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Analysis: That weird Sean O'Brien lineout tactic worked against Scotland

Following on from the Tullow Tank’s failed effort against England, Rory Best got it spot on in Murrayfield.

EARLIER THIS MONTH we brought you a piece on the odd-looking defensive lineout tactic that Ireland used against England in their Six Nations win in Dublin.

Openside flanker Sean O’Brien was penalised by referee Craig Joubert in that instance, and if you missed that article it’s probably worth going back to read it before checking out the rest of this piece.

That particular incident against England is shown again in the video below.

Source: RBS Six Nations

Essentially, Ireland stood off as England looked to form a maul, instead sending one man [O'Brien] at the English pack in an attempt to complete a tackle.

Joubert ruled that O’Brien had not completed his tackle attempt, Devin Toner had joined the contest to form a maul, and that O’Brien was then responsible for a collapsed maul as he “lay there” on the ground.

As we mentioned at the time, other teams have attempted this tactic with mixed success, and we stated our intention to keep an eye on whether Ireland looked to use it again during the championship.

Chopping the Scots

There we were at Murrayfield watching Ireland go about securing their second consecutive Six Nations under Joe Schmidt when Rory Best scythed down a Scotland ‘maul’ superbly, doing exactly what O’Brien had hoped to do against England.

The video below shows the Ireland hooker’s tackle.

Source: RBS Six Nations

As against South Africa on a number of occasions in November, and versus the English in that O’Brien penalty incident, Ireland’s forwards again stand off and refuse to engage in the physical contact that will form a maul after Jonny Gray has caught the ball.

Scotland’s pack instantly recognises the Irish tactic thanks to their detailed analysis of Simon Easterby’s pack, with lifters Jim Hamilton and Dave Denton immediately grabbing Toner and Paul O’Connell’s jerseys.

Jerseys

This is Scotland’s attempt to ensure that a maul has formed, Hamilton and Denton basically trying to pull the Ireland second rows into the contest.

As we did when discussing the O’Brien incident, it’s worth just refreshing our memory of what a maul actually entails.

Maul The definition of a maul under Law 17. Source: World Rugby

Denton and Hamilton are arguably “bound” to O’Connell and Toner, but the definition of a maul states that it begins when the ball carrier [that's obviously Gray here], is held by one of more opponents, and one of the ball carrier’s teammates binds on the ball carrier.

Neither Toner nor O’Connell, Ireland would argue, are anywhere near the ball carrier at any stage, meaning there is no maul formed.

Referee Jerome Garces appears to make the same interpretation of the law as he allows play to continue, with Toner and O’Connell backing away from Hamilton and Denton’s binding attempts.

Tackle

Gray, aware that Ireland are not engaging to form a maul, is forced to retain possession, as the lack of a maul means he cannot transfer the ball back for fear of being penalised for obstruction.

He begins to move forward with the ball still in his grasp, but Best comes from Ireland’s defensive receiver position and chops in low around the Glasgow Warrior lock’s legs, bringing him to ground almost instantly.

It’s the swiftness of Best’s tackle that makes the tactic a success, contrasting with the slow tackle effort O’Brien made against England. Captain O’Connell argued that his openside might have been allowed more time to complete his tackle against the English, but decisive actions like Best’s remove any doubt.

Scotland do manage to make a couple of metres as Ireland back away here, but the defensive tactic is wholly successful and Vern Cotter’s side are denied a prime mauling opportunity.

Messier affair

There was a similar-ish incident a little earlier in the game at Murrayfield, when Peter O’Mahony brought a Scotland maul attempt to ground in a different area of the pitch.

The video below shows that occurrence.

Source: RBS Six Nations

On this occasion, Ireland get in the air to compete through Peter O’Mahony, while Toner attempts to sack Gray as soon as the Scotland lock lands back on the ground following his successful take of Ross Ford’s throw.

When we freeze the frame below, it’s difficult to argue that a maul has not been formed.

Formed

O’Mahony is in contact with Gray, while Toner has his hands on the Glasgow second row too. This is in the split second before Gray transfers the ball back to Blair Cowan [white scrum-cap], but with Ryan Grant already bound onto Gray [the ball carrier].

All the components are in place to rule that this is a maul.

In the next split second, Toner falls away and O’Mahony drives into Gray, appearing to lift his arms into what looks like a tackle. Scotland’s reaction is an unhappy one, with both Gray and scrum-half Greig Laidlaw appealing to Garces as Gray is taken to deck.

Ref

Clearly, the Scotland players feel that Ireland have collapsed a maul, but Garces seems to feel that Gray has been ‘sacked’ as he lands on the ground. The referee allows play to develop and O’Connell floods in to bring Cowan to ground behind the gainline.

Scotland subsequently have a difficult exiting kick to make, and Ireland actually score directly from the next lineout after Laidlaw clears the Scottish lines.

The messy affair above points once again to the difficulty of refereeing a sport as complex as rugby union, though Ireland might argue that they were simply completing a tackle on Gray.

There is no sense that the Irish actions are deliberate in that regard, and O’Mahony simply gets caught in an awkward position after attempting to steal the ball in the air.

Paul O'Connell and Sean O'Brien wrap up Dougie Fife O'Connell and his pack are also fond of a nice choke tackle. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Scotland’s claims for a penalty for a collapsed maul can certainly be backed up strongly, but we felt this semi-related incident was worth taking a quick look at.

World Cup

Going back to the clinical Best tackle in our first example, Ireland will have been buoyed by their ability to pull off this tactic successfully after the failure against England in round three of the Six Nations.

Joe Schmidt’s side do not play again until 28 May, when they face the Barbarians in an uncapped fixture at Thomond Park, while there are some months to go before the World Cup warm-up games begin.

We will continue to watch Ireland’s defensive lineout and ‘maul’ tactics with some interest in those fixtures, but other teams have been served a warning about their clever play.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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