How Ireland were always a jump ahead

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Compared to the underground world of the scrum, the line-out is open-heart surgery, and last week Twickenham witnessed a very rare condition - England with blocked arteries. Starved of primary possession, the World Cup holders relinquished their home record and with it the Grand Slam.

Compared to the underground world of the scrum, the line-out is open-heart surgery, and last week Twickenham witnessed a very rare condition - England with blocked arteries. Starved of primary possession, the World Cup holders relinquished their home record and with it the Grand Slam.

England lost an unprecedented 11 line-outs on their throw and won only one out of 20 "off the top", grade A ball uncontaminated by the opposition. "The line-out boys have been beating themselves up about it," Clive Woodward said. Ireland had Paul O'Connell, Malcolm O'Kelly and Simon Easterby as their principal jumpers; England had Ben Kay, Steve Borthwick and Lawrence Dallaglio. It was no contest.

"The reason it went wrong was very simple," Kay said. "We didn't get our jumpers in the right place and when we did we couldn't find them. We made it very easy for Ireland." Kay was responsible for issuing the calls to the thrower, Steve Thompson, and every other team-mate in the line-out. "There are any number of variations and we used a lot less than usual to make sure we got it right," Kay said. "Perhaps people didn't quite hear the calls or they got confused. We were under pressure and there was a chain of events. We lost a lot more than ever before."

When the Lions lost the series to Australia in 2001 there were suggestions that their line-out code had been cracked by the Wallabies. Woodward takes "industrial'' espionage seriously, having changing rooms swept for bugs. Could Ireland have read Kay's lips? "I don't think so, although it's always possible," replied the Leicester lock.

In extra time in the World Cup final Thompson was spot on with the last throw of the match; last week he was taken off after 60 minutes. Borthwick, normally a middle jumper, was employed at the front and Kay called for too many long throws, which cleared everybody.

"We put Thompson in an impossible position because he had nowhere to throw the ball," Kay said. "He was put under pressure from losing a couple early on and we didn't respond. In training our drills had not been sharp and we'll sort that out. You won't see this happening again."

A funny thing has happened to the set-piece. Time was when a scrum-half would get penalised for a crooked feed. Now he gets away with an acute angle. The poor hooker, on the other hand, has to be inch perfect, especially against Ireland who have turned the line-out into an art form.

"We had one of those days when everything clicked," Eddie O'Sullivan, the Ireland coach, said. "It wasn't by accident. We did our homework. Our aim was to deny England a lot of quality possession. There are so few scrums the line-out tends to dominate proceedings and has become a launch pad." O'Sullivan and the forwards coach Niall O'Donovan spent hours studying videos of England's line-out.

"It has become a lot more scientific," O'Sullivan said. "We tried to identify not just whether the ball is going to the front, the middle or the back, but if it's lobbed or spun. There's a lot of thought and technique involved."

In the cat-and-mouse exchanges before the ball is thrown players frequently change positions in the line, which can be long or short.

"We try to locate whether their middle jumper likes to go back or come forward," O'Sullivan said. "We have three excellent jumpers, which gives us lots of options. One of the keys is that they get in the air very quickly. Basically with the props lifting you have four men to win a line-out, three to steal it. We throw to where the opposition are least successful, to places they don't like. It's also a confidence thing. When the hooker's connecting you establish a rhythm but if you lose a few you start to get jittery. The hooker is often aiming into a space as high as a double-decker bus."

When lifting was made legal it appeared the result was a foregone conclusion - the elevated catcher would tower over everybody else and that was that. "It got to the stage where there was no point in contesting the throw," O'Sullivan said. "But then we thought by trying a few things you can make life difficult for the jumper and the line-out has now become a fantastic contest again. We completely rebuilt our system. With so many different formations we have over 100 possibilities although we wouldn't use more than 30 for one game.

"Everybody analyses every-body else to death but I didn't see England's line-out as a particular weakness. If they've lost Martin Johnson we've lost Keith Wood. The fact is we've got a good enough line-out to create problems for anybody."

Comments