Rule The Sky, Control The Floor

A lot of the talk in the week prior to Ireland’s Grand Slam win in Twickenham was focused on the breakdown.

Would England be able to react to the area of the game that had plagued them all Championship? Could Ireland match Scotland’s work at the breakdown? The answers to these questions were quite simple. Yes, England could react to the area of the game that had plagued them. No, Ireland could not match Scotland’s work at the breakdown. England had three jackal penalties on the floor compared to Ireland’s two but, ultimately, this was a non-factor in the result.

The real area of contention, in my opinion, was the lineout. It was here that Ireland defanged England’s rejigged midfield selection through a mixture of defensive marking, positional obstruction and elite maul defence.

To get an idea of why this was such an important facet of the game, you have to put yourself in the mind of what England wanted to do with their lineout possession and why spoiling this aspect of their possession was so important.

England selected Ben Te’o and Jamie Joseph in their midfield for a reason – to increase their ability to attack directly in phase play but, almost more importantly, off the set-piece. You don’t drop Ford to then play a wide-channel game unsuited to the advantages that having Farrell and Te’o offer you at 10 and 12. Farrell is an excellent passer of the ball but his running game in tight channels has to be respected. Leavy on Ford on a surge ball doesn’t bear thinking about from George Ford’s point of view but Leavy on Farrell isn’t as clear-cut – once you understand the difference in those two scenarios, you’ll understand why the lineout was such a key area in this contest.

If England could get reliable possession off the lineout, they opened up a number of favourable scenarios – Sexton defending Te’o/Haskell on the charge or Ringrose and Earls facing strike runners like Joseph, May or Watson in static defensive positions.

But there was a problem. To get that ball, England would have to navigate the best drilled defensive lineout in the game with only two elite jumping options. Without Courtney Lawes, England had a throwing outlet problem and, to visualise this, you need to imagine the lineout as a shell game.

Ideally, a top lineout will have three plausible throwing outlets. Ireland, for example, had Iain Henderson, James Ryan and Peter O’Mahony with CJ Stander and Dan Leavy both more than capable of taking the ball all through the lineout. That’s a nightmare to even begin to try and defend because any one of three options (five in total) could potentially be an outlet for a throw.

Ireland were able to split their throws between four of the starting pack, with Peter O’Mahony being the key player in the Irish lineout system.

O’Mahony’s speed into the air and his ability to maul-brace on landing like a lock means he can take the ball in the middle of the lineout like this;

Look at Henderson and Healy feinting Kruis out of position.

And take it at the front of the lineout under heavy pressure like this;

…while being equally likely to play off the top or set up a maul. Other back row jumpers don’t have that kind of versatility and, if they do, they either don’t have the full O’Mahony package – speed into the air, bracing power on landing or elite passing ability at the peak of the jump.

That all adds up to a guy that demands attention and with attention, comes an opportunity for misdirection.

Look at the subtle role that Peter O’Mahony plays here;

O’Mahony starts the movement in space between two jumping pods. The back pod has Ryan, Henderson and Furlong, with Leavy, Stander and Healy at the front. O’Mahony holds the space in the middle as the decoy jumper with the ability to be lifted by Henderson or Stander on the turn.

The space he’s standing in is a tempting lure for the English defenders, who have stacked at the back of the lineout to guard against a maul set-up at the tail centred around Ryan or Henderson.

On the throw trigger, O’Mahony pops back like he’s going to be lifted by Henderson, which sets England’s jump pods to the back of the lineout.

Look at Itoje’s arms going into “jump” position on O’Mahony’s movement.

That gives Leavy clean ball at the front of the lineout. O’Mahony then binds onto Leavy on landing to (1) add a visual distraction of a potential maul – even though the ball has gone – to the unsighted defenders and (2) prevent Robshaw from surging through on Murray.

Leavy got clean, unpressured ball at the front and Murray would have got a clean angle on Furlong and Ryan if we’d managed a better blocking line on Kruis behind O’Mahony.

Why did this work so well as a feint? Ireland ran the exact same play with the exact same pod positions and movements on the previous throw but took a narrow maul option off Leavy instead.

That kind of double bluff only works when you have three viable options to work with. This ball went to Leavy but it was equally likely – in fact, more likely – to go to any one of Ryan, Henderson or O’Mahony could take this ball and all of them can play off the top or set up a maul. This is the shell game in action and every lineout influences the one coming after it.

The shell game doesn’t work as well when you only have two cups to hide the ball under.

This was England’s biggest issue on Saturday, and it’s why Jones will look to get a half-lock (be it Lawes or Itoje) into the #6 jersey for the summer tour to South Africa. Ireland had 4 outlets on their throw while England only had two. Itoje took seven English lineouts while Kruis took five. When Launchbury came on, he took one. That turns the shell game into “which hand is the sweet in?” and, before long, you run out of ways to disguise that kind of binary structure.

England had a 33% chance of guessing which jumper was the target. Ireland had a 50/50 on England’s throw. If you want to structure a game off getting clean ball to your strike runners off good lineout ball you’ll need throw options and slowly but surely, Ireland took England’s away from them in a first half performance that won us the game.

Let’s have a look how they did it.

Lineout 1

Position – Irish Half/Outside 22

England’s first lineout revealed a few things about their potential structure but it also laid out Ireland’s strategy. We would put our best jumper (O’Mahony) on their best jumper (Itoje) on almost every throw.

This picture below illustrates a fairly familiar picture if you’re Maro Itoje.

Wherever Itoje stood on shortened lineouts, Peter O’Mahony would be sure to follow. Itoje would only get relative peace on full lineouts, but O’Mahony was always there – waiting.

This does two things that benefit Ireland. It makes a typically sure throw to Itoje a high-risk option and increases the chance that England will look to take O’Mahony out of the game by putting Itoje into a decoy position so that they can go to their second (and only) jumping option – George Kruis. In this instance, Ireland can be pretty certain that Itoje isn’t the target and get a man in the air on Kruis. Why?

Look at the lifters. Does Vunipola look like he’s in a position to lift Itoje against a guy like O’Mahony? Compare him to Furlong for the answer to that question.

O’Mahony doesn’t buy this, and neither does the Irish pod. Let’s see how it plays it out.

Henderson gets up at the same time as Kruis and does enough to spoil his possession. That intervention is crucial when you look at what England were targeting off this throw;

Daly’s hard line to the tail of the lineout was perfect for targeting the seam inside Leavy, with England dictating a 6-man lineout which would naturally stretch that space between the first defender and the tail of the lineout.

Henderson’s considered targeting of Kruis, knowing that he was the likely target with Itoje occupying O’Mahony at the front was a key part of stalling this play.

Lineout 2

Position – Irish Half/Outside 10m Line

There isn’t great footage of this thanks to ITV lingering a little too long on Gary Ringrose but it ended with Stander batting one away clean from Kruis.

We can’t see too much of what happened in the construction of this English lineout but we can see similar elements to the last lineout.

Itoje was at the front to take O’Mahony away from the target but Stander was able to guess that if it wasn’t going to Itoje then it must be going to Kruis. He guessed right and Ireland turned the ball over.

Lineout 3

Position – Irish Half/Inside 22

At this point, England needed to get Itoje’s hands on the ball having used him to feint out O’Mahony on the previous two throws. This throw was deep inside Ireland’s 22 so Ireland, rightly, decided against an aerial challenge in favour of meeting the English maul at the point it hits the deck.

But England’s lack of a credible third option hurt them badly in this instance. With both of their jumping options in the same area of the lineout, Ireland could narrow down the area where the lineout would form to a one or two positions.

They’ve got such a good read that they can ignore the English deception and meet the maul head on.

Healy and Henderson are in place at the point of Itoje’s jump and make a decision not to compete. O’Mahony and Ryan have no interest in Robshaw and Kruis’ decoy switch with Sinckler.Let’s see how it played out in real time;

There are two really good interventions from O’Mahony here – the first one shoves Sinckler around with Healy to expose Robshaw and Simmonds to Best and then Leavy, which sets the maul off laterally. His second action sees him kill the maul by attacking Simmonds as the maul creeps sideways.

This was a big win for Ireland in a critical defensive position.

Lineout 4

Position: English Half/Outside 10m Line

This shortened English lineout showed a familiar picture. Itoje at the front being marked by O’Mahony.

The only difference here is that Sinckler has replaced Vunipola at the front and, straight away, his lifting position is better. Furlong and O’Mahony are waiting on the trigger to go at the front.

Another constant is here too – Henderson marking Kruis;

Immediately, Ireland have a few options. O’Mahony has nothing to lose by going at the front against Itoje because the only other likely option is that this ball goes to Kruis.

When he lands, Ireland have players in position to meet Kruis at the point of the maul set up. O’Mahony got feinted into a counter jump by Itoje but it’s unassisted by Furlong. Furlong is vital to this, as he’s staring at Sinckler for a lifting tell like tightening his grip on Itoje’s legs in a way that might indicate a jump is inbound. O’Mahony jumping without a lift means he loses very little time in getting embedded into this maul.

He gets hands on Hartley which forces the English captain to drop to the floor in fear of a turnover.

Another win for the Irish.

Lineout 5, 6, 7, 8

Position: Irish Half/At 5m Line

This was a dangerous series of English lineouts that took place on Ireland’s 5m line. Ireland defended three of these with Peter O’Mahony and one of them without him after his yellow card.

Let’s have a look at them, and what they mean;

Why did Ireland line up in the exact same position each time? This is Ireland playing a defensive shell game with England. By placing our best counter jumper in the middle of the lineout, we’re ceding the front of the lineout to Itoje. Why would we do that? In a 5m situation, a lineout taken at the front is the easiest to defend and if O’Mahony is marking Kruis with Furlong lifting him, Ireland have a great chance of nabbing a ball or disrupting England into a knock-on. We want England to throw to Itoje rather than risk a throw to the middle that would be harder for us to defend.

Look at the guys we have manning the front on every throw;

In Best, Stander and Furlong we have three low-centre-of-gravity bruisers that can attack and maul set up at the front and O’Mahony is top drawer at getting his hands on the carrier. Once the initial maul momentum has been stopped, that’s the queue for the tail of the lineout to swing in and either stuff the maul with bodies or, ideally, fire it into touch.

Let’s see how they play out;

England buy a cheap penalty off Ireland by stalling Itoje in the air and drawing an early shove.
They threw to Itoje again. We went a little strong on the initial counter here but the tail of the lineout did what they should do and stuffed bodies at the maul to deny the try.
England go to Itoje again but Peter O’Mahony gets yellow carded for “coming up the side”.

The yellow card for Peter O’Mahony is pretty understandable if you look at what the ref is seeing. England’s maul is moving laterally but curving towards the try line when the ref sees this;

He sees O’Mahony’s arm coming around on the ball carrier and assumes that he’s after swimming up the side of the maul and changed binds. For me, O’Mahony starts at the front of the maul, goes beyond Itoje without changing binds and, due to England’s construction of this maul, finds access to Vunipola through his initial bind and the movement of the English maul.

His “grab” of the ball from the refs perspective looked incriminating so I can understand the yellow. The odd thing is, Edinburgh were successfully stuffing multiple mauls against Munster just like this the night before. Even the maul earlier in the game up the field played out like this but the outcome here was different. If I had a white shirt on, I’d be looking for a card here though – it’s very small margins.

When England had a man advantage and O’Mahony off the pitch, they did the one thing they shouldn’t have – get ambitious. With O’Mahony unable to patrol the middle, England call for a mauled ball to the tail.

They turned it over.

England would score during this yellow card period but Ireland got the ball back with 5 minutes of the bin to play, having only lost 5 points. A great return for Ireland in context.

Lineout 9

Position: Ireland Half/Outside 22

The final lineout we’re looking at happened with one minute of O’Mahony’s sin-bin left to go. The first thing you notice is how unsure Ireland’s lineout defence looks without O’Mahony’s stalling presence on Itoje.

We don’t have a lot of structure as we’re not sure if we’re competing in the air or staying on the floor. England’s movement is a little stuffy here too, as the mechanic with Robshaw holding Furlong in place will only work if Robshaw can decisively beat Furlong to the lift, which he doesn’t. Ryan almost bats this one away on a late lift, which shows how good he is in the air and how powerful Stander and Furlong are in the lift.

This is a six man English lineout – they want to keep a forward in midfield to take advantage of Ireland missing one – so you’d think they’ll look to maul this for a bit before spreading it to someone like Te’o or Haskell on the surge.

Being overly reliant on Itoje cost them again. At this point, Ireland had seen Kruis used as a maul driver rather than a catch and set-up guy, so that meant Ireland had a cheat sheet for where this one was going regardless of being down a man.

Ryan knew he could go in the air on this because Itoje was in front of Kruis once the lineout started moving. That meant Henderson could line up next to Itoje with confidence that the ball wasn’t going over him to Kruis (why would it) and no scrumhalf meant it wasn’t going wide off the top. England were set up to maul and all the good mauls they’d had before this had Itoje as the catcher and Kruis as a driver.

What happens?

England’s maul set up is messy around Itoje and Henderson can lock onto the ball before they get Simmonds or Kruis in place. Once Hendo has you like that, there’s only one result usually – turnover for Ireland.

With that, O’Mahony would be back on the pitch and Ireland would use two lineouts to win field position and eventually see Stockdale go over for the killer try right before halftime.

England never got a chance to use the lineout as a platform for anything outside a series of 4 mauls that coughed up 5 points thanks to Ireland’s tactical and positional masterclass in the lineout.

Rule the sky to control the floor.