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Opinion

Throwing the game away: The blight on Australian rugby

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14th October, 2020
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Throughout the whole Super Rugby AU season and now into the international fixtures it has been fantastic to watch the standard of rugby skills, execution and general play lift across the board for each Australian player.

As each player got more game time they showcased why there is actually a lot to be excited about in Australian rugby circles.

There is the promise of a new and very talented generation of players, the expectancy of a new Wallabies coach, the growth of key leaders and to top it all off a Rugby Championship to be hosted entirely within Australia. How good’s that?

However, there has been a nagging issue that has consistently been prevalent across, at times, every Australian Super Rugby team and now the Wallabies – the lineout.

While the opening game of the Bledisloe Cup was an absolute belter the Wallabies struggled with the lineout which is really just a continuation of the same issue at Super Rugby level.

In the Super Rugby AU final, the Reds started and ended the game with botched lineouts that show exactly why having a good set piece is key to winning for any professional rugby team.

Patrick Tuipulotu takes a lineout

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The aim is to have a lineout functioning above 90 per cent efficiency and not a single Australian Super Rugby team hit this mark. The rebels were close with 89.7 per cent efficiency, followed by the Waratahs on 85.5 per cent, the Brumbies on 84.2 per cent, Western Force on 82.8 per cent and finally the Reds with a woeful 77.3 per cent.

For comparison the Highlanders, Chiefs and Blues were all above 88 per cent efficiency in Super Rugby Aotearoa with the Highlanders being above the golden 90 per cent mark at 90.7 per cent.

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Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup match continued this trend with the Wallabies successfully executing nine out of 12 lineout for a win percentage of 75 per cent and the All Blacks winning nine of 11 for a win percentage of 82 per cent (note that this does not include the quick throw ins that each side had one of).

To counter this Dave Rennie has recently appointed Geoff Parling as the new Wallabies forwards coach, alongside Petrus du Plessis, and his experience when it comes to lineouts will be key to the Wallabies success this year.

While Parling has recently said there is nothing to fix with the lineout, Saturday’s game suggested otherwise.

To give more insight into the challenges facing Parling and the Wallabies forwards I have decided to break down Australia’s current lineout issues into three main components which I am calling – the throw, the jump and game context.

The throw
On average hookers throw about 10-15 times in an 80-minute game of rugby and the challenge is to throw the ball in straight, to hit the planned target and to do it with speed.

For the throw everything starts with technique and some of the technique on display in regards to the throw in Super Rugby AU and now the Wallabies has been, shall we say, less than excellent.

While every professional hooker has had countless drills to learn how to throw the ball in, when it comes time to put it into practice in a game scenario sometimes the process can be forgotten and errors can creep in.

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Two things I have noticed hookers in Australian rugby doing is not keeping their elbows in and not having a proper follow through on their throws.

To have a compact and effective throw it is important to keep your elbows in tight close to your ears. This helps by keeping your throwing motion straight and eliminating instability. Splaying your elbows wide not only reduce power but increases chances on inaccuracy.

This seems to be a consistent problem across every Australian hooker and although throwing techniques do differ depending on each player this is an easy area to focus on.

It is also easy to forget that for a lineout throw it is not just over when the ball leaves the hands but, just like golf swing, the follow through is important for accuracy.

Essentially the hands should follow the line of the ball through to the target you wish to hit. Looking at various footage from lineouts this year it is something that Australian hookers need to be aware of.

It seems most hookers minds immediately go onto the next task at hand which is usually running around to collect the ball or supporting their forward pack but taking a fraction of a second longer to ensure that they do a complete follow through would not go astray.

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For me, though, the biggest issue with lineout throwing in Australia right now is not due to technique so much but due to the mental strength of our current crop of hookers.

Because of the complexity of the modern day lineout and pressure from opposition you need to have complete faith in your team and training so that you can execute the lineout blindfolded. The problem is that if you do not have full trust in your teammates or your own ability to execute as soon as you make an error doubt begins to creep in.

If a lineout thrower has missed a few throws and they are not mentally strong enough to push through or if they start doubting their own skill then it is all over red rover.

The constant coming together of the forward packs and front row throughout a game give the opposition the opportunity to identify and compound this lack of confidence with verbal jabs and snide remarks designed to further disintegrate a hooker’s ability to execute.

With the lineout being so crucial for teams wishing to build a platform to attack from there is a lot of pressure not just from opposition to execute correctly but also your own team.

The loss of confidence usually leads to a grouping of inaccurate throws which was demonstrated on Saturday with the Wallabies’ lost throws occurring almost consecutively between the 15th minute and the 25th minute with the worst one in the 22nd minute when Folau Fainga’a committed the cardinal sin for a hooker and couldn’t execute a straight throw to the front of the lineout.

Luckily the Wallabies did recover from this to steady the lineout somewhat in the back half of the game but the current group of number twos really need to focus on their technique, belief and execution to get the throw right.

Wallabies lineout.

The Wallabies soaring high. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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The jump
It is easy to blame hookers for every lineout woe but the other crucial piece are the lineout jumpers, mainly the second rowers.

Second rowers these days are the martials of the lineout with one usually being the leader and lineout caller. They make the calls on how they set the lineout up, what variation to use and where to jump in the line.

Australia has unfortunately seen a mass exodus of its best lineout operators with the likes of Rory Arnold and Adam Coleman leaving for Europe after the World Cup and more recently the loss of Reds duo Izack Rodda and Harry Hockings who along with Isaac Lucas unceremoniously left the Reds at the start of the pandemic.

This has left a gap in experience that has been clear to see over the Super Rugby AU season. The likes of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Matt Philip and Trevor Hosea have progressed well recently but it takes time to really make an impact at international level as our most experienced current lock Rob Simmons can attest to.

The connection between the locks and hooker needs to be almost telepathic so that the locks can anticipate the throw and the hooker can anticipate the locks jump to gain an edge. This is mostly to do with the movement in the lineout and the timing of the jump.

Currently the Wallabies, as expected with such a new group of players and coaches, are still a half step behind in terms of variation and movement within the lineout. Case in point was the Wallabies first lost lineout of the weekend where the All Blacks jumper got up more quickly than the Wallabies and the throw was poor to compound this error. It lead to the All Blacks snatching the ball cleanly at the back of the lineout.

This is something that should never happen but I do expect this to improve with every game under Geoff Parling’s tutelage.

At international level especially, teams do a lot of work on opposition lineouts so they can contest. On Saturday the Wallabies seemed to be using a strategy of not competing for the All Blacks ball on a number of occasions.

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This was an astute strategy due to the conditions but the two lineouts that the All Blacks lost were due to Australia getting up just in time to cause the take to be missed leading to a handling error.

This already shows a level of maturity within the current ranks but let’s not forget the conditions in Wellington were quite hard jumpers and throwers alike and the All Blacks will do their work during the week to improve in this area.

Michael Hooper

(Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Game context
Flowing on from the previous point the Australian players need to get better at reading the game and adjusting the lineout to match.

There are many factors to consider when organising a lineout at international level – The proximity to your line or the oppositions, the wind and weather conditions, how many forwards you want to use to attack or to draw out of the oppositions defensive line to name only a few.

To match there are many tactics that can be used to account for these factors like using a short lineout, throwing over the back or to the prop at the front or even just the height and speed of the throw itself.

On the weekend the Wallabies showed that they can use these lineouts tactics effectively throwing one intentionally over the back to a rampaging Harry Wilson in the 51st minute or just avoiding a lineout all together and going to a quick throw in as they did in the 67th minute.

However, they did not execute correctly in a short lineout close to their own line in the 24th minute where they were lucky not to concede a try but which did lead to an All Blacks penalty goal.

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This lineout lacked any sense of trickery to commit the All Blacks to an incorrect jump and the timing of the throw was out. This is the exact error that the Wallabies need to stop and which can be addressed by just being a bit smarter about how they execute.

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Folau Fainga’a was obviously feeling the pressure at this stage so the jumper needed to work a lineout move that committed the All Blacks to an erroneous jump and then jump in safer position more towards the front of the line.

Conclusion
The Wallabies forwards brain trust of Geoff Parling and Petrus du Plessis have a long way to go to shape their charges into set piece locks and while the scrum had some jitters it is the lineout which requires the most work.

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The lineout will no doubt be a focus in the coming week but in the back of the coaching staffs mind is surely the health of Rory Arnold and his potential addition to the group.

A greater success rate will come with time and it is important to remember the overall inexperience of the current Wallabies hookers and second rowers but this cannot be an excuse for the group.

When playing the All Blacks you need to be nigh on perfect in every facet of play. It is the one percenters that make all the difference to even have a chance of beating them and the lineout is currently one of the Wallabies obvious weaknesses. Get this right and it will go a long way to changing a draw to a win and perhaps the Bledisloe Cup. A man can dream.