The Line-Out: The importance of the set play that led to England's stunning defeat

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The Independent Online

The line-out is so simple, in theory. One man, the hooker, having practised and rehearsed until he can do it blindfold, throws to a pre-arranged spot up his team's line, where one of his colleagues is hoisted by two others and clings to the ball, before feeding his scrum-half. It always works in theory.

In practice, even after months or years of practice and selfless dedication, if it can go wrong it will. And on Saturday it went badly, catastrophically wrong for England. A few short months ago when Martin Johnson raised the World Cup aloft in Sydney, they had one of the best line-out operations in the rugby universe. Not any more. Not after the beating-up they received from the Irish, Messrs Paul O'Connell and Malcolm O'Kelly in particular.

The Ireland coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, had pulled one of the oldest stunts in the sporting game, dumping O'Kelly, a veteran of more than 60 caps, on to the bench for the previous match against Wales. That was the proverbial kick up the backside and it worked. After making a big impact at the Millennium Stadium a fortnight ago as a replacement, O'Kelly was reinstated in the starting line-up against England and proceeded to cause mayhem.

"Mal had a superb game today," O'Sullivan said of the 29-year-old lock. "Being dropped left him shell-shocked. Players can react in two ways to that.

"The England line-out has been world-class, but we had done our homework and caused all sorts of problems."

The disruption - England lost the first two line-outs and 11 in all on their throw - and ultimate destruction of England's main source of quality possession spread ever outwards, affecting the rest of the England game and their game-plan.

If O'Connell or O'Kelly was not thieving the ball from under the noses of Ben Kay or Steve Borthwick, then the hooker Steve Thompson overthrew, and the Ireland flanker Simon Easterby swept up. Inevitably, the line-out calls became afflicted with panic and confusion.

The England lock Borthwick was a chastened soul afterwards. "You need quality set-piece possession to get your game going. Without it you have no flow, no pattern. Today our line-out let us down. And because of that we found ourselves in the wrong areas of the field."

Borthwick insisted that England never gave up: "We did talk among ourselves in an effort to sort things out, but while you need interaction, you can't have too much of it. If you have everyone chipping in, the situation becomes a nightmare." It was most definitely that. And more.

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