Anatomy of a Lineout

If you want to take on a side like Toulon, you have to take shortcuts anywhere you can find them.

They’re big, they’re athletic, they’re gain line monsters – and they wanted to get their colossal back line into one on one confrontations with ours. As brave as our back line were in this game, there would be only so many straight on tackles they could be expected to make against the likes of Nonu, Bastareaud, Radradra, Tuisova, Fekitoa,

I wrote before the game that the lineout would be the key area of defence for Munster and it would prove to be the key frontier in stopping Toulon from leveraging their physical advantage in this contest. It wouldn’t be enough on its own – not by a long shot – but when you ally Munster’s technical superiority in the lineout with the grit, tenacity and defensive prowess shown by our backline, you have the blueprint for the defiance shown over 80 bruising minutes on Saturday.

Munster’s job in the lineout was two-pronged;

  1. Prevent Toulon from having easy access off the top of the lineout from the middle on back.
  2. Prevent Toulon from getting dominant numbers from their maul setups.

The first point would be crucial in preventing this kind of isolating punishment off the lineout.

I’ve simplified this layout to illustrate what I’m talking about. If Toulon found regular possession off the top of their lineout in a position where they could stretch out Munster’s backline, the individual collisions would begin to tell sooner or later.

You might stop Nonu and Bastareaud on one or two of these carries (or four, or five) but eventually, size will out and physics will win – it always does in the end.

The second point – preventing Toulon’s maul from narrowing our numbers – was an extension of the first point. Sure, you don’t want to give away massive metres or penalties to the Toulon maul, but preventing them from creating one on one moments was also hugely important.

To do that, Munster would need to deny Toulon a platform to build momentum and isolate our midfield defenders.

Let’s have a look at how Munster managed that.

Lineout 1

The first Toulon lineout couldn’t have happened in a more dangerous place from a Munster perspective – on the 5m line.

I think what Toulon wanted to do here was “defy expectations” – something they do quite a bit. Munster will have been expecting a big maul set here, so I think Toulon were looking to defy this expectation and tap this ball down to Isa or Guirado to attack the narrow side.

That doesn’t change Munster’s job.

O’Mahony is standing opposite the gap in Toulon’s line. The “pod” at the front doesn’t have two lift elements (Friesa is standing with Isa with Escande at the front) so O’Mahony can deduce that if there is to be a jumper, it’ll come from the space in front of him.

This is Toulon’s first lineout throw so, in context, O’Mahony will know that they’ll go for security here rather than go to the tail. That leaves two targets – Attwood in the middle or Kruger/Isa at the front.

Given the spacing and the context, O’Mahony can make an educated guess where this is going. All he needs is the timing, which he gets from Kruger’s movement pre-jump.

That’s O’Mahony’s cue to begin the race into the air – a race that O’Mahony usually wins.

Assisted by a superb lift from Kleyn and Stander, O’Mahony gets a strong hand to Guirado’s throw and bangs it back on the Munster side. Look at Isa’s line off the front – he’s angling for a tap down – and Guirado’s flat support line doesn’t look like a man joining the back of a maul.

This was a vital steal from O’Mahony and, like most things in this game, it planted a seed of doubt in Toulon for the next throw.

Lineout 2

The next lineout took place just inside the Munster 22. From a Toulon perspective, they’ll have needed wanted solidity on this throw given the events that transpired on the last one. That means ball to the front and a maul.

You can see that O’Mahony is patrolling the same area but Vermuelen’s decoy line takes out Killer as a lifting option, so Munster settle with our first defensive maul set of the day.

If you’ve read my article on The Grind from the Leicester performance in Welford Road, you’ll have an idea of what Munster’s aims are once the ball hits the deck at the front.

The same four-man unit takes on the Toulon starting six when the ball hits the desk. Billy Holland, Peter O’Mahony, Jean Kleyn and Stephen Archer dig in against the Toulon shove with good power positions. The key for Munster in this instance is keeping men over until the very last minute. When Toulon get a bit of momentum (and add the remaining two forwards) Kilcoyne and Marshall join the counter-shove.

Toulon have to work hard to get momentum but they get it in the end with an 8 on 6 shove. When the maul stops, you can get a stark illustration of why Munster don’t commit those extra numbers.

Stander and O’Donoghue stuff Isa’s breakaway fairly comprehensively. Pay attention to the direction Munster take this maul; the touchline shove takes away the short side breakaway option and draws that forward collision or a higher risk wide pass that we have comfortable numbers for.

Lineout 3

Toulon’s third lineout followed a similar pattern to the previous lineout but ended with a subtle Munster win.

Here’s the key picture after Toulon set their maul;

Five Munster counter maulers are taking on all eight of Toulon’s forwards. Munster have Kilcoyne, O’Donoghue and Marshall standing off. Toulon look to get good momentum, but check out the full playthrough to see what actually happened;

Did you see O’Mahony drilling through onto Guirado? That splits the Toulon maul in half and forces the ball carrier to breakaway into Kilcoyne.

It’s a subtle moment but the packs would have known the score here – eight on five and Munster still split the Toulon maul handily enough on landing.

Lineout 4

On the previous three lineouts, the one consistent aspect of Munster’s defence has been the presence of Peter O’Mahony patrolling the front.

O’Mahony’s ability at the front of the lineout (along with his ability to spear through the middle of mauls) will have played on Toulon’s mind and after the last two mauls ended poorly, they wanted to change the landing position and give themselves some short side running options.

There’s no scrumhalf here, so we can assume that this was an attempt to get a maul set at the tail.

Here’s how it looked prior to the throw.

All the movement in the yellow box at the front half of the lineout is to feint O’Mahony away from the throw but Toulon’s deception is slack enough here, in my opinion. There are no feinted lifting pods at the front, so that will paint a clear enough picture to the lifting pod of Holland, Kleyn and Archer – this one is probably going to the tail.

They don’t have to know who the target is to disrupt the ball – just where.

The lateness of Toulon’s setup at the tail – Lakafia stepping in at last minute on Kruger – means that this becomes another race into the air and Billy Holland is no slouch in that department. Holland gets a good hand to this one but Munster can’t quite reclaim it.

Even without regaining possession here, Munster will have learned a lot about Toulon’s patterns based on the last four throws – and what they do under pressure. The O’Mahony factor is already beginning to play a part in their decision making.

Lineout 5

At this point, Toulon will have been getting into serious discussions on their lineout takes. It’s still early enough in the game that you can “get one back”, so sometimes that can mean repeating a lineout call or maul set up to make a statement on the previous failures.

Toulon (mostly) repeated their structure and movements from their first lineout. Kruger lined up behind Attwood (like the first time), ran past him (like the first time) and had O’Mahony nab it off him – just like the first time.

At this point, Toulon were going to have to come up with something else. Of their five initial lineouts, none could be considered clean, positive outcomes directly from the set piece. They didn’t produce any clean runners, they didn’t win any dominant maul territory and every one that Munster competed aerially for had been touched.

Lineout 6

At this point, Toulon had to circumvent O’Mahony somehow – he’s stolen two and split one maul that landed in his lane. Sometimes that means planting your feet, loading your prop lifters and going for a big play to the tail.

It’s an overthrow – something that Guirado is prone to. But we knew this.

If we can squeeze Guirado’s throw – he’s prone to overthrows, especially when Toulon want to throw to the tail for their prefered maul position – we can take away a lot of Toulon’s dynamism off the lineout.

Again – Toulon’s construction is obvious here. Atwood is the lone man at the front and both of Toulon’s props are in the back half of the lineout. Sure, they could be going for a 1-2 play between Guirado and Attwood, but that’s unlikely given what Munster will have known about both men’s tendencies.

Holland had this lineout read like a book from the minute Guirado did that “step whip” that he does when he’s going long. I think this was going to be a tap down for Escande, but Guirado whipped it clean over the top for Keatley to intercept.

Lineout 7

One minute later, Toulon would have another throw. It did not go well.

This is a blown throw, plain and simple. The initial throw call was to Vermeulen – I think, based on the elements they duplicated on the next throw – but Kruger and Friesa seemed to forget their lift patterns. That can mean anything but in a game like this, at this level, it usually means a little bit of panic is setting in.

Lineout 8

Eight lineouts in and Toulon finally got the clean ball off the top that they’d been looking for. O’Mahony’s presence at the front forced Guirado to add a bit of shape to the ball – which slowed the flight – but Vermuelen’s take was good, as was the drop to Escande.

But look at how quickly Munster react? Stander is off the back into Escande’s breaking line before the ball hits his hands and O’Donoghue/Scannell get a good stop on Nonu before forcing a spill from Friesa on the next phase.

Lineout 9

Toulon’s first lineout of the second half signalled the end for Friesa and Kruger, who were fished off when Munster coughed up a penalty for holding on. That’s no surprise – they were the two men directly opposite O’Mahony at the front of the lineout.

Chiocci and Taofifenua are given the responsibility to seal out O’Mahony first up and they certainly claim the ball but look at the aftermath.

Kleyn and Holland get right in over the top on Attwood and Taofifenua and that creates an opening for O’Mahony to pincer the ball carrier.

Kleyn, Holland and Archer are attacking the infield side and O’Mahony is spiking the ball carrier so Toulon can’t surge around the corner.

By the time Vermeulen can clean O’Mahony away, Kleyn has locked onto the ball carrier and the Toulon maul is sacked a few seconds later.

And the other point? This was another four on seven “win” for Munster. Toulon made small ground, used more energy and were left numbers down on the slow ball phase that came after.

Lineout 10

Toulon try to go to the front again and – well, you know how this one goes.

Toulon seemed to take confidence from the last lineout and maul, even though the only “win” was the possession they retained.

Chiocci’s sink in the lift gives Kilcoyne and O’Mahony all the cues they need to make this a race into the air.

When O’Mahony gets this kind of advance notice at the front, he turns an 80/20 option for the throwing team into a 60/40 or better.

Lineout 11

This one is pretty remarkable.

A standard ball to Vermeulen gets fumbled into a messy situation cleaned up by Van Der Merwe. Is this another example of Toulon nerves? No – O’Mahony got to this one too. It didn’t matter that O’Mahony was feinted into the air by Attwood when Guirado threw the ball in because the Munster captain was able to stall at the top of his lift and flick the ball off Vermeulen’s line.

It’s enough to disrupt Toulon yet again.

Toulon’s last lineout of the game – four minutes after this one – was their only purely positive outcome of the game when they won a 3-point penalty.

Munster’s work on the defensive side of the throw took away a lot of Toulon’s strike running options off the lineout. That narrowed Toulon’s phase play, which allowed Munster to negate the impact of Toulon’s massive backline and prevent them generating the one on ones they wanted.

This lineout masterclass was one part of a superb defensive performance, which I’ll cover in another GIF Room this week.