Possession is the “Gold standard” of rugby. The most potent of attacks can do nothing without the ball. Security of possession from the set piece, particularly from the lineout, gives a side the stable platform from which to impose their game. The Six Nations of 2012 confirmed the lineout as the most important set piece of all. During the tournament 33% of all tries were scored from a lineout, the next highest was from turnover ball. On average there were 23 lineouts in each game, a potential source of gilt edged possession. Lineouts now concentrate the minds of all coaches, and at international level where the margins are so tight a lost lineout could mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Italy had the most successful lineout of the 2012 Six Nations, winning 85% of all their throws. The worst performance was from Ireland with a disappointing 78%. Wales won 83% of their throws but lost 11. Given the proficiency of Wales’s kicking game that adds up to 11 lost hard won opportunities. Italy had the best lineout but they lacked the attacking flair of Wales to fully capitalise on this. While Wales won sufficient possession to deservedly win the Six Nations, they will need more quality possession to utilise their attacking strengths to consistently gain victories against the Southern hemisphere powerhouses, with the forthcoming tour against the Wallabies being the first opportunity.
Culpability for any lineout loss is all too often laid at the feet of the thrower-in – largely this is unfair. The lineout of today is a fluid dynamic affair composed of many moving parts that need to synchronise in harmony. So much of it is a team within a team and needs to be regarded as such – as well as having to cope with the opposition spending many hours dissecting their opponent’s lineout creating strategies for negating its effectiveness.
Wales without doubt need to improve this facet of their play. The question is how? The nation is blessed with some high quality lineout exponents: Luke Charteris, Alun Wyn Jones, Ian Evans, Ryan Jones, and both Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric can leap high when required. In Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones Wales have two of the strongest forwards in world rugby, so what is going awry?
Throwing in is a greatly under-rated skill in rugby, only really noticed when it goes wrong. The thrower can be the most isolated and stressed player on the field called upon to be faultless at any given time of asking. Often the hooker arrives to make his throw after a lung bursting defensive effort or after a stamina sapping session of hitting multiple rucks and phases of play and is then asked to thread a rugby ball through the eye of a needle. Factor in the context of a full blooded international match, the noise and crowd it’s a wonder they can complete their task. Matthew Rees, Huw Bennett, Ken Owens and Richard Hibbard are all seasoned professionals yet they have suffered from “Lineout yips” – their technique has let them down. What Wales needs to do is to recognise the specialty of this role, and support the players as well as examine their lineout again.
The lineout captain is a relatively new phenomenon in the game and it has taken on a very high level of responsibility, if not public recognition. He has to react like any captain in the game and empathise with his group and in particular work closely with the thrower. In the midst of the turmoil of a match, select the most appropriate throw for the situation but more significantly as the player matures into role, can his thrower confidently and consistently make that particular throw? Front ball might not be the most glamorous of options, but it is the “money ball” of the game and as confidence and security grows other throws can be contemplated.
All members of the Welsh lineout have to become more aware of the “Clues” that they invariably give away: stance, position of their hands, eye contact, nods and feet movement. They must practice a more neutral approach. The thrower will be given the most scrutiny by the opposition and a grooved action achieved through practice can easily deteriorate in a competitive situation. As many live lineouts as possible would certainly help in breeding confidence amongst the players. With a more neutral stance coupled with a fluid throwing action will make the throw much harder to pick. Those eleven losses have to be forensically examined and utilised through the eyes of opponents as Wales seek to recast their approach to this vital set piece. As they travel Down Under it would be a feather in Wales’s cap if they took with them a lineout Australia had never seen.
It is no exaggeration that if Wales gets this critical part of their game working proficiently combined with the fluidity and tempo they already have, a top three place in the world will be well within their grasp.