Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership

Become A Member
Dublin: 9°C Tuesday 20 April 2021

Analysis: What the hell was Sean O'Brien doing to the England maul?

There was an odd incident in the 22nd minute of play yesterday in Dublin.

THERE WAS AN intriguing incident in the 22nd minute of Ireland’s win over England yesterday as Sean O’Brien was penalised for collapsing a maul.

Ireland's Sean O'Brien 1/3/2015 O'Brien conceded a penalty shortly before he was forced off the pitch.

Watching in the stadium, our immediate impression was that the Ireland openside had been hard done by, although others around us suggested that referee Craig Joubert had made the correct decision.

Maul defence is an increasingly important part of the game, given that many teams are now so proficient at the attacking maul. Ireland are among those asking demanding questions of the opposition with the driven maul, meaning it’s vital to come up with appropriate defensive action.

Ireland themselves under forwards coach Simon Easterby and led by Paul O’Connell are increasingly unwilling to go up against the best mauling teams in a traditional pushing contest defensively, and their tactics in this area have been intelligent in recent times.

Stopping the Boks

Thrice against South Africa in November, we saw the below tactic from Ireland, which we explained in an article on the maul defence at the time.

For those without the time to go back and read that piece, the idea is that Ireland’s forward pack stand off completely from a potential maul, meaning there is actually no maul formed.

That in turn means there’s no offside line, and allows the designated shooter [Jack McGrath] to race around to the back of the South African formation and tackle the man at the very tail.

With Ireland having avoided engaging with South Africa, the ball is essentially in open play and McGrath is entitled to move around the mass of South African bodies to make the tackle.

Victor Matfield and his pack were slow to recognise Ireland’s intentions in that game, and suffered for their failure to adapt. They did begin to simply play off the top of the lineout more frequently later in the game, but it was strange to see them struggling to deal with this Irish tactic.

After all, it’s something the rugby world has seen elsewhere before, Italy most memorably using the tactic some years ago.

What could South have done to counteract these Irish tactics?

The most obvious option is to be more aware that a maul is not being formed, then simply have the lineout catcher run forward when he lands without transferring the ball backwards.

Alternatively, attempting to grab Irish defenders and drag them into a maul contest might have worked, although such an action might not be viewed positively by referees.

Frustrating France

In round two of this year’s Six Nations, Ireland were aware that France were bringing a strong mauling game to Dublin, and when les Bleus got into their most promising situation from which to maul, O’Connell’s pack stood off again.

Source: RBS Six Nations

The idea here from Ireland is identical, except it’s Rory Best who is sent around as the shooter.


However, referee Wayne Barnes awards Ireland a penalty in this instance, so it’s worth taking a look at exactly why.

Like South Africa before them, France do transfer the ball from the lineout catcher [Pascal Papé] to the ‘receiver’ or ‘ripper’ arriving in [Thierry Dusautoir].


Papé almost immediately realises that Ireland are indeed opting to stand off, and looks to move aside to allow Dusautoir to burst forward and into that space that is opened up the Ireland’s refusal to engage in a maul.

However, Barnes has already blown his whistle to award Ireland a penalty as Dusautoir sets off. The English referee indicates that France had players infringing “in front of the ball.”

There is no further explanation, but Barnes has penalised Yoann Maestri, Bernard Le Roux and Damien Chouly for their actions ahead of the ball, feeling that they have obstructed Irish defenders.

O’Connell does a fine job of attracting Barnes’ attention by putting his arms up in the air in appeal against Chouly, the English match official swiftly reacting in Ireland’s favour.


Are Ireland’s actions here legal?

Law 19.8 (d) of World Rugby’s Laws of the Game indicates that “[p]layers of either team must not leave the lineout once they have taken up a position in the lineout until the lineout has ended.”

The sanction in this case is a free kick on the 15-metre line.

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 19.31.28 Law 19.8 (d) Source: World Rugby

Elsewhere, Law 19.14 (e) states that “[n]o player of either team participating in the lineout may leave the lineout until it has ended,” this time indicating that a penalty on the 15-metre line is the sanction.

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 19.32.19 Law 19.14 (e) Source: World Rugby

Evidence if ever it were required that rugby’s laws are utterly complex and confusing, but are Ireland leaving the lineout in the incident above?

They’re certainly backing away, but we have to remember that they would have raised this very issue with Barnes before the game. Both teams have the opportunity to discuss law-based issues with the referee in the build-up to Test matches, so Ireland would almost certainly have flagged this with the Englishman.

He is happy that Ireland are not leaving the lineout here, so one would have to presume that’s the pre-match feedback he provided Schmidt, Easterby and O’Connell with.

Ireland took that on board and lured France right into conceding a penalty in a crucial attacking position and with the scoreline still only 6-3 in their favour. A big moment in that game.

Attempting to chop England

England have more set-piece intelligence than the French, and with the level of analysis that now goes into the game, Ireland were fully alert to the fact that Stuart Lancaster’s men would have been expecting the Irish standoff.

As a result, Ireland needed to alter their tactics as they once again looked to stand off from the maul contest in a key area of the pitch.

Source: RBS Six Nations

Dave Attwood is the man to catch at the England lineout in the video above and he’s got enough awareness not to immediately transfer the ball to the receiver, Billy Vunipola. You’ll spy Rory Best briefly make a move to race around as that shooter, before he spots that Attwood still has control of the ball and backs off.

Ireland’s other forwards stand off, and realising that Attwood has figured out their ideally primary tactic, O’Connell gives O’Brien the signal to go in and make a tackle on the English lock.


O’Brien drives in low around Attwood’s legs in an attempt to bring him to ground, just as referee Joubert shouts, “Play on, front man’s got the ball” to indicate that there is no obstruction by the English.

It takes O’Brien around three seconds to complete the tackle on Attwood, and by then Devin Toner has joined the contest to make this a maul.


With England beginning to look like making headway, Peter O’Mahony and O’Connell also opt to engage, as we see below.


At this point, Joubert says “Maul’s still up” as O’Brien finally brings Attwood to deck and then “Don’t stand on him” to Dan Cole, whose right foot is hovering over O’Brien lying on the ground after his ‘tackle’.

Cole obeys the instruction, but then finds it difficult to place his left foot and at that exact moment, Ireland get a good counter shove on against the English maul to drive them backwards.

Joubert is unhappy with O’Brien’s failure to roll away, however, and puts out his left arm out to indicate the penalty advantage, saying “advantage, you’ve got to move away.”

England manage to splinter off to the left, but as we can see below Billy Vunipola and Dylan Hartley are obstructing in front of Cole, which Joubert immediately identifies as illegal.


Joubert therefore ends the advantage and comes back for the penalty against O’Brien, and now indicates that he is penalising Ireland for “collapsed maul, collapsed maul”.

Interestingly, the South African referee asks England to wait and goes towards Ireland captain O’Connell to say “I feel like I need to explain it.”

“So because the guy at the front still had the ball when your first guy connected, it’s not an obstruction. You’ve got a maul,” says Joubert.

“That’s fine,” nods O’Connell.

“You [O'Brien] then went to ground and lay there, and that’s why it collapsed,” says Joubert.

“But that’s a tackle,” argues O’Connell.

No, it’s not, because you’ve formed a maul and so the rest of his mates come in.”

“How long does get to make the tackle,” smiles O’Connell.

“No, it’s up,” replies Joubert. “He didn’t make the initial tackle, his mates joined.”

It’s a lively exchange and heartening to see a referee engage with a captain in this manner, with O’Connell certainly being within his rights to question the match official.

The reasoning from Joubert is strong and difficult to argue with. O’Brien is entitled to make a tackle attempt at the front of that English ‘maul,’ but he does fail to complete it before Toner [his mate] joins the contest.

Joubert has no issue with O’Brien attempting the tackle, but it’s the failure to roll away on the ground when the maul has formed that causes the penalty. At that stage, the maul is definitely formed and Joubert feels O’Brien’s presence on the ground is responsible for the collapse.

Why is it not a maul until Toner joins?

The very definition of a maul is that “at least three players” are involved, one defender and two attackers, but all “on their feet” to ensure that open play has ended. Clearly, O’Brien is not on his feet, and that’s partly the idea behind Ireland’s tactic.

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 19.46.58 The definition of a maul under Law 17. Source: World Rugby

One to watch

This tactic of sending a single tackler in at the front of the opposition ‘maul’ against teams who are intelligent enough not to transfer the ball to the tail before the defensive side has engaged is not exclusive to Ireland.

Glasgow Warriors have been using it intermittently and with mixed success, while the Scarlets have also sent a tackler in to attempt to chop down the lineout catcher upon landing. Look elsewhere and we’re sure you’ll find further examples.

The real key is in the execution, it being so vital that the tackler swiftly brings the ball carrier to the ground before a maul forms. Perhaps most importantly, the tackler’s teammates must resist the temptation to join the contest if the referee is willing to allow a slow tackle.

It may take two or three seconds for the tackler to get the carrier to deck, but it’s up to his fellow defenders not to engage until absolutely necessary.

Ireland were unsuccessful with this variation on the stand-off against England, but it will be interesting to see if they and other persist with it, particularly in the World Cup later this year, when the maul will be pivotal.

Arguments that Ireland are not adhering to the Spirit of the Game with these intelligent, frustrating tactics are there to be had too, but for now Joe Schmidt’s side are testing the laws of the game with their maul defence.

Analysis: Robbie Henshaw’s try built on foundation of Irish work rate

France’s Six Nations nightmare continues with Parra and Fofana ruled out

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

Read next: