Irish lineout head and shoulders above the rest
March 9, 2010
Ireland's Paul O'Connell claims a lineout during his side's recent Six Nations clash with France in Paris © Getty Images
The modern-day lineout is a sanitised affair, aeons apart from the set-piece as it existed in the amateur era. For those who don't remember the old days, a viewing of the famous 1973 clash between the All Blacks and Barbarians - as well as showcasing some wonderful running rugby - emphasises the morass that was the amateur lineout.
Forwards lined up shoulder-to-shoulder and, though calls were made, the hooker's throw was very much on an 'Scramble!' basis. In such chaotic circumstances, numerous tricks were employed to try and gain an advantage over your opposing jumper because, with no lifting allowed, a half-second head start could make all the difference.
Those were also the days of the old cloth shorts and there was one second-row, well-known on the Munster club scene, who would take to the pitch with his pockets full of bits foil wrapper taken from packets of sweets. At the critical juncture, 'Willy Wonka' would flick a piece of foil into the line of vision of his opponent just before he launched himself at the throw. Admittedly a pretty basic tactic but one that always drew the eye and invariably paid dividends.
Other ruses were to stand on your opposite number's toe or tug at his shorts immediately before the throw while there were also calling tricks which could lead the opposition astray - generally taking advantage of forwards' Mensa-precluding lack of brain capacity.
A favourite tactic in this regard was for the two jumper to approach his hooker as he was readying to throw and whisper conspirationally in his ear. Whether he was reciting his two times tables or passages from Shakespeare mattered not a whit, the other team always assumed it was a conversation relating to the upcoming throw and the two jumper would then be lynched by three or four opponents - allowing the hooker to lob the ball long to the unmolested six jumper at the tail.
Then there were the calls for short lineouts. Most teams would not attempt any subterfuge in this area, merely calling "two-up" or "four-up" for two-man and four-man lineouts respectively.
One imaginative variation was to have a non-alcoholic drink call for two-man and an alcoholic drink for a four-man. The 'Seven-Up' call would cause all manner of confusion (particularly among props, furiously trying to work out how seven men could constitute a short lineout) and almost always guaranteed a free-kick for 'numbers' when the ball was delivered.
Though the choreography has altered hugely from those amateur days, brain power and intelligent use of resources remains massively significant in the battle for aerial power.
Tommy Bowe, deservedly, grabbed the headlines for his two-try turn at Twickenham and the Les Kiss-masterminded Irish defence was ultimately the difference between victory and defeat but, as it was throughout 2009, the lineout proved to be a cornerstone of the Irish performance, repeatedly disruptive on the opposition throw and security itself on its own.
Indeed, the English, wary of Ireland's excellence out of touch, only allowed the Irish six throws over the course of 80 minutes.
Gert Smal is a master tactician at the lineout and has willing students in second-rows Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan and Leo Cullen. There is real intelligence and confidence to Ireland's lineout play, smart plays are being called and then impeccably executed. As was demonstrated for Bowe's second try in Twickenham. That set move, bringing Bowe in off the right wing to take a popped pass from scrum-half Tomas O'Leary, was a bold call as Ireland chased a winning score with less than 20 minutes to go but one made on the assumption of perfect lineout ball.
And so it proved. Rory Best's delivery was inch perfect, the lifters were smooth and assured and O'Connell's transfer of the ball from high above his head straight to O'Leary's hands could not have been bettered.
Smal was coaching the South African forwards when their lineout proved a launch-pad for Rugby World Cup success in 2007. And when the world champions came to Dublin last November, Smal was waiting.
The Irish forwards were taught relevant Afrikaner words to decipher the Springbok calls and won the lineout battle conclusively, a critical factor in their victory.
Wales have selected Luke Charteris for Saturday's clash at Croke Park and the 6'9" lineout specialist will have a brief to use his height and stretch to go after O'Connell and O'Callaghan. However, that pair have seen it all before - South Africa's 6'10" second row Andries Bekker had no joy in November - while Cullen's lineout expertise waits in reserve. It is a big ask for Charteris and the other Welsh jumpers.
Perhaps a few packets of silver-foiled mints would not go amiss…
Hugh Farrelly is the rugby correspondent for the Irish Independent