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FEATURE – How important is the lineout?

30 January 2014

  • Rowntree, Lawes and Hartley talk lineouts with RFUtv
  • “You can’t win a game without your lineout functioning” – Hartley

Courtney Lawes spent four hours of iPad and notebook time on it last Sunday, while Dylan Hartley will use four days of the working week practising it. And as Graham Rowntree verifies, his former England colleague Ben Kay once learnt Afrikaans to try and crack the Springboks’ codes on it.

The above alone is a confirmation of the lineout’s position as a crucial factor in determining Test matches but why is it so important? RFUtv spent some time with the England trio in advance of the RBS 6 Nations opener against France in Paris on Saturday to find out.

Hooker Hartley, England’s most experienced campaigner travelling to Stade de France with 50 Test caps, outlined that the lineout assumes great significance in the spectrum of demands on the rugby field because it is the one organised aspect of the game the opposition will force you to do.

England and Northampton Saints hooker Dylan Hartley prepares to throw a lineout in training

Photo: Getty Images

“You can’t win a game without your lineout functioning,” said the 27-year-old.  “If it is weak teams will target that, put the ball off the pitch and try to turn you over there.”

An honest speaker about the game, Hartley admits that even in his early playing days in the Premiership the thought of the ball going out of play used to fill him with trepidation: “I used to dread the ball going off the pitch because my lineout was a weakness and I was likely to turn the ball over.

“Often that mindset makes you even worse at throwing the ball and it’s a downwards spiral from there. But through repetition and experience I’ve got more confident and better at it with time.”

Lawes concurs, recalling the old adage that you don’t realise how important something is until it goes wrong. The 24-year-old lock, who was in charge of dictating where his Northampton Saints colleague Hartley threw the ball during last autumn’s QBE Internationals, believes lineouts are the primary method of exerting, and conversely also relieving, pressure at the business end of the pitch.

“There’s no get out [with a lineout], you have to win it or you’re going to be in trouble,” he said.

“If you don’t have a good lineout you won’t be able to get out of your 22 or be able to put pressure on them in their 22. Say we get a penalty and kick it into their 22, if you can’t win that ball then the pressure is off them.”

England lock Courtney Lawes rises to claim a lineout against New Zealand at Twickenham

Photo: Getty Images

And when England reach those attacking positions, what is going through Lawes’ mind when he is deciding to call to the front, middle or back? The further back the ball is thrown the better the possession is for the expectant backs, but the risk of losing the ball increases incrementally the longer the ball spends in the air and the more defenders’ hands it passes over.

“It’s important to assess the situation in the game at the time and to not panic,” he said. “First and foremost you have to back yourself and the players around you. When something is glaringly not on then you can recall it or take a different option but mainly you need to do your research to know to the best of your ability what they are going to do as a defence and then plan accordingly before the game.”

Talking about the influence a defence has on lineout options, Hartley explained further: “The callers will analyse how France, for example, like to defend. Very often within a lineout you’re going to have one option open, whether it is front, middle or back, because the defence can only mark two [of the areas].

“If they’re worried about our backs playing they’ll probably take away the tail and also put a pod in the middle to force us to throw to the front. When you see a lot of movement, sometimes three types of what we call bumps, people bump in and out of the line and end up back at the tail. We do dummies to try and create space elsewhere.”

Forwards Coach Rowntree oversees strategy with the lineout callers’ group and, with time as an international unit limited, stressed the importance of drilling the moves in training that they will use in the upcoming match. Re-emphasising the impact different oppositions have on lineout play, he said: “Against South Africa a couple of years ago they gave us nearly 20 lineouts as it was a wet day and we had a young hooker throwing in – they sniffed out a weakness there – but against Wales they’ll give you six lineouts because they want to keep the ball in play.

England's Ben Kay rises to compete for a lineout against Pierre Spies of South Africa

Photo: Getty Images

“As we showed against Argentina and New Zealand we like to drive lineouts on the opposition goal line, which is a facet of our game I want us to be good at again, because historically we have been.

“Good lineout callers will look at a lot of other teams for their clubs and internationally. They’ll see which lineouts have worked and copy them, a lot of that goes on. But I’m fortunate that I’ve three or four guys who are very accomplished at calling lineouts and sharing that information with the rest of the team.”

Given the influence the opposing team has on tactics when England are attacking, the same principles apply when England are defending: dogged research and appreciation of their trends in advance of the game. With modern technology making available every lineout from every international from every conceivable angle and much calling done well out of earshot before the lineout is assembled, fabled stories such as Kay cracking codes have become a thing of the past.

Lawes adds that decisiveness in defence is key to achieving the most important aspect of defence – getting big men in the air as quickly as possible. 

“Not hesitating is really the most important thing; going for it when you have a reading of what they’re going to do.”

Photo: Getty Images

With all contestable possessions in rugby, the aim in defence is not just about winning the ball back but disrupting its flow, therein slowing presentation or affecting the quality of delivery. Rowntree credits New Zealand with causing England’s lineout the most problems in recent years and explained the choice between competing in the air or getting set to defend a drive.

“New Zealand caused us no end of trouble affecting our ball,” said the 54-Test cap prop. “They were reading our lineout very quickly and getting up in the air, which is the art to defensive lineouts, getting up there quickly.

“You’ll get a feel for what [type of] game the opposition want to play. France like to drive a lot, so we need to be ready for that, you play South Africa and you need to be ready for them driving but also they like to break out of drives very quickly so you need to be able to defend that drive but get out quickly as well.

“Essentially you don’t want the opposition to have free ball, we want to challenge the opposition lineout but we don’t want to get tangled up in that for too long.”

England’s blend of homework, trust, decisiveness and efficiency in training combine for a proficient lineout – good enough to directly produce two of the team's seven tries during the recent autumn matches. And with the vast majority of international tries coming within the first three phases from turnover or set-piece ball, attacking from and defending against lineout ball could make the difference in England’s assault on the RBS 6 Nations title.