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