I’ve never written an article about Italy, or any Italian team, but I decided to write a piece on the team with the worst lineout record in the Six Nations last year, certain that this would be Italy.
Unfortunately, for any Italian readers, they surprisingly weren’t the worse at lineouts last year, despite being the worst at most other things.
The accolade for weakest lineout actually goes to Ireland, who won 84.6 percent of their own lineout. For some context, Wales top the table with 94.3 percent and Italy are second worst with 85.1 percent.
This is hugely surprising, given the popular opinion, and my own opinion, that the Irish lineout was a pretty solid one. Since the Six Nations they improved their success percentage to 87.5 percent in South Africa, good enough for fourth best in the Six Nations, before falling away again in November to just 79.7 percent.
To put this into some more context, in 2014 Ireland were the best team at the lineout with a success rate of 93.3 percent. Since 2014, only three teams, out of 18, have had a lineout success below 80 percent – two in 2014, one in 2015 and none in 2016.
Ireland are likely to finish in the top two in March, but why has their lineout faded at such an alarming rate and how can they stop the rot in 2017 and keep hold of this vital form of possession?
The first thing to look at, is who is to blame. It’s easy and obvious to say Rory Best, and we’ll see whether this is correct later on, but it should also be pointed out that Best was the thrower when Ireland were operating at the near historic rate of 93.3 percent success in 2014. So, it’s not as clear cut as that – let’s instead look at who was at fault for every single missed lineout in the 2016 Six Nations – bear with me on this.
The first miss in the Six Nations, the target is Devin Toner, the throw is fine but Wales get up ahead of Toner and snatch the ball back.
The second miss, the target is CJ Stander in the middle of the lineout. The throw is poor and is dying before it gets to the flanker but once again the opposition get up ahead of the Irish jumper.
Well taken lineout at the back but Ireland are adjudged to be offside and give away the penalty.
Aimed at CJ Stander at the front of the lineout. The throw is decent if a little limp and George Kruis gets up ahead to nick the ball back and prevent Ireland from applying any more pressure.
Aimed at Donnacha Ryan in the middle of the lineout. The throw is sliding towards England and Kruis gets up in front to act as a distraction but really Ryan should be making that catch and securing possession.
The penultimate miss in the Six Nations, the throw is okay but Ireland are really static and Kruis, again, just gets up in front of Toner and easily snatches the ball away.
The final miss, this one is aimed at Donnacha Ryan at the back of the lineout and it doesn’t look straight from the start. It’s fading hard towards the end and if it did make it all the way to Ryan he would be catching it around stomach height. Obviously it doesn’t get there and is stolen by a Scot who is barely off the ground.
What have we learned from this then? Well, certainly Rory Best is part of the problem – too often his throws fail to hit their intended targets with enough power to beat the opposition jumpers. But, the Irish lineout also looks sluggish compared to the opposition and failed to confuse their opposition.
If we look at three final examples in Chicago against New Zealand and at home against Australia, it’s a similar story.
This is just a drop, it’s actually a good throw from Best, which is catchable at its highest point but it can’t be taken.
Another altogether too familiar sight, a ball to the front where an opposition player who is hoisted first beats an Irish player to the ball.
Finally, we see numerous descriptions of balls being won at the front against Ireland from above.
Despite all this, as we’ve said above, Ireland were really good in 2014 with broadly the same personnel. So why has it all changed since that point? There are three examples below which go some way to describe what went well then and what is now absent.
A straightforward throw to the front but Toner is up way before Jim Hamilton and secures the ball with ease.
An absolute dart to the back of the lineout, which is in no danger of dying before it hits its target. If you compare this to some of the examples of longer throws above, you can see how much better the ball looks as it comes out of his hands in a tight spiral rather than a wobbly loop.
Final one, another shot to the front but again the Irish jumper is up ahead of his opposition and, although he’s under pressure when he takes the catch, there’s much less peril than there appears with the current Irish lineout.
We’ve seen a bunch of GIFs of lineouts not functioning well, and a few of lineouts working really well. However, the important thing to remember is that it does work the majority of the time, even if it sinks below 80 percent that’s still four times out of five that you get the ball back.
Really though, 80 percent is not that impressive anymore. If you have a success rate of 80 percent at the scrum, in the tackle, when kicking at goal and at the lineout, you are going to be some way below the very best teams.
The issue appears to be twofold and one influences the other; firstly, Rory Best isn’t throwing those darts to the back or middle of the lineout like he has been doing previously.
Secondly, the safe ball to the front of the lineout is no longer safe because the Irish are slow and predictable at putting the jumper up. The move that is present a few times above, where the potential front jumper moves out of the line and the first prop goes back to lift the second jumper, isn’t confusing anyone and only succeeds in allowing the opposition to jump in front of the Irish jumper.
In short, Ireland might well win a Six Nations with a lineout success rate of less than 80 percent, but they probably won’t, and they will be left wondering why they let one of their huge strengths degrade so quickly.