Maul is back and a major part of the Ireland arsenal

There’s a real desire in this Ireland set-up to be the dominant force in every game

Conor Murray  gets the ball from the maul during the game against Wales as the Irish team drive for the  line. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Conor Murray gets the ball from the maul during the game against Wales as the Irish team drive for the line. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times


John Plumtree didn’t bring the lineout maul with him from Durban but it’s undoubtedly become a potent Irish weapon again.

It shouldn’t be a massive revelation to state that Joe Schmidt has chosen his forwards coach wisely. But this past fortnight we’ve seen a dangerous edge return to the pack. Schmidt is running the show but some dark words must have been exchanged away from the prying ears of the backline.

On arrival in this country Plumtree called his new charges good but not great, and duly waited for a response.

Niall O’Donovan used to seek similar reactions from his forwards, first at Shannon then Munster then Ireland. If there was a punch up in training he would be visibly happy. That’s a great session in his book. If we were willing to kick the shit out of each other God help the enemy.

I remember a massive punch up one day training out on Thomond Park. We were getting ready for a big European game but the enthusiastic younger fellas tried to pull down a lineout maul from an offside position.

It got out of hand when the Clohessy brothers, Dessie and Peter, swapped digs. Everyone waded in. Naturally I was stuck in the middle of it and a young Donncha O’Callaghan landed a few sneaky punches. He was laying down a marker himself.

When the messing abated, Niall O pulled us around him. He was delighted. Couldn’t ask for anymore.

It’s the same with Ireland of late. Real aggression is evident on the training pitch in Carton House. That’s a desire to be the dominant force in every game. That’s healthy. Being a successful coach in South Africa, Plumtree arrived with the highest expectations of what a forward pack should be able to achieve. Especially at set piece and the physical stakes.

We now see the proof as soon as Rory Best takes the ball into his hands. Since the dawn of rugby, Irish teams, Lord knows Munster in particular, have mined for jewels with the maul. It’s in our DNA but still what a welcome surprise to see it yielding three tries in our opening two Six Nations games.

The best thing about a powerful maul is how mentally draining, never mind the sagging legs, it can be on the opposition. They know its coming but they can’t do anything about it. If it’s put together quickly and in a structurally sound way it’s impossible to legally stop.

Illegally as well with the best example being Jamie Heaslip’s try against Scotland. Rory threw to Dan Tuohy who deftly slipped it off to Chris Henry veering to the right with Heaslip snuggling in behind his flanker as Mike Ross, Cian Healy and Peter O’Mahony bludgeoned a path.

That immediate change of direction took Tim Swinson, big Jim Hamilton and Ryan Grant out of the equation. No team will stop a fully stacked maul without their locks and a prop. That’s good research. Identify who tends to pull down the maul (Hamilton) and move the point of contact away from him with Dev Toner as the decoy/barrier.

All pre-planned and executed like an airplane crashing to earth. The left wing (Toner) was dragged off the main body by a desperate Scottish body with the nose of the plane – Healy, Ross and O’Mahony – only tearing off when their cargo was safely over the try line.

Untold advantage
Against Wales it was different but the same. Best threw to Toner – whose height lends an untold advantage to this ploy - who along with Ross and O’Mahony acted as decoys, or static bodies that Welsh forwards focused on, as Henry nestled in behind Best and Heaslip with Healy and O’Connell either side of him.

Heaslip could have been done for blocking but Barnes had an unimpaired view.

Plumtree, writing a column for SA Rugby magazine last year, explained the same technique behind the Springbok/Bulls excellent maul: “Generally they win the ball where they want to win it in the lineout – on Juandré Kruger or just behind him on Pierre Spies – which is important.

“They pack even numbers on either side of the jumper very quickly and the ripper (who has taken the ball from the jumper) slips to the back of the maul, with his mates protecting him from the opposition. They also get very low and tight and work hard for each other. If the opposition haven’t taken out the lifters and jumper quickly, so they can get closer to the ball, then the Bulls or Boks invariably score the try. The try-scorer is normally the ripper and/or the hooker, and while he does the least work he gets the glory!”

Change the names Kruger and Spies for any one of Toner, O’Connell, O’Mahony, Heaslip.

Paddy Jackson’s try that added further humiliation to Wales’ plight last Saturday proves more than anything that Plumtree, O’Connell, Best and the rest have spent hours sharpening this blunt force since November.

This time the lineout was on the 22 – which is miles for a maul to travel – with Seán Cronin throwing to O’Mahony as Toner ran a decoy to the front. “Once,” Wayne Barnes quickly warned Conor Murray but the Irish pack knew they had the legs and perfect shape to trundle onwards (especially after O’Mahony tore Toby Fatelau’s arm out of its socket when he tried the spoil).

Again the Welsh were fooled with four of them – including Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones – tearing down the wrong section as O’Mahony and Marty Moore happily landing on top of them. The numerical advantage, which is what makes the maul so effective, prompted Leigh Halfpenny to abandon his position, which Murray immediately spotted and put Jackson away with a neat skip pass. What made that last maul so impressive was Tommy O’Donnell, Jack McGrath, Cronin and Moore were off the bench and still they knew precisely what their individual roles entailed.

Structural base
That’s what Plumtree was hired to do. Provide the structural base and let the players build a monstrously effective machine. Schmidt might be the undisputed boss with many of the praise and plaudits being laid at his feet but the Kiwi has so clearly been afforded the pitch time to construct a very South African looking set piece.

He may be born and bred in New Zealand but the 48-year-old played most of his career for Natal before returning to South Africa, via Wellington and Swansea, to lead the Sharks to Currie Cup success.

And no team wins that competition without an awesome maul.

Not that it’s all him, mind. I’ve no doubt Paulie, Rory, Jamie and O’Mahony – leaders from the provinces – weren’t long warming to the idea of building a maul to be feared by mixing up their knowledge. Best was already influenced by the Natal think-tank having played alongside Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaaer.

The beauty of the maul is the fear it instils in opposing packs.

Now what Ireland has achieved in such a small space of time is admirable as they don’t have a Bakkies Botha or John Hayes anymore. Mountains of men, when they walk the maul moves, I’ve seen Hayes take the impact of three charging forwards and still hold O’Connell at full stretch.

Anthony Foley was another with that strong base to bring the jumper down.

So technique is everything. The guy lifting from behind the jumper must be so powerful. Ross and O’Mahony both do decent impressions of Hayes. When that’s done correctly, and the initial assault is fended away, the switch and body positions ignites the tank.

At Munster we also used it to march out of sticky positions. Mostly to create field position so Rog could clear our lines. And we used it to intimidate teams.

Ultimate mauling side
In 2002 we came up against the ultimate mauling side in the Heineken Cup final. When Leicester got lineout ball to Martin Johnson or Ben Kay nearly every team bowed down as Neil Back usually cranked it into gear behind Rowntree, Garforth, West, Cockeril.

They mauled everyone off the field that year. We focused on stopping them. The key is to not let it develop. As Scotland and Wales learned, it’s a number game. We just made sure there were at least six of us piling into them from the lineout. The Tigers kept at it but that’s not what won them the game. They won because they were better but we made them sweat blood over every inch.

It went out of the game for a few years because you were allowed sack players in the air and a lot of referees were penalising for blocking. But the maul is back and Plumtree has made sure if he is the Ireland forwards coach then it will be part of the arsenal.

It’s about laying down a marker as you walk slowly into a lineout five metres out. You know the opposition know what you are going to do and you know what you are going to do. You also believe they won’t be able to stop you. That gees you up.

Will Ireland employ it so effectively and so much at Twickenham? I’m not sure. But that’s certainly what the English expect now. What we do know about Schmidt is he is smarter than most of us. He’ll be aware that Stuart Lancaster will forensically examine ways to counteract Ireland’s maul. They will break down every single lineout. They will also seek to maul the hell out of us. Nothing finds the voice of a Twickenham crowd like a rolling maul.

It’s up to Plumtree to have a strategy to move the point of contact again. It won’t be easy but the tools are in place and that’s the hard part done.

I’ll leave you not with Plumtree’s signing off: “The maul, what a beautiful thing.”

His new pack of forwards so clearly agree.

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