Should we jump to conclusions over Leinster’s loss of lineouts?
Statistics: Champions Cup referees have clamped down on offences out of touch
Leinster’s Devin Toner and Brad Shields of Wasps in the lineout during last week’s Heineken Cup game. Toner admits his side were forced to make adjustments. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
If French referee Romain Poite initially appeared a tad pernickety when it came to the lineouts in Leinster’s victory over Wasps last Friday in the opening match of this season’s Heineken Champions Cup, it was a practical application of a pre-tournament directive that match officials be vigilant, proactive and one presumes consistent in cleaning-up the contest out of touch.
There are two main areas of focus for the officials. The hooker must stand directly in front of the assistant referee prior to the throw and that the referee will indicate clearly a mark which the non-throwing team cannot encroach upon prior to the ball being thrown in, so as to preserve the gap. There’s nothing new here – just a more rigorous application.
Both the Leinster and Wasps lineouts gave away early free-kicks, the English club for players straying across the mark early and for the home side when hooker Seán Cronin was adjudged not to be positioned correctly in relation to the assistant referee. Poite was consistent in his interpretation, reminding the players of their obligations.
It was a theme that resonated across the 10 matches on the opening weekend of the tournament, teams penalised for similar offences and in the case of Munster captain Peter O’Mahony, the concession of a free kick when hoisted into the air, prematurely.
Leinster’s on-field lineout tactician Devin Toner admitted that losing five lineouts was largely down to a system failure: “We had a different kind of set up. A new thing has been set into the reps [at training] to look a lot more at the gaps and the lines.
“Our process wasn’t as good as it could have been at the weekend. I think every team wants to get a big gap. Obviously a new thing has come down the line to the ref to look more at that. We might have been messed up a little on that.”
The knock-on effect based on a comparison between the cumulative round one European matches last season and last weekend’s games is that the non-throwing team has poached more ball under the new or refreshed application of the laws at the lineout.
As the graphic illustrates possession lost on throw at lineouts last season was 11.55 per cent while that figure has jumped to 16.72 per cent, admittedly in a very narrow study period. On 46 occasions the team throwing the ball in didn’t retain possession, an average of 4.6 lineout turnovers per match, from an overall total of 275 lineouts across the 10 matches last weekend.
In last season’s opening round of fixtures only one team, Castres Olympique, failed to break an 80 per cent success-rate out of touch; four clubs fell below that benchmark last weekend. As teams adapt and streamline the lineout process it’ll be interesting to note whether the trend continues or last weekend represents an aberration.
Looking forward to the next tranche of fixtures through the prism of the Irish provinces, Ulster’s trip to Paris to take on Racing 92 pits two of the most successful lineouts against each other. The French club, for whom former Munster and Ireland international Donnacha Ryan calls the shots, won all 13 lineouts (100 per cent)against the Scarlets and pinched one, while Ulster won 19 out of 20 (95 per cent) on their throw and nicked three belonging to Leicester.
Leinster’s lost five of 19 and stole one, while their opponents and hosts next Sunday, Toulouse won 11 of 13 with two steals in their victory over Bath at the Recreation Ground. Munster, with Tadhg Beirne and O’Mahony in the van, commandeered more opposition throws, five, that any other club, albeit that they had the occasional hiccup on their own ball.
Johann van Graan’s side destroyed Exeter’s platform out of touch, with the home side losing six of 15, the poorest return across the 10 matches. Gloucester visit Thomond Park on Saturday and will be hoping that their strike-rate of 80 per cent (eight won, two lost and one steal) is a statistic upon which they can improve.
In all three clubs produced a flawless lineout performance in the opening round of fixtures, Racing 92, fellow French Top 14 side Lyon (11-0, one steal) and Saracens (14-0) who enjoyed a hard-nosed victory over the Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun.
Rugby has been down this road before where the focus alights temporarily on certain aspects of the game for a short period before flitting elsewhere. For example, the scrum feed had its moment in the spotlight but as last weekend’s matches illustrated, it no longer appears to be policed as rigorously.
Maybe the lineout will follow suit but for the moment it offers a specific point of interest that’s likely to be sharply in focus again this weekend.