Welsh lineout adds up for Ireland’s Iain Henderson

Hooker Ken Owens hasn’t missed a single target from his throws in the Six Nations

Two and two equals five. That’s the media for you.

It was suggested to Iain Henderson, originally studying mathematics at Queen's University, Belfast, and now pursuing a degree through the Open University, that the his subject choice provided the perfect accompaniment to the world of lineout calling.

Straight-line equations, the numeric based cadence of the lineout and a person with a mathematical bent, the perfect match. Henderson begged to different, albeit with a gentle smile. “Not necessarily, I wouldn’t draw huge comparisons between the two,” he says.

“It’s [lineout] calling systems that aren’t overly complicated. It wouldn’t take a huge amount of mathematical knowledge to understand them.”


Undaunted, he was then asked whether the lineout calling system, was overcomplicated at times. The short answer is no.

“It’s quite logical and sometimes people don’t follow the logic, it has to be corrected so it does follow the logic if you know what I mean. It needs to be all in step with all the other calls.”

There is a familiar theme to most lineout preambles.

The team throwing in, goes into a huddle minus the hooker who waits patiently on the sideline, ball in hand, for a prop to communicate the call. It’s not the only similarity.

‘Hard system’

Henderson elaborates: ”Before, players liked the idea of it making a hard system to pick through. Four or five years ago, teams used to call [when the two teams were lined up opposite one another]. Now nearly every team runs the same lineout but everyone just has different calls.

“We’ll see a Welsh lineout and we will probably have the same lineout, just a different name for it. It’s lot of different names for the same lineouts.”

Wales have won 35 and lost two of their lineouts in the Six Nations Championship to date while predominately throwing to flankers Justin Tipuric (13) and Sam Warburton (11).

Jake Ball (2) calls their lineout rather than captain Alun Wyn Jones (7) but he will have to fight off a fit again, Luke Charteris.

As countryman Tom Jones sang, "it's not unusual" for Wales to use a backrow as a primary source – Talupe Faletau was a regular option when first choice – but it became more prevalent in the November Test series and the first three rounds of the Six Nations tournament.

Henderson explained: “We have noticed it. Justin Tipuric is a massive threat at the front. He is very athletic, he can be [hoisted] up almost in a single lift and [they can] have somebody chasing around the back of it [the lineout].

“It gets them good quick ball at the front. Sam Warburton is an athletic guy, I’m sure he is easy to lift and he gets up very fast. They get good quick ball and maul a fair bit off it as well. It depends on your personnel. Alun Wyn Jones has taken a good bit of ball, Jake Ball not so much but it is only a matter of time.

“We have analysed what they do in certain areas of the field, whether it is a four-man [lineout] or five-man, six or seven [man lineouts] maybe further up the pitch. They have a good variety.We have been looking at the patterns emerging, not just in the championship, but in November.

‘Trends and patterns’

"It's good to be picking out trends and patterns. We normally go back five to eight matches, the personnel might change too much beyond that. This week, it may change again with selection. Toby Faletau may come in and you have to work out which jumpers the hooker likes to go to."

The hooker in question, Scarlets' Ken Owens, hasn't missed a single target (33-0).

Wales possess a powerful maul and Ireland are conscious of playing the percentages in the game of lineout poker, gambling whether to go up or stay down in defending a throw. Pitch position is normally a significant arbiter.

Henderson admits that while separating the emotion from the logic of performance analysis is a conscious effort, he has learned to do so on the basis that it is the only way to improve.

“A lot of is put into stats for us. I don’t mind going through it and figuring out whether I have bettered myself from my previous performance. A lot of it does come down to being brutally honest with yourself and having the stubbornness almost to push yourself through, looking at how badly you did things.

“Realistically, it is the bad things you have to concentrate to get better. If you don’t correct the things you do wrong, you won’t get better. You learn that from top-level players, watching them look at their mistakes to better themselves.”

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer