Analysis: Sale’s lineout woes

Date published: September 13 2017

Our analyst Sam Larner returns this week and his focus centres on a dismal night at the office for Sale Sharks at the lineout last Friday.

Throwing a ball into a lineout is a really difficult skill. Grab a ball and try throwing it to a dot, 11ft up a wall, five metres away from where you’re stood; that’s an easy throw to the front, and the dot is static, and there’s nobody else trying to steal the ball as you throw it in. I recently had cause to do this at a BBQ, when we’d passed and kicked the ball enough. Despite doing it far more than you would expect, by the end, the ball was just fluttering out and there was no consistency.

So, we can agree that throwing a rugby ball into a lineout is hard, but it’s also a skill that you should have mastered by the time you end up on national TV doing it. Unfortunately, nobody had told Sale Sharks about this last Friday as they took on Newcastle. Geographically speaking, Sale are my home team, taken from where I grew up, so as I was visiting for the weekend I took my parents to the post-apocalyptic environs of the AJ Bell for a game, which turned out to be, one of the most atrocious games of rugby I have ever seen.

There was one point of interest though, Sale had 24 lineouts during the game, a stunningly high number anyway, and lost 10 of them. To put that into perspective, England lost three lineouts in the entire 2017 Six Nations, Scotland lost six during their five games. Basically, Sale were dreadful.

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Cameron Neild is not purely a hooker and that shows on the first throw. All of the steps leading up to the throw are good, Josh Strauss gets up high and the throw and the jump are in time. Unfortunately, the ball is just overthrown and Sale are 0 from 1.

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With a lost first throw, and Neild’s inexperience, Sale really simplified the next throw. Strauss is again the target, but he’s completely stationary and the Falcons almost snatch this one as well. You could argue that even this throw is lucky to be successful because it’s not really straight, the simplified lineout means there’s less to go wrong but there’s also more pressure on the fundamentals of the lineout.

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After keeping hold of the ball in the second lineout, Sale again called something massively complicated. Despite all the movement, and the need to throw the ball further back in the lineout, the timing is actually fine. But, Neild just launches it straight out the back of the lineout, and although Newcastle don’t manage to get a man up at the lineout, they still turnover the ball.

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Sale are now 2 from 4 and to prevent the lineout taking on anymore water, they revert to another really simple one. Strauss at the front, beating the Falcons purely on timing. Yes it goes awry a bit towards the end but we’re at 60%, keep chugging away like this and that’s not a terrible performance.

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The Sale lineout has just learnt to walk, but they enter themselves into a half marathon with this next lineout. It’s not as complicated as the third lineout, but there’s still movement and although the timing has been okay, it’s off in this case and Newcastle get up ahead of Strauss and steal the ball in the air for the first time.

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Sale have learnt that simple is better, and at various points so far in the game, both the timing and throwing have clicked. But, although the timing is good, the throw is sluggish and Newcastle can get up ahead and snatch the ball again. Now, although the throw isn’t great, one of the other reasons why this doesn’t work is that the lifters are very slow to get Strauss into the air. If you just ignore the throw in the clip above, it’s very hard to work out which of the two teams know when the ball is coming in and which are reacting to the opposition lifters.

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See the above two explanations. Yes, the throw isn’t great, a little flighty and wobbly, but even throwing further into the lineout isn’t enough to shove the Falcons off the scent. They are straight up, again ahead of the Sale lineout, and it’s another easy steal. When it’s your own lineout, it shouldn’t really be a 50/50 call like these examples are showing.

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Neild was removed after 23 minutes for a blood substitution, before being subbed off at the start of the second half. He did improve a little when he came back on, but as you can see from the above clip, the lineouts that were won were still high risk and won under huge pressure.

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Marc Jones replaced Neild and you can see an immediate difference. This throw to the front is identical to some of the lineouts we’ve seen above, but there’s no real competition with this throw, because it reaches the target so much quicker and therefore benefits the Sharks.

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Jones’ strength of throw also allowed Sale to switch up which receiver they hit. In the above clip, they go to the back and this immediately creates an attacking opportunity, something that wasn’t present earlier in the half when the throws were either missing their target completely or being snaffled at the line.

Conclusion

Sale actually ended up with three people throwing the ball in, Jones was sin binned towards the end of the game and blindside flanker Jono Ross was drafted in to close it out. Cameron Neild will shoulder a lot of the blame for the terrible performance on Friday night, but it’s certainly not all his fault. His throws weren’t accurate or fast enough to consistently win the ball back and that put huge pressure on the rest of the lineout. There was also obviously an improvement when Marc Jones came on, which suggests that the fault lay largely with the starting hooker. However, the Sale lifters were sluggish and the very complicated opening lineouts weren’t conducive to making Neild’s life easy and it was clear to see that as they then finally simplified what he was asked to do, it exposed his throwing deficiencies.

Despite all this, Sale came close to the win. But with a malfunctioning lineout they were always going to struggle to take advantage of their possession advantage. This is something that they need to fix urgently if they are going to make progress in the league and back up the hefty spending they did in the summer.

by Sam Larner

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