The return of the magnificent lineout maul withdrawal

They say fashion is cyclical, and in rugby circles that also seems to apply.

In the past few years, we’ve seen such dashing Spring/Autumn trends as

  • the second 5/8th inside centre
  • the bosher inside centre with offloading hands (Jamie & Ma’au most notably)
  • a penchant for kicking the ball away while in the opponents 22 (most notable during the first two rounds of the Heineken Cup)
  • and of course the ‘taking the man out in the air debate’ flavour of the month, which was perhaps the least palatable of all!

Trending

Coaches learn from each other, and in this era of video analysis, teams watch each other very closely, so when a new innovation comes along or is recycled, you can be sure someone is ready to return fire.

Ireland’s forward play in recent times has been a hotbed for trending topics, most notably the good old held up defensive maul, but also the potent attacking maul of last year’s 6 Nations.

On Saturday, we saw another bit of artistry from Ireland’s forwards, catching the opponents off guard. Expect to see it on the catwalks of Paris, London, Edinburgh and Cardiff this Spring and Autumn, if it’s not outlawed by then.

Truck & Trailer

The uncontested maul isn’t a new thing. ‘Truck and trailer’ has been around for quite a long time, and for almost as long, defending lineout teams have chosen to sneakily retreat, forcing the attacking team to hold onto the ball at the front of the maul, or risk giving away an offside penalty.

Once a good rolling maul starts, it’s very difficult to stop legally. This loophole allows teams to prevent the maul, by not engaging it – thereby putting all the players in the rolling maul in front of the ball carrier offside and allowing the team “defending” it to run around the back and tackle the ball carrier.

Though, in my opinion, there’s a flaw in the rules, it’s still a loophole, and the possible outcomes are lucrative for the defending side.

If the dis-engage is gotten correct, one of three things can normally happen:

- The attacking side keep the ball at the front of the pack (thus it’s not technically a maul) and are forced to run into the nearest defender.
- The attacking side transfer the ball to the back of the pack, which often results in an obstruction penalty.
- The attacking side transfer the ball to the back of the pack and an opposing player, not offside because no maul is formed, comes around the side to scrag him.

Check out Italy executing the move perfectly here, with some, eh, grainy footage from 2007.


It’s certainly a risky tactic if the opposing team is switched on. It’s a risky tactic, especially when the attacking side have dynamic carriers at second row. It’s also risky in that you give the ball catching lineout player the opportunity to turn, instigate contact (and therefore the maul situation) by offering a stationary long arm hand off. The maul can then be formed, with ball fed to the back as usual, but with the catcher able to assume a more dynamic mauling position. But it’s worth the risk for most.

Vogue

For some reason, the uncontested lineout maul has come back into vogue in 2014.

Saracens have been using the tactic to great impact, and other teams have been catching on.


Sarries trialled it against Munster in Thomond recently, and Paul O’Connell was incorrectly pinged despite doing everything right. Glasgow, coached by the excellent Townsend, have also used it, defusing a big Montpellier pack with Scottish smarts. Ali Kellock mentioned this in a recent BT Sport piece which explains the trend well:

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At the weekend, Paulie, SImon and Joe brought the tactic on again, using Jack McGrath to bamboozle a big Saffer pack, and benefiting from their surprise twice.

 

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Smaller, lighter and smarter teams should be able to make hay while this ruling remains, and Japan were another side to use the tactic, outsmarting the Maori pack.


While the trick is out of the box a bit now, expect the uncontested lineout maul to be retained in the dark recesses of Joe Schmnidt’s coaching toolbox, ready to be brought out next September perhaps.
Now, if only we were playing a large, often disorganised, often brutish pack that we might need to outsmart in the group stages

World class Ireland, in three key areas…

Normally, the pre game match analysis is a banal affair, but yesterday on RTE, I noticed two very interesting things happen.

Firstly, a clown of an analyst was once again caught out for the ill-prepared, controversy seeking fool that he is ( let’s not give him any more air time).

Secondly, a few small words, picked up by Conor O’Shea afterwards, gave us an insight into the mindset of our coach.

In the middle of an interview done last week, Schmidt had the following to say, with reference to the start of a new challenge, the loss of a key man in our #13 jersey, and a mounting injury lists:

“Change motivates, change is a positive continuum”

Some coaches and many media men speak of ‘transition’ as a negative. The smartest, like renowned sports psychologist Michael Gervais said last month on a visit to Dublin, see it as a necessary evolvement, a challenge to iterate and improve. Schmidt seemingly falls into the latter group.

In year gone by, I’ve criticised Irish rugby plenty of times for needing to rely on irregular intangibles like passion and underdog status, or sticking too rigidly to a game plan and failing to adapt based upon the circumstances, or the team in front of them.

This doesn’t happen very often to a Schmidt team, and yesterday showed why we’ve one of the best coaches in the world.

Corporate Knowledge

This was one of the great Irish performances of the modern era.

Let’s not kid ourselves, we’ve flattered to deceive quite a bit, and it won’t win us a World Cup, but it’s another excellent building block on the road.

Mr. Thornley often talks about ‘corporate knowledge’ within a team, and Ireland’s is as high as any squad. Look closely at yesterday, and you’ll see small, smart things that accumulate to make a big victory that are both player and often coach led.

  • The tactic to pull away from the South African maul, not engage and send Jack McGrath around the back
  • The tactic of using Sexton as a wide ‘shooter’ in the defensive line, the O’Driscoll position, to cut off South African attacks
  • The beautiful rolling maul
  • The Bowe try, which came from a perfect set move (below)
  • The enormous rucking effort of the much maligned Zebo
  • The beautiful Ruddock try, created from smart body position from a rolling maul
  • Taking channel one ball where possible against a savage Bok scrum

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Ireland are one of the smartest teams out there, and given the respective 23 men squads yesterday, we needed all of our smarts. We will be worried by England, Bok and All Black power, skill and strike running, but if any of these three teams are below par, we can take them.

Elsewhere, there were huge performances from quite a few places. The 12/13 axis, though quiet, looked solid. If there was a definition of ‘to the manor born’, it would be Robbie Henshaw, who looks like he could be a ’100 capper’ even at this stage.

Jack McGrath, though suffering in the scrum, made an enormous 17 tackles, while Ruddock, who’s selection was question beforehand, played an unfamiliar role and still came out as a potential MOTM candidate.

But along with the coach, it was real world class in two other areas that saw Ireland home.

‘Pivot’al

If you’ve got a world class coach and two of the best halfbacks in the world, you’ve every chance of winning trophies. While the Murray/Sexton axis has had difficult days (both singularly and together), yesterday illustrated just how good both of these guys can be. Excuse me for being slightly sycophantic, but there’s a fairly good argument to be made that this is the best pivot partnership in world rugby at the moment.

Murray, from some poor early days in green, has grown into an all rounder. His breaking threat, but also his kicking and spatial awareness yesterday were important. The young Limerick man seems to have picked up traits from all of the scrum halfs he’s played with – pack marshalling from Stringer,  break from Reddan and physicality from TOL, and put them all together into one powerful package.

Outside, this was J10s finest moment in an Irish jersey. Immaculate from the boot, dangerous on the break and ROGesque when kicking to the corner. One part of Sexton’s game which doesn’t get plaudits is his defense. At one stage, in the second half, Duane Vermeulen got up a head of steam and charged at him. A weaker outhalf would have attempted to chop. Sexton, along with Heaslip, went high, knocked the brute back, and further set the tone.

The below, with a nice cameo from Kearney, illustrates how effective both men are at identifying space, keeping up with play and attacking it.

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Even more so than O’Brien, Healy, POM, Kearney, or, whisper it, O’Connell, keeping both of these guys fit for next September will be critical.

A word too for Mike Ross. Here’s a guy who’s not traditionally the fittest, who hasn’t played in a month and yet who sustained 72 minutes against a brutish opposing pack. What a hero.

The Aviva rocking, a strong Saffer side sent packing and an Irish team that can only improve. These are good days. Let’s hope they continue.

 

The ballad of Michael Bent

It was a picture so staged and contrived that one wondered whether the IRFU press team were actually having an in joke, or perhaps taking the piss out of Declan Kidney, the Irish fans and the media with this new recruit.

‘Take up that stick there Benty and give us a pose!’

Fresh off the plane from New Zealand and ready to be thrown into the white hot heat of battle, we knew little about the Taranaki man, other than the fact he was known by Greg Feek, had played both sides of the scrum, had a sister here and came off the back of a successful season.

Contempt

Since then, the story of Michael Bent has been one fraught with dismissal, often outright derision and at times, from certain quarters, an unfair contempt.

And yet, the scorn around Bent is mostly down to the fact that he’s measured incorrectly.

Let’s get things straight.

Bent never was, and is nowhere near an international prop standard. So it’s wrong to measure him in this way.

Whatever Mr. Feek told Mr. Kidney and Mr. Schmidt about his talent, it was incorrect. Bent saw a meteoric rise and fall, from winning a penalty against South Africa with his first action to struggling in the bottom rungs of the Pro12. But gradually, he has found his level.

Like most Leinster props, his first 12 or so months were defined by an inability to lock a scrum, and a problem getting to grips with the pace and style of the Leinster game. Ask Mike Ross, Jamie Hagan, Tadhg Furlong or Stan Wright what’s expected of a Leinster TH, and they’ll tell you the same thing.

However, having gotten over this hump, Bent has proven his worth. With a long back and a little less weight than most ‘barrel shaped’ tightheads, playing at #3 was always going to be difficult. Yet, he has grown into both a passable tighthead, even at European level, and actually quite a solid, dare I say destructive LH (his original position).

Every team needs it squad members. In fact, those guys who make up the 23 when marquee players are injured, or away with Ireland, can often make or break a season. In recent years, Leinster have made up ground with good wins during the 6N period for example.

In reality, Bent will, barring a lot of injuries, never play for Ireland again, but he’s an increasingly important part of Leinster’s squad.

Yet the muck keeps being slung. It’s a situation reminiscent of Tom Court, where people forget that he’s actually quite a good LH, and let the media focus on one bad day in Twickenham cloud judgement.

Trolls

In the past three weeks, we’ve had separate instances from those delightful media trolls George and Neil (funny, Mr Francis’ recent issue with ‘the gays’ seems to have been neatly forgotten doesn’t it?). Here’s what these charming, always conservative fellows had to say:

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I would ask whether either of the two had watched any of Bent’s performances at LH in the Rabo last year. But of course, that would be a moot question wouldn’t it? Imagine, an Irish analyst actually doing some real analysis!

Similarly, the mood within Leinster’s fanbase has been unforgiving, with Bent being actively booed by a section of the ‘ultras’ in the RDS terrace in recent weeks. Delightful stuff.

Value

Personally, I like to look at it this way. In the past few weeks, Bent has played: 

80 minutes at LH against Munster
14 minutes at TH against Zebre
65 minutes at TH against Wasps (where he held Matt Mullan steady)
70 minutes at TH against Castres (where he looked in trouble, but only gave up one penalty)

This weekend, with no tight head cover and a half fit Tadhg Furlong, he will likely play 80, switching across the scrum near the end.

That’s not easy, nor is it something that any other prop in the Leinster squad can do. Anyone remember the last time Jack McGrath played on the other side for example? Paul James does.

Taking a step back, and removing from the equation that the guy was (wrongly) parachuted into the national squad, due to a lack of passable props at the time, Bent is at best a third choice LH (fourth choice last year, until Jack O’Connell left) and a fourth choice TH. There’s a good case that he’s one of the best players in Europe in this quite valuable position.

He’s likely on peanuts, and at worst, is a passable, ‘ambipropsterous’ player who’s always available and content to sit on the bench. That’s worth a lot of weight in squad gold. If Billy Beane turned to rugby, Bent would be one of the first players he’d pick up.

The season isn’t nearly over for Benty, with Healy out, McGrath overworked and semi-fit tightheads, he’ll be needed again. He’ll continue to be derided and jeered by those who refuse to actually watch him, or fail to measure his worth in reality terms, rather than international terms. Except of course lads like George and Neil like to crow about the ‘price’ of everything, but know the value of nothing.

Anyway, if nothing else, he can always turn to the hurling eh?