Cardiff Blues are set to return to action this weekend as a tough run of fixtures gets underway to start this mid-season block. Glasgow, Ulster and Saracens on the road are followed by Saracens and Dragons at home, before it’s back on the road to Scarlets and Ospreys.
After the inconsistency of the first block of fixtures this season, John Mulvihill’s team will have to be at their best more often than not over the next two months if we are to come out the other side still in a competitive league position, and that starts with the set piece.
At the back end of that first fixture block, and particularly out in South Africa against Cheetahs, the lineout was too often a source of frustration when trying to create attacking positions. Against Glasgow in the Heineken Cup as well, turning down kick-able penalties to lose the lineout was a kick in the teeth more than once.
That is all at odds with how good we looked at the lineout and with subsequent solid first phase ball against Munster back in September, when Willis Halaholo was ripping up the plastic turf at the Arms Park.
Now, before diving into some more technical ins and outs of the lineout, it is fair to say that on occasion there are simple reasons why a throw is lost or produces scrappy ball.
In the first clip there is an issue for one of two simple reasons; either the lineout call was not communicated clearly enough to all involved, or Seb Davies has remembered the move incorrectly and got right in the way of Josh Turnbull who is moving towards Gethin Jenkins to be lifted.
The basic reason for the loss of possession in clip two is even simpler. It’s just a poor throw.
These sort of things do happen once in a blue moon to all teams, but they have happened too often for Cardiff Blues during the end of the last block of fixtures to be one-off incidents.
Lineouts are for forwards what first phase play calls are for the backs, in the sense that they are one set of players trying to tactically get the upper hand over the same number of opposition players in as restricted of an environment as you can get in an open game like rugby union.
The throwing team have to make the best use of the area between the five and 15 metre line to gain an advantage over the opposition, ensuring the jumper is higher than the opposition jumper, or ideally unchallenged altogether.
This is a textbook example of a seven-man attacking lineout with Olly Robinson’s heels on the 15 metre line at the back, and Brad Thyer’s heels on the five-metre line at the front, creating a big gap in the centre of Zebre’s defensive setup.
Josh Turnbull simply moves forward into it and Nick Williams turns to act as the front lifter and Cardiff Blues not only secure good possession in the middle, but can set up a solid maul as Zebre are not in position to properly defend against that either.
The alternative to this setup is when we constrict the space and cause problems for ourselves.
The first thing to notice about both clips is that there are over-complicated aspects to both of them, with the first clip containing a lot of pre-throw movement, while the second being a throw to the back during a game where we threw to the back three times, and gave up possession three times.
Beyond that though, they share in common the theme that when the throw is made you can draw a line of no more than seven metres between the front and back Cardiff Blues players. This shortens the area that the opposition need to defend so they can get a jumping pod in place and compete.
A further point to be made about the first clip though, is how important the sharpness of the movement in the lineout is when trying to work a jumping pod free.
By using as much of the space available as possible on a four-man defensive throw-in, and adding in a sharp fake to the front, Cardiff Blues open up the metre needed for George Earle to claim the lineout.
Think of a fake in a lineout move as a dummy runner in the backs. If the dummy runner does not make the opposition believe he is a viable option then he is useless.
Looking back to that clip against Zebre above where the lineout is disrupted, the fake towards the front where no potential lifters even lay a hand on Seb Davies are so see through that Zebre actually get their lifting pod at the back in place before Cardiff Blues do.
The final point to make about our lineout play at the end of the last fixture block, and a motto to live by over the next few weeks, is that ‘simplicity is key’.
Throwing the ball to the back of the lineout to get the best attacking ball possible, or factoring two fakes into a lineout move to get a jumper free, are all ideal for a world class forward pack, but sometimes there is no substitute for throwing your best jumper up, hitting him at the height of his jump and playing from there.
It is possible to gain the upper hand in other ways, and now that Cardiff Blues have a more than capable driving maul, shaping to set for a push with Nick Williams at scrum-half keeps Zebre committed to the lineout area before he plays the ball out for Lloyd Williams to start an attack from where he would have been had we come off the top from a throw to the back!
With the dual threat of the driving maul and some quality backs who thrive off front-foot first phase ball, the lineout functioning well will be a huge positive for Cardiff Blues over the next few weeks, especially in terms of turning pressure into points.
If we can stay above 90% success rate in this area throughout the next two months, we give ourselves a great chance of staying competitive against some very good opposition. Who knows, we may even steal some opposition ball!