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Analysis: Super Rugby sides picking apart lineout seams with sharp attack

The Brumbies scored an excellent try in behind the lineout against the Rebels.

A COMMON THEME as rugby has returned in New Zealand and Australia in recent weeks has been lineout attack plays targeting the defensive space just outside the set-piece.

The ‘seam’ between the lineout and the backline defence, which has to start 10 metres back to be onside, has been heavily explored by attacking teams.

Let’s take a look at an example from the Crusaders’ win over the Highlanders last weekend.

Just outside the Highlanders 22, the Crusaders use a 7+1 lineout set-up, as we can see below.

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7+1 means the Crusaders have seven players, including scrum-half Mitch Drummond, in the lineout itself, with another player in the receiver position that flanker Tom Christie [yellow above] occupies here.

The Highlanders have seven of their forwards in the lineout but opt against having a defensive receiver – often called the ‘tailgunner’ – to mirror Christie, as is very common. The white circle above indicates roughly where we often see this player standing.

Instead, the Chiefs put their eighth forward, Dillon Hunt [red below], in their backline defence to lead up the linespeed and allow them to have greater width with an extra body in the line.

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The Crusaders’ analysis means they know the Highlanders will set up like this in defence, so they want to target the seam between the back of the lineout and Hunt, as indicated below.

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Their method for going after this space is simple and clever.

Christie [yellow below] joins the lineout from the receiver position to lift Sam Whitelock at the front, with the Crusaders keen to lure the Highlanders’ defensive pod at the back of the lineout [white] into responding in kind by getting Josh Dickson into the air.

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To the letter of the law, Christie is definitely early here – he’s not supposed to join the lineout until the ball has left hooker Codie Taylor’s hands – but it’s always difficult for match officials to spot in real time.

The Crusaders’ goal of getting the Highlanders’ back pod into the air is successful but the real target with a deliberate overthrow is out-half Richie Mo’unga [blue above and below], who starts 10 metres back from the lineout [and therefore onside] and bursts forward as Taylor throws.

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Upon receiving the ball, the Crusaders’ plan means Mo’unga will play an inside pass to wing Leicester Fainga’anuku [pink below], who has started tucked 10 metres behind the lineout….

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… and then accelerates to Mo’unga’s inside shoulder to accept the inside pass:

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The danger for the Highlanders is very clear as the 109kg Fainga’anuku thunders onto the ball and into the seam, with Hunt [red] closing up on Mo’unga.

While the Highlanders have wing Ngane Punivai [green above] in behind covering, Crusaders scrum-half Drummond [white] is bursting forward from the lineout in anticipation just as opposite number Aaron Smith begins to react and shadow him.

But Fainga’anuku’s surge is stunted by an excellent bit of defence from Highlanders hooker Liam Coltman, who initially lifts Dixon at the very tail of the lineout…

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… before turning in reaction…

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… and managing to stretch out to cling onto Fainga’anuku…

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… slowing his run and eventually bringing him to ground as Punivai comes forward to assist.

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While Coltman’s excellent reaction prevents a possible try for the Crusaders, this is still a gain of more than 10 metres from the simple play picking at the seam in behind the lineout.

With the Crusaders applying major pressure in the ensuing passage of attack, the Highlanders are caught offside and Mo’unga kicks the opening points of the game from the tee.

Warren Gatland’s Chiefs used this exact same play on the opening weekend of Super Rugby Aotearoa to very nearly manufacture a try against the Highlanders.

Chiefs

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It’s the same 7+1 lineout with Chiefs scrum-half Brad Weber starting at the front and accelerating through, as a dummy jumping pod is deliberately overthrown to out-half Kaleb Trask.

There is a difference defensively here as Highlanders hooker Ash Dixon [yellow below] doesn’t lift at the tail in response and instead breaks out across the 15-metre line as the overthrow goes to Trask.

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But Trask is able to take advantage of the disconnect between Dixon and Hunt [white below] at the seam and get beyond the Highlanders hooker to link inside to to wing Shaun Stevenson [pink], who has started from that position tucked 10 metres behind the lineout.

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Stevenson bursts into the space, draws in Highlanders wing Jona Nareki and passes to Weber, who has come from the front of the lineout.

Smith’s reaction here is superb, tracking Weber through, although he arguably tackles his opposite number before he has caught the ball.

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It’s a tough one to call, even with the benefit of replays, but referee Paul Williams says “timing’s fine, timing’s fine, hands on,” to indicate play on and Smith’s excellent reaction saves the Highlanders.

The Chiefs have used this same lineout play a couple of times since, including last weekend against the Hurricanes.

Going back to the Crusaders’ win over the Highlanders, we saw another example of Robertson’s men picking at the seam leading to three points again.

This time the Crusaders use a 6+1 lineout as scrum-half Drummond [white below] starts 10 metres directly behind the lineout.

Drummond will run a decoy line down the five-metre channel in this instance, while Fainga’anuku [pink] is the strike runner into the seam again. 

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As is their system, Highlanders don’t have a tailgunner  as Hunt [red above] starts in the backline defence.

This time, the Crusaders throw to Whitelock in the middle and Christie [yellow below] moves in to accept the transfer as Taylor [blue] comes off the touchline, seemingly to join in at the back of a forming maul.

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Instead, Christie spins and passes to Taylor, who continues his run infield at pace as Drummond [white below] and Fainga’anuku [pink] make their own darts.

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We can see above how Drummond’s run interests both Smith and Highlanders prop Dan Lienert-Brown, while it’s also crucial to note the work of Crusaders loosehead Joe Moody [green above], who drives in on the edge of the dummy maul, tying in Highlanders from breaking out to make a tackle.

Meanwhile, centre Jack Goodhue runs a hard line to be on Taylor’s outside shoulder and offer a possible short pass option there.

It all leaves the Crusaders with clear space to attack into and they make the breach, albeit with a blatantly forward pass that is somehow missed.

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With the pass ignored, Fainga’anuku breaks Punivai’s tackle and is only halted by Highlanders second row Jack Whetton, who has scrambled back after initially competing in the air at the lineout.

On the next phase, the Highlanders are caught offside again and Mo’unga is able to add another three points off the tee.

Over in Australia, the Brumbies struck to score with the same lineout play during their win over the Rebels.

The Brumbies use a 6+1 but the Rebels have a defensive receiver – or ‘tailgunner’ – in Jordan Uelese [yellow below] to match up on those numbers.

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Meanwhile, Rebels left wing Marika Koroibete [white above] occupies the five-metre channel rather than scrum-half Ryan Louwrens, who is back onside 10 metres behind the lineout.

The Brumbies win the ball in the middle of the lineout and receiver Tom Cusack gets the ball back into the hands of hooker Folau Fainga’a [blue below] as he comes off the touchline.

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As with Drummond in the Crusaders example, Brumbies scrum-half Joe Powell [white above] starts 10 metres behind the lineout and then darts down the blindside.

That run from Powell serves to sit down Koroibete but also, importantly, to draw opposite number Louwrens [red below] into the five-metre channel too.

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Powell’s decoy run drags Louwrens away from being in position to make a cover tackle for the linebreak that occurs over on the other side.

Again, there is crucial work done in the dummy maul by a prop, with the Brumbies’ Allan Alaalatoa [green below] closing off the edge as Moody did for the Crusaders.

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Meanwhile, Tevita Kuridrani [white] is running a threatening line to Fainga’a's outside as blindside wing Andy Muirhead [pink] accelerates from behind the lineout to accept the inside pass from his hooker.

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The pass is certainly far less obviously forward in this instance and Muirhead bursts through to finish a third-minute try that gives the Brumbies a perfect start to the game.

We almost saw the Waratahs making a big bust with the same play the day before in their defeat to the Reds, only for hooker Robbie Abel to fail to give the pass to wing James Ramm.

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With some initial confusion over numbers in the lineout defensively, the run from Waratahs scrum-half Mitch Short [white below] manages to lure Reds tailgunner Fraser McReight [yellow] away to the blindside as Michael Hooper [blue] also breaks to that side after moving the ball to hooker Abel.

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Abel runs at James O’Connor and the Reds out-half does a good job of not 100% committing too early, but the space is still clear for the powerful, fast-moving Ramm [pink below] as tighthead Harry Johnson-Holmes [green] ties in Reds forwards in the dummy maul.

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Reds scrum-half Tate McDermott reacts well to get across from his starting position 10 metres behind the lineout and would likely have got a tackle in, but Ramm would definitely have fancied a crack off an inside pass from Abel here.

The Tahs used this same play twice more in the game, with Hooper passing to scrum-half Short down the blindside on the second occasion and Abel carrying again the third time.

The Reds, meanwhile, used their hooker coming off the touchline as part of attacks into the seam effectively on several occasions, while the Highlanders and the Chiefs also delivered examples of similar attacking focus last weekend.

Picking at the seam behind the lineout is nothing new, of course, but it is certainly occupying the thoughts of the Kiwi and Australian teams as much as ever.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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