When you’re under the pump in a rugby game, every team turns to their go-to, never fail comfort blanket to try and turn the momentum of a game around. It might be a power play off a scrum set piece, it might be a “give it to the big lad” carry; whatever it is, it settles everyone down and gives you a chance to reset and push on. When the opposition take your comfort blanket away from you – whatever it happens to be – a rugby game can become a cruel place to be very quickly.
Against France, Ireland found their usual comfort blanket of the defensive and offensive lineout (and accompanying maul) taken away from them by an innovative French pack and, as a result, we found ourselves at the mercy of a French side in full paso-doble intro horn mode.
Ireland would lose 21-7. There was a lot of effort but we were short of reaching our potential by some distance. A lot of that came down to the lineout.
Starting The Pattern
The lineout is a vital part of any team’s make up. If you have trouble there, you’ll struggle to win any game and that certainly proved to be true in this one. Normally, Ireland’s defensive and offensive lineout is fairly bullet proof when Maz Reilly is playing; she’s a world class lineout operator and a threat to any lineout in the tournament. With Reilly in the team, Ireland have a way to attack an opposition’s lineout anywhere on the pitch. When it comes to our own throw, she’s an ultra reliable platform for mauls or wider plays.
Any team in the tournament would look to counter Reilly and anyone that manages it successfully knows they’ll have a massively increased chance of beating Ireland. France know this better than almost anyone after a Maz Reilly led Irish lineout and driving maul marched them around Donnybrook back in the Spring. If that happened again, Ireland would have a platform to take France to a very uncomfortable place in this game.
So France set in motion a plan to take away our main strength and they were massively succesful in doing so.
Let’s have a look at how they managed it.
Hit The Tail
For most teams, getting clean lineout ball to the tail of the lineout is the gold standard of attacking lineout ball. Any maul set up there is almost impossible to shove out over the touchline, any pass from there can hit your midfield runners in a world of space and at worst, you get a decent centre field ruck that you can run multiple attacking options off.
But with that reward, comes a lot of associated risk. A throw to the tail is especially vulnerable to;
Crooked throws due to under-estimating the distance needed.
Over-throws due to over-estimating the distance needed.
An opposition lifting pod getting into the air to steal/disrupt due to the amount of time the ball spends in the air.
Turning the ball over with a massive openside for the opposition to attack.
When you’re deciding how to layout your defensive lineout, you need your lineout leaders and coaching staff to do a lot of analysis on hooker’s throwing patterns, the oppositions pod layout and who their usual jump targets are. That way, you can almost predict when and how a side will attack the lineout.
A lot of lineout work is a cat and mouse game of feints, counterfeints and double bluffs on both sides of the throw. From Ireland’s POV, we know (or should know) that teams will look to take Maz Reilly out of the equation on their throw; she’s the best defensive lineout player in the tournament for a reason. So where would they want her?
I know where I’d want her – right at the front of the lineout where I can throw over her if I’ve any confidence at all in our hooker’s throw. Ideally, if I’m French, I’d want Ireland to place her at 2 and if Ireland didn’t do that – I’d want to drag her there and then throw to where she isn’t.
That’s why it was so surprising to see Ireland put Reilly at 2 for the first defensive lineout.
You can see why Ireland have put her there; she’s a formidable player to throw over and her presence there means France will have to throw high and hard. These throws are easy to overthrow and hard to take further back in the line as the jump timing has to be perfect. You can see France do just that here – overthrow – but they manage to regather the ball at the tail regardless.
Let’s look at our set up; we have Reilly at two, and a lifting pod with Spence as the jumper at four. Lyons is lifting Reilly on her own and Egan and Peat are lifting Spence. We’re very narrow and front focused. If France throw to two or four, we’re set up to maul them hard or disrupt in the air but look at how much space Griffin is covering at the back of the lineout.
When France get the ball to the tail we see their tail lifting pod – Marjorie Mayans getting lifted at the front by Romane Ménager and at the back by the powerful Safi N’Diaye. Their tighthead is a back lifter too, but presents as a decoy here as there’s no way she’s lifting N’Diaye with Mayans’ help.
The ball is over thrown but look at how quickly Mayans gets into the air. Dangerous.
This lineout should have been a massive red alert to Ireland’s lineout. France can hit the tail with a fast throw! If we didn’t think that France could do this pre-game, we certainly knew it after this. So, straight away, Ireland should have realised that we couldn’t set up like we had done; with one player guarding the back of the lineout.
Yet for some reason, that’s exactly what we did on a lineout even closer to our try line less than a minute later.
Look at the space Griffin is defending on her own – again.
We have to look at the picture Ireland are presented with; N’Diaye is in the receiver position and that means two things; (1) she’s probably not lifting and (2) she’s a carrying threat. This needed conservatism from an Irish POV.
Instead, when the throw comes in, Ireland put two pods in the air using six players ;
Reilly is still at the front (France love that) and Spence is the middle jumper. Spence comes close to taking this ball but in reality, she’s always at a disadvantage because her pod has no backwards mobility – Spence can only go a step backwards because her lifter is bound behind her. France can move back freely into the pocket occupied by Griffin because there’s no aerial threat there and, with six Irish forwards involved in lifting/jumping, France have an early numbers advantage around the corner. Big trouble.
Look at the quality ball that France get here; the ball is clean to the tail and cycled beautifully into a lethal strike right into the heart of the Irish midfield. France would score the first try off the back of this strike a few phases later.
France were hitting the tail at will at this point – often without challenge. Ireland would have to do something.
The only thing Ireland could do at this point is move Reilly into the middle of the lineout. Now France would have a more difficult route to the tail because Reilly was patrolling the middle. If France wanted that ball to the tail, they’d have to feint Reilly to the front. Whatever happened, Reilly had to stay at the back (position 5/6) until we got a grip on things.
Here’s the picture we presented at the next lineout;
Griffin is tailgunning again, and in a little too much space for liking – again. Ideally, I’d like Reilly to step back a metre here; standing at “5” almost. If France throw to the middle, she can run into Peat and get a dynamic running jump there. If France go to the tail, the throw time gives Peat a chance to get to “5” and lift Reilly straight up at the back.
Remember, this is the same French layout as their first lineout so Ireland should be wise to the threat. Look at the back pod – Blue 7, 6, 8 and 3.
Here’s how it played out;
France get the tail again – a little fortunately, it must be said – but are set up for a very dangerous maul in a superb position. Blue 7 is the player sent up (this time with 3 stepping in as back lifter as opposed to Blue 8) and even though she doesn’t get the ball, the intention is clear. The maul set up is scrappy, but look at the ground they make off it;
But to get this ground, France had to seperate Reilly from the tail of the lineout – they did that by drawing her forward with a feint and then beating her in the air as she scrambles backwards.
Here’s the feint, isolated;
The French forward movement (look at Blue 5 and 4) draws Reilly forward while the real pod assembles behind her. It’s very technical, very detailed and very effective.
Putting The Squeeze On
These were defensive lineouts for Ireland but when it the opportunity came to attack the French lineout deep in their 22 later in the first half, we failed to learn the lessons of the previous throws. Look at the setup – notice anything familiar?
We’re crimped up between two and four with one player (Peat) guarding the tail. Just like we were on the last lineout I showed.
Let’s have a look at what happened;
Clean ball at the tail and – not only that – France managed to charge up to the 22 with little trouble. The frustrating thing here is that this is the exact same move as the last lineout I showed you. We were caught by the same trick twice.
They even feinted Reilly the same way;
This will be extremely frustrating for Ireland on the video review as we repeatedly abandoned the tail for no benefit whatsoever, even when it was shown that France were repeatedly throwing there.
When we moved Reilly to the tail later in the first half, France threw basic ball to the front and middle that we handled relatively easily. Here’s an example from early in the second half.
By this stage, unfortunately, the damage was done.
Our Own Ball
Ireland had a lot of trouble making ground against France’s phase defence so our own lineout became even more important in the context of this game. Unfortunately, this is where France caused us the most damage.
Our lineout maul is one of the best in the tournament and, having felt the lash of the Irish drive in the Spring, France were all out to avoid the contest if at all possible. That point was reenforced when Ireland drove the French for 20 metres off a maul in the first half. The maul itself lasts 30+ seconds so I won’t show it here but I will show the initial set up, because that’ll be important later.
It’s a good set-up and Ireland make good ground afterwards, but watch N’Diaye’s sack on Reilly. She tracks her movement and takes her straight to the floor on landing. This would be a recurring feature for the rest of the game.
Ireland won a penalty off this maul and, as you’d expect, went down the line to maul France again. This time France would refuse to be mauled.
They kept three people in the lineout and stood off Ireland’s maul. Reilly handed the ball back to Griffin so we were blown up for obstruction when France didn’t engage.
From then on, France kept three girls in the line for Ireland’s lineout and we were forced to keep the ball with Reilly until N’Daiye made contact and, when she did, she sacked our maul almost every time.
It completely bamboozled us.
Either we didn’t train for this scenario or it was such a shock that one woman was killing our maul that we couldn’t process a solution until the second half.
The thing is, if we managed to stay on our feet here we could have sprinted through the French as a perfectly legal maul and they would have had to stop this tactic but we never managed it. The lifting pod didn’t lock tightly enough around Reilly and N’Diaye got to her almost every time.
We tried playing off Reilly when the ball was uncontested, but to little success.
This was a decent idea but we ran off into midfield where France had a massed defence of forwards. Again, we just looked a little flummoxed by the whole thing and it really interfered in our attempts at getting a sequence together.
When we gathered ourselves at half time we came up with solutions but execution let us down.
It was the story of the game, played out in the area we would have backed as our great strength beforehand.
There’s no lesson like a harsh lesson though, and hopefully we’ll pick up the teachings from here and take them into the Australia game where we’ll surely find them working the same tricks as France.