The Game At The Line

Lineouts are a complicated beast.

You already know that if you’ve paid any kind of attention to the litany of maul and lineout analysis I’ve done on this platform over the last year or so but one thing I’ve spoken about but never gone into has been the importance of lineout calling.

The lineout caller has to be a clear communicator with good timing while also being an excellent tactician and someone who can adapt to the picture being given to him by the opposition counter-jump. The caller – usually one of the second rows but can be anyone, really – has to have an elite understanding of the team’s calls and, depending on the kind of ball the halfbacks want or the position on the pitch, be capable of navigating the opposition’s counter-jump to facilitate the next phase of possession.

Lineout codes vary from team to team obviously, but regardless what level you’re playing at – be it J3 wallop ball or at test level – everyone in the lineout scheme has to understand the codes inside out, back to front, fresh and tired.

A lot of teams – that’s a generalisation I know, but it’s essentially every team I’ve ever been involved with in NZ and up here – have a pre-lineout huddle system, where they call the scheme clearly with a few variant calls. Most lineout schemes have a few different stages and layouts.

One of mine – sexily titled “Vanguard” – is a 7 man lineout scheme that has one set starting layout and four end variations. The lineout caller will call “vanguard” in the huddle after consulting with what the halfbacks want while the hooker sets up. The front lifter will walk over to tell the hooker that the call is “vanguard” but the key to what happens afterwards is based on the caller’s scheme variation, which will be one of four colours or birds or numbers or whatever based on the theme we have that week. He makes that call based on what he’s seeing from the opposition and I like to have my lineout caller starting each lineout in the middle with him arriving late to the line, so he can see the full layout of the opposition defensive structure.

If he can see that their b

If he calls “RED”, for example, then everyone from the hooker to the lifters knows that the ball is going to the lineout caller himself at the front of the lineout with a little decoy lift motion and then we’d maul. We’d want this ball thrown in flat with a lot of pace.

If he calls “BLUE”, then the ball goes to the blindside flanker jumping at the tail with a jump/maul build feint from the caller at the middle/front, and we’ll look to drop the ball down for the openside who’d pop the ball out to the scrumhalf. We want this ball thrown with a lot of shape on the ball to get over the expected counter-jump in the middle.

If he calls “WHITE”, then we go to the other lock in the middle for a maul with the caller running the same decoy route to the front before stepping back to lift. We want this ball thrown in with a good bit of height and shape on it.

If he calls “GREEN” then we go for a maul build in the middle with the tail of the lineout decoying in for a maul but then we swivel the ball out to the hooker coming around the corner, with the tail acting as a “corner” for the hooker to run around while unsighting the opposition. This ball has to be flat and hard to really sell the maul.

There are four or five other lineout schemes based on seven, six, five and four-man layouts with some interacting with specific attacking movements with the backs. A lot of the scheme variations in “Vanguard” are designed to look exactly like the ones before so the opposition is never quite sure what we’re going to do at any given moment. We might have 10/15 lineouts in a game at most, so our five lineout schemes with four variations each would be enough to keep the opposition of our case if the call is right, our scheme works properly and the throw is where we need it. Vanguard, for example, allows the caller to “set up” the opposition on consecutive throws by combining the “WHITE” and “GREEN” variations to (1) condition the opposition to your maul throw in the middle and (2) exploit what they think they know with a special move that looks just like your last maul build but isn’t.

So with that kind of responsibility to read the play and interact with the backs needs, you can see why being the lineout caller is a serious responsibility. Paul O’Connell was one of the best in the game during his time. Of the modern Irish forwards, I think Devin Toner is an excellent operator, while Billy Holland is seriously underrated on a national level with the level of his tactical thinking. Tadhg Beirne calls the lineout for Munster when Holland isn’t playing/starting, while Iain Henderson does the calling for Ulster and, most recently, for Ireland against Argentina.

I’m going to use some of Henderson’s calls from that game as a quick example how difficult calling a lineout is at test level.

Now, to start, I should point out that I’m only going on what I saw in the match itself. Henderson could have been working to strict orders from Sexton or Schmidt (I’ve seen some coaches send water boys on with instructions and variations for the coming lineout) or calling the schemes and variations himself.

Here’s the first one. Now, first, what do we see?

Henderson arriving late to the line to assess the Argentinian response to the set Irish line.

I like to see inexperienced callers doing this because it gives them a little breathing room before calling the variation or calling the timing of the throw. Once in the line, there’s no visible call and he goes up for a simple enough maul build at the middle without much in the way of decoying or feints.

So far, so good.

In this instance, I think Henderson called the variation while standing back and communicated this to Best and everyone else with the late walk-up itself.

This is a non-verbal variation call (or possibly a pre-called “stage show”) but it was an effective first lineout for Ireland that didn’t put too much pressure on the lifters or Best’s throw. Good start.

Interestingly, Ireland used a tweaked variation to this scheme against New Zealand a week later from a very similar position with Toner taking Ryan’s role and Ryan standing in Henderson’s initial walk-in position.

The other key difference is Van Der Flier standing as a receiver rather than at the front with Healy but the core of the layout is essentially the same – the only difference is the variation called in advance by Toner.

Anyway, back to Henderson and Argentina. 

The next time we’d use this lineout scheme would be roughly three minutes later on our third lineout of the day.

Once again, we can see the trigger for this – a non-verbal call signalled by Henderson to Best outside the lineout. Here’s Henderson going out of his way to signal it while Best goes about cleaning the ball.

Only when Henderson makes eye contact with Best does he move back into the line. Once he’s in the line, the call is a slight variation on the previous one. What’s different? Well, for a start, O’Brien’s at heavy receiver off this lineout rather than at the front with Healy.

Stander feints a lift on O’Mahony (who also makes a jump movement) before lifting Henderson from the back with Healy for a maul build.

We’d next use this variation in the 13th minute.

Straight away, you can see Henderson standing out in the line waiting for Best to get into place so they can see each other and start the call.

You can see the layout looks the same right before the throw but it’s back to the first layout, with O’Brien and Healy at the front, Stander, Henderson and O’Mahony in the middle and Ryan and Furlong at the tail.

In this variation, Henderson steps beyond Stander, who fakes a lift on O’Mahony (who jumps out of the way) and makes his way to finish the lift on Ryan at the tail.

Here’s how it plays out;

That’s a pretty complex throw with elements of the last two thrown in sequence. On the last scheme, Stander feinted a lift on O’Mahony but everything here was a little off. Firstly, look at Argentina’s counter-launch with Petti. How did they know to go here?

Well, they did the exact same counter-launch on the first throw but the ball didn’t go to the tail. Have a look;

Second, video work pre-game would have shown the threat of Petti at the tail to Henderson so calling this variation for the third time on the fourth lineout gave Argentina a bit of a headstart. Petti would have a chance to jump in tail position because whether this goes to O’Mahony or Ryan, the Puma #7  will back himself to get a disrupting arm in place at the very least.

At this stage, I’d be about done with this lineout scheme for this game but we went back to it and various tweaks too much for the rest of the game. We lost two and were a hair away from losing another. Who is the disrupting presence each time? The Puma’s blindside Guido Petti.

Best’s throw isn’t perfect here either – there’s a good bit of wobble on it as it travels, which ate some of the speed from it and gave Petti a good shot at it.

Here he is almost getting a hand on another late walkup from Henderson with a similar structure.

Stander moved into the O’Brien position by the loosehead lifter as this lineout developed during the game.

These scrappy lineout possessions were really starting to hurt our momentum in this game and you can see the scoreboard reflects that. We used this structure for the last time in the 54th minute. Henderson runs the same call in a double bluff and gets the ball right in the middle between two Puma counter-jumps

We used this layout and variants of it seven times out of thirteen lineouts and lost three of them. That’s not good enough at this level. Best took most of the heat for his throwing but, while it wasn’t great, the lineout layout allowed Argentina to put two counter-jumps into the air on almost every one of his throws in this structure.

We used a non-verbal call style on other variations during the game – no clearer here when you see Sean Cronin saying “I can’t see” and “Dev. DEV!” when he can’t see Toner because of the touch judge – but we’d moved away from the previous structure at that point and were using a simpler scheme.

Our other structure in this game – O’Brien stepping in as a tail lifter and then feinting that motion – was quite effective. Henderson stood in the line for this one and audibly made the call to Best from that position.

Watch O’Brien go to tail to lift Ryan.
Now watch him fake that he’s going to lift Ryan again before slotting in underneath Henderson for a maul.

We tried a variation of this move – and quite a spectacular one – on a 5m drive position.

I’m reluctant to blame Henderson for this one. It was certainly ambitious and deep into the playbook AND he took the main execution on himself with a pass in the air to Ryan on the shift maul with a swivel out to Stockdale (who was standing in the lineout initially) with Best coming around the corner in support but it didn’t work out.

Henderson is still learning his trade calling lineouts at this level and his over-reliance (if it was even him who was calling them freely) on one structure put the Irish throw under pressure as Argentina cottoned on. It was a good a structure – with a lot of useful variants that could serve all purposes – but when it was getting read by the Pumas, it needed to change. When Toner came on, Ireland’s lineout layout changed to accommodate his specific style – he needs more lateral space and can take higher lofted balls due to his wingspan – and he mainly called variants in the line. He has a clean line of sight with Cronin here to call the timing and variant before running through two slots to get a clean take.

He’d call a fantastic, tactically spot on lineout against the All Blacks a week later with one missed throw while he was on the field.

Ireland ran into a spot of bother late in the game when Toner, Best and O’Mahony were all off the field. Recognise this structure?

Henderson calls this one on himself at the front but gets beaten by Retallick.

It’s easy to say after the game but I’d have liked to see Henderson call this one on Ryan at the tail to go up against Keiran Read, who’d been in the wars all day and stress (a) the lateral speed of the replacement loosehead who was standing in the middle of the lineout against Jordi Murphy on the turn and (b) the counter lifting ability of Dane Cole. Yes, it would have stressed Cronin’s throw but I’d have like to see him go for where the All Blacks were vulnerable on this move.

Henderson has almost every physical gift you could want as a second row at test level but for me, his calling is a bit behind where it needs to be right now.

It’s an incredibly tough part of the game, though, and I have no doubt that he’ll get where he needs to be sooner rather than later.