues with lineout 2 were that when Vickerman turns to lift he’s lined up outside of Elsom and the offset causes Elsom to become unstable and overbalance towards the Springbok side compounded by an illegal hand from Rossouw. There’s little the Wallabies can do about the hand from Rossouw but the alignment is an error that should have been eliminated in practice.
- I can’t tell you which variation was used in the second (lineout number 6) and nor could Elsom or Kepu. You can see that Kepu thinks this is the first variation where Elsom is going to turn and lift Vickerman and as a result he stays out of the line and doesn’t participate. Elsom thinks it’s the second variation where he stays at the front and Kepu lifts Vickerman. As a result Vickerman only has one lifter and doesn’t get up to meet the ball. It looks like the throw might have been slightly high as well but in any case the ball sailed over the back and put the Wallabies under enormous pressure.
- The third (lineout number 10) used the second variation where Sharpe stayed at the front of the lineout and Kepu lifted Elsom. The problem with this second variation is that the opposition knows that the jumper who moved forward is no longer an option as he has no lifter in front of him (unless he gets a short ball at the front, which they still have covered anyway) and therefore they can cover the next jumper because he’s now the only real option. This is exactly what Matfield does and the Wallabies lose another lineout.
- The fourth lineout I’ve included (lineout number 11) is a slight change to the second variation described above: this time the jumper moving forward (Sharpe) does receive the short ball at the front and is easily covered.
I think this second variation the Wallabies used is too easy to attack so I hope it gets consigned to the scrap heap.
In summary the seven lineouts where the Wallabies didn’t get the ball to attack with were the result of:
- one where the throw was not straight – lineout number 4;
- two that involved illegal play by the Springboks – lineout numbers 2 and 12;
- one from confusion between the lifters and jumpers – lineout number 6;
- one where the Springboks read where the ball was going and simply jumped in front – lineout number 8; and
- two where the variation used is a poor one (in my opinion) – lineouts number 10 and 11.
The Wallabies have got some work to do to in practice this week to reduce the errors they can control.
In defence the Wallabies lineout was poor. The Springboks had 14 lineouts and won them all. The Wallabies competed reasonably well in only three lineouts (21%), didn’t compete when close to their own line (which I think was appropriate) in two lineouts (14%), failed to compete at all in four lineouts (28%) and tried to compete but got nowhere near the ball in the remaining six lineouts (37%). It didn’t matter which option the Springboks used, the Wallabies didn’t seem to be able to read them and I’m sure they’ll be disappointed with the defensive performance. They’ll certainly need to put some pressure on the All Blacks lineout this week or they’ll spend the majority of the game defending again.
Finally, if you think I’ve gone into a lot of detail for this article, imagine the analysis the Wallabies and All Blacks support staff and coaches have been doing this week reviewing footage from games over the last couple of seasons with the multiple camera angles they have access to, which we don’t. Is there anything in the Wallabies lineouts last week that the All Blacks will pick up on? Yes, but how valuable will it be? Not all that valuable, because I can’t imagine either team will run any of the same structures again this week. All you can really pick up in advance of a game is a team’s preferred options together with strengths and weaknesses of the various players – the success or failure of your defensive lineouts really comes down to the players on the field making a good, quick read and preferably getting at least one jumper up every lineout that’s not on your own try line.
Let’s see what sort of lineout performance Jim Williams and the Wallabies come up with this week.