Breaking the Code
Breaking the code: how England’s lineout prowess sealed the grand slam
England, under a strategy devised by Eddie Jones and Steve Borthwick, hardly missed a beat on their throw at the lineout and proved its value as an attacking platform in their Six Nations clean sweep .
Eddie Jones has an intriguing relationship with statistics: massaging them to suit his narrative. When addressing Ireland’s kicking game during the Six Nations Championship, he also accused the media of being obsessed with them when it comes to England’s perceived problems (or lack of them) at the breakdown.
So here is an interesting set of stats for England’s coach. At the World Cup last autumn, his Japan side had the third-highest success rate on their own lineout, the second worst on the opposition’s. It was a game plan, masterminded by his forwards coach, Steve Borthwick, which resulted in quick ball from which to mount an attack. The plan acknowledged Japan did not have the players to disrupt the opposition and it worked a treat.
Conversely, England during the Six Nations, again under Jones and Borthwick, had a success rate of 90% on their own throw – less than Wales’s 94% – but crucially 12 steals, twice as many as any other side.
Against Wales and France, England did not miss a beat on their throw, claiming 27 from 27 but then they secured only nine of 13 against Italy – the match that produced their biggest winning margin. Martin Johnson, someone who should know a good lock when he sees one, was so impressed by the partnership of George Kruis and Maro Itoje that he pencilled them in as his starting second-rows for the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand next summer.
Inevitably the statistics never tell the whole picture. Kruis, for example, claimed 33 lineouts across England’s five matches. When he, his Saracens team-mate Itoje and Dylan Hartley played from the off, England’s lineout was flawless. But arguably Kruis’s greatest attribute is his communication. "When we review the game, you hear it through the ref-mic and the one voice you can hear above all the others is George Kruis’s," said Stuart Lancaster in 2015, of a player just two starts into his international career.
Similarly, England’s success rate on their own throw during the World Cup was 91%, higher than during the Six Nations, when Tom Youngs was on throwing duties, but as demonstrated in the closing minutes against Wales, when two line outs were won and then promptly bodged, securing the ball is only half the battle. Two things cannot be denied, however. The first is the growing importance of the lineout as an attacking platform. Ball-in-play times dwindle around the 35-minute mark for most internationals.
The World Cup was supposedly the Age of Enlightenment but in only three matches was the ball in play for more than 40 minutes and the general consensus is the 2016 Six Nations was rugby from the Dark Ages by comparison – even if the official statistics suggest otherwise. With the scrum an ever-increasing mess – 65 of 266 were reset in the Six Nations’ 15 matches including a torturous eight in Scotland’s victory over France – time is becoming more of a premium, broken play the rarest of creatures. In total, 241 minutes of the Six Nations were taken up by scrums.
The inevitable flurry of replacements around the hour mark, fitter, stronger, faster players from one to 15 and better organised defensive structures all contribute but the lineout, of which there were 352 in the Six Nations at an average of 23 per match, becomes one of the few opportunities from which to launch an attack.
At the World Cup 50% of tries were scored from line outs – scrums were the next profitable at 15%. New Zealand and Australia, the finalists, top two teams in the world rankings and the benchmark for the northern hemisphere, scored 20 and 19 from line outs respectively – for the Wallabies a percentage of 68%. During the Six Nations the overall figure drops to 44%, according to the data provided by Accenture, but that is still an increase of 10% in 12 months
The second undeniable point is England’s lineout is far more effective under the tutelage of Jones and Borthwick. This is a first grand slam for England since 2003 but it is worth remembering in the four past years under Lancaster, England were only one win short – even if they made it to the final hurdle only once.
Last year, it was their third match, in Dublin, that proved their undoing. Ireland won the aerial battle but there was a pivotal moment when England, trailing 6-3, kicked to the corner and Dave Attwood’s lineout call, intended for James Haskell, went straight to the Irish lamppost Devin Toner.
As Dan Cole deadpanned when asked what England should have done differently, "probably throw it away from the 6ft 10in bloke with the long arms". The point is that it is hard to imagine Kruis, who calls England’s lineouts, making a similar mistake. After England stole four of Ireland’s lineouts in this year’s tournament, Toner lamented: "We had a good plan going into it but all credit to Kruis, he kind of second-guessed me." Ireland had their moments at Twickenham and had the TMO seen one or two things differently they may have been a lot closer to victory than the 21-10 scoreline suggests but every time Joe Schmidt’s side built any momentum, Kruis, twice, and Itoje, once, were there to pilfer the lineout ball.
It was a similar story against Wales who love nothing better than to whip the ball from the lineout to the onrushing Jamie Roberts to bash his way up the middle, the only difference being it was Itoje as disrupter in chief, and in Paris the pair made four steals between them – that Kruis was overlooked as the man of the match for Billy Vunipola continues to baffle.
Only five of England’s 13 tournament tries came from lineouts, an anomaly that can be attributed to the Italy match, and Jones may not care too much for statistics but he knows he is on to a winner with his current second-row pairing, stating before the weekend that Kruis and Itoje "could be locking our scrum for a long time to come".
He has since changed tack, insisting that no one would be guaranteed a place in any team to face Australia on tour this summer. England have strength in depth in the second row and it is traditionally a position of strength for England with Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes and Attwood waiting in the wings but if Kruis and Itoje continue to perform like this Jones may as well throw away the key.
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