Up in the air
Dean Ryan looks at how England can best link their line-out with their back play when they face France.
Last Updated: 07/03/12 8:26am
You get the feeling that line-outs have become the chess game of modern day rugby, and with that comes the arrival of so called line-out nerds prepared to research well into the night to provide themselves with a yard of advantage over their opponent.
There is no doubting the line-out's influence on a game and a team's ability to provide not only a steady stream of possession but more importantly ball of the right quality. This will then enable their backline first go at getting their strike move over the gain-line, often going a long way to determining the result.
Paramount to this is the ability to get the ball anywhere from the number four position in the line-out backwards.
Ball of this quality will just hold the opposition back row that second more, drive and they need to throw their bodies in to prevent any forward momentum or alternatively deliver ball off the top and that will just give your fly half an extra yard of advantage during their moment of indecision.
Ball won at the front of the lineout is always much safer but easier to read and will allow their back row to head off in anticipation of the ball to 10 without losing shape if the ball is driven.
With so much to be gained from winning ball from either the 4th/5th/6th position it is no wonder that we see the myriad of line-out set-ups and movements as the caller tries desperately to escape the attention of his opposite number.
Easy front ball
Fail to deliver in this area and your opponent will force you into taking easy front ball, this results in a static pick-and-go game being the only feasible attacking option left with his defensive line intact across the field.
To understand how important an area this is to a team's ability to play just ask the unfortunate Tom Palmer who twice now has been removed from the team for not being able to strike the right balance.
No amount of around-the-field contribution will make up for a malfunctioning line-out; a point often missed when critics unfairly judged the much-maligned Steve Borthwick. It wasn't through a lack of line-out possession why England misfired during his captaincy.
England's new man tasked with setting the right platform is Geoff Parling, self-confessed line-out nerd, and if one game is anything to go by he knows his stuff.
A return from nine attacking line-outs of eight wins and one not straight are a good start for anybody in international rugby. Add to that two steals from his opponents Wales and all things look rosy.
Box of tricks
Now Parling is entitled to use every tool in his box to create any advantage he can, and one of the biggest positives you can have at your disposal as a line-out caller is having more people capable of going up in the air. But at what point does the advantage of having numerous options to throw to start to impact on the ability of a side to function in the subsequent phases of play?
A clear example of this came early into the Wales game when England got their first piece of quality ball, off the top in the middle from Parling putting Owen Farrell over the gain line to feed Bradley Barritt into the heart of the Welsh defence. Fast ball and England would have been on the front foot around the corner with a numerical advantage over Wales.
But England didn't get fast ball as Sam Warbutron was first to win the space above the contact, got his hands onto the ball and won an important turnover penalty.
BBC commentator Brian Moore was quick to point out that Warburton had won the first head-to-head battle with his opposite number Chris Robshaw.
Delve deeper into where Robshaw was in this contest and you'll find him three in from the tail of the line-out and in the back lifting position on Parling with Mauritz Botha and Dan Cole off the back. No surprises in the winner then!
England's next opportunity came in the very next lineout with Parling soaring high and delivering a back peel for Dylan Hartley around the back. Sharp hands to David Strettle and a wonderful offload to Barritt put him into space through the Welsh defence. A chance for our link-man to get on his shoulder?
Deeper analysis will again find Robshaw two in from the back and again as the back lifter on Parling the hardest position and last to extradite the line-out from.
In fact out of 11 attacking line-outs Robshaw was at the tail for only one of these and that ended up being driven.
In defence the pattern arose again, most notably for the early George North break when Robshaw was up in the air contesting and Parling was asked to fold round the back and cover, he over chased and the gap opened for North.
Other than the Welsh five man set-ups where we found Robshaw with Ben Morgan 10 metres back inside Farrell, he was asked to contest for ball one in from the back with Hartley as tail gunner.
Now in defence England countered the lack of an out-and-out breakaway off the back with having no real contest for the ball on the floor but prioritised getting a white wall with increased numbers around the far side. A successful ploy so far and has been difficult to break down.
But it's in attack where England have lacked the most fluency and sparks of opportunities have slowly gone out. It would be wrong to point the finger at Robshaw given his commitments to the line-out but it's a fair assessment to say that England are failing to join up their set-piece work and their back play.
With France as England's next opponents who use the formidable talents of Imanol Harinordoquy and Julien Bonnaire to put the heat on the key area of 4/5/6 in the line-out I wouldn't expect England to change their approach drastically at the risk of not winning ball, but there are elements where we can join up the thinking.
We can take a leaf out of the Welsh book and their use of Warburton in attacking line-outs, where you can clearly see him used in the air as an extra man when Wales go for the drive or as for the North break where play peels close to the back of the line-out.
Any ball off the top and with any width and you're more likely to see him released to operate in the role of the traditional seven.
As for going up in the air in defence, no chance!!
France v England - home win
Wales v Italy - home win
Ireland v Scotland - home win.