Matt Williams: The Irish backs’ alignment is too wide and too flat

Ireland are repeatedly ignoring the essential lessons inside the gain line theory

Next weekend the actions of the teams in this year's Six Nations Championship will do all the talking and their propaganda will be silenced.

It's time for this Irish team to stop telling us how good their attack is going to be and start showing us. In the previous two Six Nations, the 2019 Rugby World Cup and in the non-event that was the Nations Cup, Ireland failed because they did not dominate the gain line in attack.

This failure to dominate the gain line is not because of “Xs” and “Os” on a slide presentation. It is because Ireland are ignoring the essential lessons inside the gain line theory.

I have written about gain line theory in this column many times because its principles tell us how to dominate, even against today’s rushing defences. It remains a library of wisdom that is not only relevant but is being used with great success by both England and France.


Gain line theory is not a game plan but a set of principles on which attacking systems are designed. These principles empower teams to do what it says on the label and dominate “the gain line.”

“Gain line theory” was created by pure alchemy. In August 1927, somewhere in the vastness of the northern Indian Ocean, onboard a ship named the “Ormonde,” the original New South Wales Waratahs were steaming their way to commence their historic tour of Ireland, the UK and France.

These unlikely Sharmans converted the Ormonde into a floating rugby laboratory. Its eight week voyage was an experiment on how to dominate the gain line in attack. Extraordinarily, when their boat docked in Plymouth, they had created a universal rugby truth, whose principles are timeless.

Andy Farrell’s Irish team face the exact same dilemma as those long dead Waratahs. They must create a strategy that will empower their skilful players to dominate the gain line against the bigger men in Europe’s international teams.

To move the ball wide, attackers should align closer together, using short, rapid passes

The beautiful minds in the 1927 Waratahs did not construct gain line theory based on nationality, values or beliefs. While it contains counterintuitive thinking and Zen like principles - that have balanced opposites - gain line theory is a pure and timeless sporting truth.

It states: to advance the ball with pace, the attacker has to run at pace onto the ball. The faster an attacker runs at a defensive line, the slower that defensive line will advance.

The closer the attacker is to the defender, when he accepts the pass and the faster he is running, the more pressure the attacker places on the defender. The opposite is also true. The deeper an attacker aligns to accept a pass, the faster the defensive line will advance. So standing deep in attempting to gain time, empowers the defenders to take space.

Currently, the Irish runners are accepting the ball either standing still, not at full pace or far too deep. The Irish attack often concedes ground to their opponents’ rushing defensive systems.

To move the ball wide, attackers should align closer together, using short, rapid passes. This moves the ball across the field faster than a long and wide pass. Short passes also “fix” defenders from sliding across field. Attackers that stand wide apart and use longer passes, gives the defenders time to adjust. So the ball will travel faster when the attackers align close to each other and the ball will travel slower when attackers align wide.

Currently, when Ireland attempt to move the ball wide against rushing defenders their second receiver - Bundee Aki - gets the ball via a long Johnny Sexton pass. Aki also often gets his ribs tickled by a charging defender. The Irish backs' alignment is too wide and flat. They are catching the ball standing still and the attack is snuffed.

England under Eddie Jones are different. They have embraced gain line theory.

Randwick Rugby Club in Sydney, where Eddie Jones played many seasons, were the custodians of gain line lore. Jones has his big English runners at full pace when they receive the ball. They accept the pass flat, close on the defensive line. This places the defenders under extreme pressure and as we saw against Ireland in their last Six Nations meeting. It also cancels the opposition’s rushing defence.

When England's ball carriers, like Maro Itoje, accept flat passes at pace, they may not break the defensive line, but they bend it. By bending the defensive line and slowing its pace, wide defenders are drawn inwards. This creates space on the flanks for short fast passes from Ford and Farrell to maximise the talents of Johnny May and Elliot Daly.

It is wrong to attribute England’s dominance of the gain line to physicality alone. Jones’ use of gain line principles in his modern attack is adding value to their athleticism.

In the 1980s and 90s the brilliant French coach Pierre Villepreux successfully brought the principles of gain line theory to both Toulouse and France. The current French coach Fabien Galthié, has returned his team to those foundational principles and the French have got their "wosh-ka-bomy" back. Their talented backs, like the brilliant Antoine Dupont, constantly use flat passes, on the gain line to link with their hard running forwards. France are a joy to watch.

Ireland in 2021, have the same opportunity to win as the Waratahs did back in 1927. Irish success will arrive when they embrace tactics based on the gain line theory’s overarching principle, that “if you dominate the gain line, you will dominate the game.”

Ireland will never achieve this by physicality alone. To move forward, Ireland need to look to the wisdom of the past.