ONE OF THE biggest question marks around Ireland coming into Saturday’s clash with England was their lineout and maul.
With Peter O’Mahony picked on the bench once again and lineout leader Devin Toner dropping to the substitute lock slot, how would Simon Easterby’s Irish pack manage the major threat from England out of touch?
In the end, we never got the original questions answered, as Jamie Heaslip succumbed to injury at the last minute and Ireland brought Peter O’Mahony – who Paul O’Connell says is the best back row lineout operator in Europe – into their XV.
The Munster captain’s impact on the lineout was utterly game-changing, as he claimed five of Ireland’s 13 lineout throws and stole one English lineout in a huge moment in the contest.
A stroke of luck for Joe Schmidt? It would certainly have to be seen that way, given how influential a force Peter O’Mahony was as man of the match.
Schmidt said afterwards that “Jamie is one of our ‘go-to’s in the lineout as well,” and it is true that Heaslip claimed eight lineouts for Ireland over the course of the previous four games.
But it’s impossible to argue against the assertion that O’Mahony is the more explosive jumper, as well as a superior defensive option at the lineout.
Donnacha Ryan was excellent in the lineout and maul exchanges against the English too, claiming five throws for Ireland, while Iain Henderson chipped in with a single catch and some clever calling of the lineout alongside Ryan – the pair of them sharing that duty in Toner’s absence.
Importantly, Rory Best’s throwing was probably the best it has been in this championship, meaning the Irish lineout had a good day all round.
As we discussed last week, Ireland had suffered from their failure to take close-range try-scoring chances from their maul platform during this championship.
It had been a particularly jarring theme, given how effective Ireland have been in this area during Schmidt’s time as head coach.
Undeterred by those near misses, Ireland maintained the faith and when they got their five-metre chance on Saturday – after continuing the trend of opting for the corner with penalties out in the 15-metre channels – they were ruthless in their execution.
Ireland run a six-man lineout with Sean O’Brien in the receiver position and their intentions are somewhat similar to when Alun Wyn Jones picked them off in the defeat to Wales.
This time, however, O’Brien doesn’t step into the lineout to lift a jumper, instead acting in his more usual role of accepting the transfer of the ball when jumper O’Mahony lands.
Ireland’s initial set-up at the lineout is indicated below.
It’s exactly the same set-up as Ireland used in that lineout Jones stole for Wales – in terms of who stands where at the beginning – but the movement from Ireland is different here.
As things stand before anyone moves, England are well matched up on Henderson  in the middle of the lineout and Ryan  at the front, while Courtney Lawes [white 5] is marking Stander  at the tail.
Ireland’s movement before the throw is key.
Henderson initiates everything by coming forward, essentially swapping places with Ryan.
Watch below what that does to Itoje – the key defensive threat for England, given his extraordinary jumping power.
Itoje reads the Irish locks switching places and predicts that the ball will be thrown to Ryan there in the middle of the lineout.
We can see that Itoje beckons for the Joe Launchbury to come and lift him at the front.
Itoje also communicates verbally, presumably asking for that lift, and Billy Vunipola in behind him moves as if to lift from the back.
Also luring Vunipola into sticking in that position at the back of Itoje is the movement of Stander, who comes forward from his starting position at the tail of the lineout to a position where he could lift Ryan from behind.
We’ve circled Stander and Vunipola below.
The image above shows us how Stander has helped to ensure Vunipola sticks to the back of Itoje, but it also demonstrates how Ireland now have a three-on-two at the tail of the lineout.
Vunipola’s position in behind Itoje means he is racing to make up ground to then give a front lift on Lawes, and he never gets there to help the England lock into the air.
Ireland’s own movement is key to creating this overload at the rear of the lineout, with Jack McGrath  coming all the way from a starting position at the very front of the lineout.
O’Mahony, meanwhile, starts in behind Henderson in the original lineout formation, but shifts back as Stander comes forward and that means O’Mahony is in position to jump at the back.
Below, we get a sense of the movement from Ireland, slowed down for the purposes of clarity.
There’s quite a bit for Ireland to get right here, but their timing and execution is perfect and O’Mahony rises at the tail completely unchallenged to ensure the kind of clean lineout take that their maul thrives off.
The job is only really starting for Ireland now, as McGrath and Furlong immediately switch into mauling mindset as soon as O’Mahony has claimed the ball.
We can see below that the Irish props are already engaging forward to brace the front of the Irish maul even before O’Mahony has actually landed.
With England not opting to attempt a ‘sack’ on O’Mahony when he lands – i.e. drag him straight to ground – that bracing work from the Ireland props is even more important, particularly from McGrath.
With the bulk of England’s forwards now coming from the front area of the lineout, their counter drive is focused on the left-hand side of Ireland’s forming maul.
McGrath essentially acts as a barrier to England’s access to the ball, with Vunipola and Itoje driving into the side of his body as O’Mahony transfers the ball to O’Brien.
Over on the other side of O’Mahony, Furlong does superbly to fight off the initial drive of Lawes and then take a hit from Joe Marler, who arrives in from England’s receiver position to contest the Irish drive.
England’s focus from that left-hand side suits perfectly what Ireland intend to do here, with those three players from the dummy jumping pod in the lineout arriving back around to join the maul and help Ireland shear towards the right of O’Mahony.
The arriving positions of Stander, Ryan and Henderson are all completely by design, with Stander first to join the maul, positioning himself to the right of O’Brien, who has taken control of the ball from O’Mahony.
Henderson then joins on the right side of O’Brien, accepting a second transfer of the ball, with Ryan then latching onto the left side of Henderson.
The ball is now in Henderson’s possession, indicated below, as far away from the English forwards as possible.
At exactly this moment, Marler’s drive takes Furlong and O’Mahony to ground, bringing the maul contest to deck. It’s difficult for referee Jerome Garces or his assistant to see exactly why this has happened, but Ireland react superbly anyway.
Stander is still on his feet, but he’s ahead of ball carrier Henderson and if he simply stays right in front of Henderson as the Ulsterman moves forward, the probability is that Ireland will be penalised for accidental offside.
Indeed, this is exactly what happened on one frustrating close-range lineout maul failing for Ireland against Scotland in round one – a crucial moment.
It appears Ireland have learned from that error, however, and Stander doesn’t hang around to find out if it’s going to happen again.
The number eight breaks off ahead of the ball and manages to get the most subtle block in on Launchbury, who is attempting to come around behind the collapsed bodies on the ground.
We can see that Stander does so just as Henderson is breaking off to carry directly at the weak tackle attempt of Anthony Watson.
Would Launchbury have managed to get any contact onto Henderson? It’s difficult to say for sure, but Stander’s understated impeding of the English lock makes sure there is no answer for us.
Though Henderson falls to the ground as he exits the maul and Watson makes contact with him, the 25-year-old is able to propel himself towards the tryline and reach out his right arm to slam the ball down.
Having been deprived of the ball at the back of the maul, Best is so eager for a second contribution after his throw that he arrives over the top of Henderson to clear Watson away, tackling him into the ground after the try.
This try takes eight seconds in total from throw to Henderson dotting down, but there’s so much detail that goes into creating the opportunity.
After suffering the psychological blows of missing chances of a similar nature at key points early on against Scotland and Wales, the boost of scoring this try in the 23rd minute against England cannot be underestimated.
Under pressure to perform, the Irish lineout and maul delivered all evening against a threatening England pack and Henderson’s try was a fine reward for the Irish forwards’ efforts.
Of course, there was defensive excellence too, with O’Mahony leading the charge in this regard.
His 74th-minute steal of the English throw, just outside the Ireland 22, was as important a moment as any on Saturday.
Even aside from this direct steal, Ireland’s defensive pressure on the England lineout consistently made their possession from this source scrappy, forcing Eddie Jones’ men to kick the ball away on a number of occasions.
O’Mahony’s steal was the highlight of the night for Ireland’s defensive lineout.
Again, Ireland win the battle of the read here, as they ignore Tom Wood’s dummy movement towards the tail of the lineout and focus their attention on Itoje, who comes forward to be lifted.
Devin Toner – by now on for Ryan – picks up Itoje’s movement towards the front and it appears that he thinks he will be the Irish lineout jumper in competition to Itoje, as he bounces forward, seemingly to plant for a jump.
But O’Mahony also appears to make exactly the same read, and he has no intention of hanging around for a lift.
O’Mahony explodes off the ground with sensational force, the kind of jumping power that no other Irish back row possesses.
He benefits from an excellent lift by Furlong at the front, although Toner’s apparent initial thought that he will jump means the rear lift is not ideal.
Toner’s hands don’t make it down beyond O’Mahony’s lower back to around the back row’s buttocks, but the lock does at least grip onto O’Mahony’s jersey around his lower back in a bid to add some momentum.
O’Mahony’s own exceptional leap off the ground is the key point, however, and his spring takes him right in front of Itoje, where he gathers the ball to the roaring delight of the Irish crowd.
Ireland might even have had a penalty claim here for Itoje making contact with O’Mahony in the air, but the important thing for Schmidt’s side is that they win possession and are able to kick clear through Luke McGrath, before Watson knocks the ball on under pressure from Simon Zebo.
Game, set and match for O’Mahony and the Irish lineout.
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