The Rugby World Cup 2011 kicks off in New Zealand in just over 3 weeks. Ireland played against Scotland last weekend and France yesterday. So, what have we learned? More importantly, what have the Irish coaching staff learned?
After losing against Scotland, Kidney made 8 changes to his starting side. Keep in mind that every player in the squad is desperate to get some game time and to prove they deserve to be on the plane to New Zealand. These games are always tricky for individual players. You are so desperate to play well that you can put too much pressure on yourself. Minor problems can manifest themselves until they become huge issues. This happened yesterday to Ireland’s lineouts. If ever there was proof needed that lineouts are of vital importance to winning or losing a game, yesterday was it. For a number of reasons Rory Best’s throws were not finding their intended targets consistently and this played a huge part in the outcome of the game.
For the second week in a row, Leo Cullen captained the Irish rugby team. Having played on the same team as Leo for Leinster and Leicester Tigers, I believe there are few better pack leaders and lineout callers than him. Cullen is second to none at spotting the hole in opposition’s lineout defence and calling appropriate lineouts to expose those holes. He has intelligence and communicates the calls very clearly. As a hooker, I was always full of confidence knowing that Leo was in charge of the lineouts and making the calls. I have no doubt that Cullen himself will be very disappointed with how Ireland’s lineout plays went yesterday.
There are many facets to lineout play. The pack leader must spot where the defence is weak and call accordingly. The lifters must ensure that they lock their arms out at full extension, lifting the jumpers to their maximum height. Hookers must throw the ball accurately while under pressure from the opposition jumpers. Unless all of these components are working in harmony, the chances are, the lineout will be lost. The importance of securing lineout ball cannot be overstated. It is from lineouts that backs can launch attacks and commence building the phases. Starving teams of their lineout ball is a very effective way to nulify their attack. This is precisely what happened in yesterday’s game.
Best and Cullen are both seasoned professional rugby players. They have played rugby at the top level for years and performed consistently throughout their careers. Their ability cannot be called into question. Over the past few years’ Ireland’s lineouts have been very accurate and consistent. As a team, they have worked hard to ensure that they can rely on their lineout possession. They have recognized the importance of obtaining quality ball from their set piece. So, with this in mind, what was the problem yesterday?
Hookers hate throwing crooked lineouts. It is a horrible feeling knowing all eyes are you because you made a mistake. It can play over and over on your mind and distract you from the rest of your game. The frustration of throwing one crooked throw can lead to a hookers’ throws falling to pieces. Along with place kicking, it is a specialist skill performed by an individual within the team. Kickers are judged on how many points they kick and hookers are judged on how many lineout throws reach their intended target. Pressure applied by opposition lineout jumpers competing for the ball often causes hookers to throw crooked balls. Best was penalized for a crooked throw yesterday but that wasn’t the extent of Ireland’s woes.
France have obviously worked hard on their defensive lineouts. Consistently they ensured they had two defensive pods competing for Ireland’s lineout throws. Every time Best (and later Flannery) threw into Ireland’s lineout, they had to navigate the ball between two outstretched French jumpers. The more accurate the throw must be, the more pressure the hooker comes under. I am a big advocate of competing for the opposition’s lineouts. Cutting the opposing team’s possession off at the source saves a lot of energy and obviously maintaing possession of the ball, wins games. I was dismayed by the lack of competition by Ireland during France’s lineouts. Very little meaningful pressure was applied to the French lineout. This guaranteed France easy possession of the ball. In turn, this allowed them to create a lot more attack phases then Ireland. Olivier Magne was appointed as the French lineout coach recently. This is an area they have been working on and it showed yesterday. They could have a very effective defensive lineout come World Cup time.
Many players on both sides yesterday were playing their first game of the season yesterday, added to this was the heat. It was reportedly 30 degrees celsius at 7pm in Bordeaux yesterday. Playing your first game of the season is tough but playing your first game of the season in those conditions is extremely energy draining. Hopefully these factors are to blame for the sub par lineout lifting by Ireland. On more then one occassian, Ireland’s lifters were slow to react to their jumper. If a lineout jumper is not lifted properly by his lifters he will not be able to get to the ball. Hookers throw the ball to an imaginary target “zone” and rely on the jumper to get to the ball. In order to get to where the ball is thrown, the jumper must ensure his two lifters give him their maximum lift every time. This was not the case yesterday.
It should be noted that Paul O’Connell’s appearance early in the second half made a big difference to Ireland’s lineouts. O’Connell’s presence undoubtedly has a big impact on his team mates. He is a true warrior and will play an integural part in Ireland’s World Cup campaign. I would like to see Cullen and O’Connell play in the second row together. Rarely have the two players been on the same team and I believe they could be our best second row partnership.
Next week, Ireland are at home to France in another World Cup warm up game. Ireland will spend a lot of time on their lineouts during training the week. They are aware that their lineouts need to improve and they will address this. Coach Declan Kidney has stressed that the results of these warm up games are not important. He is right. However, Ireland have played two games and lost two games. Winning is a habit and Ireland need to get into that habit next weekend.