Paul O'Connell's line-out expertise will be vital with Plumtree leaving. Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Line out

Analysis: Loss of Plumtree a major blow for Ireland but O'Connell can cope

We use GIFs, videos and screenshots to look at Ireland’s maul and line-out against Argentina.

JOE SCHMIDT’S POST-Argentina summer months will be spent finding a new forwards coach, as John Plumtree heads home to New Zealand after the current tour.

Ireland’s loss is the Hurricanes’ gain, with the former Natal Sharks head coach having made a major impact on Schmidt’s pack since taking over the role last September. It’s worth stressing that ‘Plum’ has had some superb forwards to work with, but the impression he will leave is hugely positive.

The ex-flanker is a student of the game – he spent time as video analyst for the All Blacks back in 2001 – and his character has matched ideally with Schmidt’s. Plumtree’s honest, direct approach has fitted in well with the type of culture his head coach has insisted upon in the Ireland group.

The most obvious illustration of Plumtree’s impact with Ireland has been the line-out, which ran at over 90% success in all but one of the 2014 Six Nations games on Ireland’s throw, and delivered a 100% performance against Argentina last weekend.

Similarly, the maul was a weapon in Ireland’s Six Nations success, leading directly to tries against Scotland and Wales, while also pinning teams back at regular intervals. In Resistencia last Saturday, Ireland’s pack rumbled over for another maul score.

While the work Plumtree has done with Ireland’s pack will not utterly reverse itself, it is crucial that Schmidt finds an able, technically-proficient replacement as forwards coach with the 2015 World Cup looming.

Line-out basics

Not only does Plumtree’s personality match-up well with Schmidt’s, but his coaching style and beliefs are also rooted in similar values. Everything Schmidt wants his side to do is rooted in carrying out the basic skills superbly, be that passing, rucking, tackling or fielding.

Dave Kearney, Gordon D'Arcy, Brian O'Driscoll, John Plumtree and Rob Kearney celebrate in the dressing room Plumtree has made a big impact with Ireland.

Plumtree’s beliefs around the line-out are entrenched in the same manifesto. 2012′s South African Coach of the Year is all about the basic skills at the line-out. Systems, moves, shape and calls are nothing without the players having the fundamental movement, throwing, jumping, lifting, reading and anticipation abilities.

“Quite often it’s not about the line-outs, its about an individual in the line-out,” said Plumtree last year.

Whether it’s a poor lift, a poor jump or a poor throw, that can make the line-out break down. So we’re just trying to go back to the basics really and making sure everyone performs their role accurately in the line-out, so the line-out has a great opportunity to be successful.

“That is one of the keys. You forget at this level that you can forget about those basics. We have spent a lot of time talking about those basics and practising them.”

Evidence in Argentina

Ireland’s latest line-out performance came close to perfection on their own ball, with 14 throws [12 by Rory Best and two by Damien Varley] delivering 14 takes in the air. Plumtree and his players have built a system that is straightforward but hard for opposition teams to compete against.

Throughout the Six Nations, Ireland had three leading line-out jumpers in Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony, as well as Jamie Heaslip and [the rarely used] Chris Henry, meaning there were multiple options to throw to.

In Resistencia, O’Connell maintained his central role, while Iain Henderson and Robbie Diack came in as the other two strongest options for Best to hit with his throws. Henry, Jordi Murphy, Jack McGrath and Mike Ross spent the majority of the game as the lifters.

12.18 Diack .1

In the seven-man line above, we can see that Murphy [1], O’Connell [2], Diack [3] and Henderson [4] are all viable jumping options, stretching Argentina’s line-out resources. McGrath, Ross and Henry are the lifting options [as signified by yellow lines].

The fact that Diack, Henderson and O’Connell are all superb lifters themselves makes things even more multi-faceted from an Irish point of view. In the image above, and the GIF of the line-out below, it’s apparent that Murphy is unmarked at the front.

However, Ireland’s pattern on this passage of play calls for the backs to go wide to the far side of the pitch, so O’Connell [who calls the Irish line-out] wants to claim the ball at the tail, providing better possession for Jonny Sexton to shift out the backline.

12.18 Diack

The movement on the ground from Ireland is decisive, as Diack comes two steps forward and springs up, with O’Connell lifting at the front and Henderson at the back. Diack actually moves into the space in the Argentinian line where they have a prop standing [he obviously can't jump], in between two of the Pumas’ jumping options.

The result is gorgeous clean ball for the backs, with Chris Henry also free to burst away from the very tail of the Irish line-out and resource any rucks on the opposite side of the pitch or in midfield if the backs’ move breaks down.

Under Plumtree and Schmidt, Ireland have also used plenty of shortened line-outs, with just five forwards involved in the set line. Again, the omnipotence of Toner, O’Connell and O’Mahony as lifters and jumpers made that set-up very successful during the Six Nations.

15.03 Hendo .1

We saw plenty of that shape again last Saturday, with O’Connell, Henderson and Diack providing the jumping options, as the superb McGrath and Ross book-ended the line-out as the lifting options.

Henry has moved into the scrum-half position behind the line-out above, as he does so often when Ireland look to maul.

While this set-up allows Ireland to simply jump at the front, middle or back without interchanging their individual starting positions, Plumtree has also encouraged his players to use sharp movement on the deck to create clean catching opportunities.

16.26 Diack

We see such movement in the GIF above [from a different line-out but with the exact same starting set-up apart from Conor Murray being in at scrum-half]. Henderson moves from the front jumping option, all the way to the tail, offering a dummy lift on Diack on the way through.

Meanwhile, Diack is moving forward with Ross in behind him, as McGrath moves towards the flanker to lift at the front. O’Connell’s dummy run has taken him right to the front of the line-out.

Argentina have completely bought Henderson’s decoy movement to the tail and as Best’s throw is released, the Pumas’ only viable jumping pod is a metre behind Diack.

16.26 Diack .1

It’s also worth briefly pointing out the quality of the lifting by McGrath and Ross in this instance, going back to those basics that Plumtree has insisted must be focused on. In the still above, we get a sense of the height Diack gets to with a powerful lift; even if Argentina had read the movement, it would have been difficult to pick off the ball.

Plumtree’s main focus early on was to “make sure that every action becomes a habit and not a poor lift or a poor jump.” McGrath, Ross, Cian Healy and Marty Moore have all demonstrated that such an attitude is present in their lifting this season.

Ireland’s line-out set-ups against Argentina:

Five men in the line: 6 times

Six men in the line: 3 times

Seven men in the line [full]: 5 times

Diack an intriguing option

As a brief aside, Diack was excellent at the line-out for Ireland and offers a very interesting option moving forward as Schmidt constantly evaluates the make-up of his squad.

O’Mahony is first-choice on the blindside after his superb Six Nations, and is a brilliant line-out player. While Diack was also impressive in bursts around the pitch, his set-piece work is equally as important.

Now-retired Ulster captain Johann Muller said the 28-year-old was “outstanding” in filling in as line-out caller for the province whenever the veteran lock was missing. Muller went as far as to call Diack’s line-out skills “a revelation this year.”

0.58 Diack

The former Stormers flanker possesses an excellent understanding of the line-out and fitted into Ireland’s structure superbly well on Saturday, making more catches on the Irish throw than any other player [not to mention the steals we will look at below].

Coupled with a rangy performance in open play, he offers something that Schmidt has come to value greatly; a top-class jumping option in the back row.

Line-outs catches on Ireland’s throw against Argentina:

Robbie Diack: 5

Paul O’Connell: 4

Iain Henderson: 3

Devin Toner: 2

Adding in attacking shapes

The line-out provides a superb foundation from which to attack, the main reason that Schmidt has asked Plumtree to place such intense value in it. Not only does it allow the backs to run at their opposite numbers with space in front of them, there are also mauling and narrow running options when playing out of touch.

We saw Ireland twice use a familiar shape off the tail of the line-out against Argentina and attack just in behind the set-piece through Murray. The Munster scrum-half is an excellent attacking threat himself and this ploy offers him a chance to excel.

28.47 Diack

The elements we have touched upon above are again present in the actual line-out itself; Best’s superb throw, Diack’s leap and catch, as well as the lift from Henderson at the back and O’Connell at the front.

From there, the ball is handed down to Murphy and he spins to pass to Murray on an arcing line, running at the Pumas defence. Henry [1] and McGrath [2], who started at the very front of the line-out are by now offering running options outside the scrum-half [yellow circle], as we see below.

28.47 Diack .1

With all of Argentina’s forwards tied into the line-out and attempting to defend the possibility of a maul [that threat is essential], Murray, Henry and McGrath are left running at a scrum-half, out-half and the inside shoulder of the 12.

Murray hits Henry short, the Ulsterman sends a linking pass to McGrath and the prop trundles a good eight metres forward; all thanks to an effective line-out.

Ireland ran an almost-identical play later in the first half, just with some of the individuals changing their roles. That ability to interchange duties is another positive sign, with each player understanding the various elements of each move.

37.30 Diack  (1)

Again, Diack takes at the tail, lifted by Henderson at the back and O’Connell at the front [despite Argentina being in a good position to steal, we see that vital extra height from a good lift].

This time Ross plays the role of the conduit between Diack and Murray, while it’s Murphy and McGrath outside the scrum-half when he arcs away. Murray makes big yardage this time, through that hole in behind the Pumas’ defensive line-out.

Line-out lifts on Ireland’s throw against Argentina:

Jack McGrath: 6     Mike Ross: 2

Iain Henderson: 5     Paul O’Connell: 6

Robbie Diack: 6     Dave Kilcoyne: 2     Jamie Heaslip: 1

O’Connell the supremo

In Paul O’Connell, Ireland have one of the finest line-out players in world rugby, and his presence moving forward is of great comfort with Plumtree on the way out. The Munster lock is a major driver in Ireland’s set-piece work and will surely make a brilliant coach in this area in the future.

His analysis work on line-outs is famous, both in terms studying the opposition and his own teams. The relatively quiet crowd and excellent pitch-side microphones in Resistencia meant we got snippets of O’Connell’s line-out communication from time to time.

52.55 POC

That also provided a reminder of his ability to read the opposition both in defence and attack. Whether he was simple calling “back”, “me” [in the middle] or “front”, it was invariably the right option. [Playing against non-fluent English speaking opposition perhaps simplified the calling process on this occasion].

His little glances at the Argentinian line were all he needed to understand what defensive and attacking structures the Pumas were in. In mere seconds, the 34-year-old can process those images and relate them back to what his detailed analysis has shown him in the days preceding the game.

29.32 POC .1

Plumtree deserves all the credit that has come his way for Ireland’s ever-improving line-out work, but O’Connell has been equally important in building the structures and then implementing them in the heat of game day.

In the GIF below, we see Henderson come close to a steal in the air at the front of the line-out on the Argentine throw. The Ulster lock comes forward expecting the throw, but it doesn’t immediately arrive.

The temptation might have been to slide back again, but O’Connell is in his ear shouting, “stay, stay!” The Munster second row knows this Pumas shape, recognising that the only option for them is at the front.

27.40 Defensive 'Stay, Stay' - POC

There is no steal, but it provides an example of O’Connell’s ability in the defensive line-out. On the Argentinian throw, Ireland managed to disrupt on four occasions.

Competing with the Pumas

Ensuring that your own team wins as many of their throws as possible – and wins clean possession that can be used to clear the lines or attack from – is obviously the priority at the line-out.

But denying the opposition a free run on their ball is highly desirable too, and it’s something Ireland have improved at in the last year. That was in evidence against Argentina as Plumtree’s forwards won four of the Pumas’ 11 throws.

Defensive Steal Diack 39.48

Diack picked off two of those, with one example in the GIF above, while Henderson and Toner also came up with one steal each. Again, the ability of Ireland’s main jumping options to also lift well was important in each of these instances, allowing them to cover more spaces on the Pumas’ throw.

Defensive Steal 65.20 Hendo

In the GIF above, we see an excellent steal from Henderson at the front of the line-out, and in a really dangerous area of the pitch. Five metres from the Argentinian tryline, the theft of the Pumas’ throw sets up a strong points-scoring chance for Ireland.

A try-scoring defensive line-out steal? Yes, Ireland had that too. Jonny Sexton’s try after looping off Luke Marshall in midfield was perhaps the most attractive of Ireland’s scores on Saturday, coming after a superb surge up the middle by No. 8 Murphy.

However, right at the root of the try was a line-out steal by Diack at the tail. The Argentinian throw was poor but still, the blindside flanker got in the air swiftly, aided by the lift of McGrath and Best.

Defensive Steal 41.48 Diack (2)

It was perhaps coincidental that Ireland played off the steal in a fashion similar to that which we have already examined in the ‘Adding in attacking shapes’ section above, with O’Connell filling in as a makeshift scrum-half on that arcing run, before popping to Murphy.

Coincidence or not, Sexton’s try is one that Plumtree and O’Connell’s line-out had a starring role in.

Mauling power

Ireland’s maul was a strong feature of their Six Nations triumph, as we have mentioned before, and it was pleasing to see the pack power over for a maul try in Resistencia, against a side who have been renowned for mauling strength themselves.

As with all of the above, it is worth stressing that this was a relatively weak Pumas team, and that is meant with no disrespect. Ireland will face far tougher tests in the coming year, but the Argentinians did provide a sterner opposition than some had expected.

So many of the elements that made Ireland’s Six Nations maul a success are present in the score above, with positive movement on the deck ensuring that O’Connell will make a clean catch even if Argentina do decide to compete in the air.

As O’Connell lands, he transfers the ball to Henry, who swims to the back of the maul by slipping in behind Best and providing that little bit of extra security from the grasping Pumas’ hands.

The Irish maul shears away to the right as Argentina’s counter-drive focuses on O’Connell, leaving Ireland four-against-two for a brief second and allowing them to initiate that unstoppable momentum.

33.44 POC , Ross Movement

Ross does superbly to force his way past O’Connell and into a leading role on the left side of the advancing Irish maul. Once the momentum has been started, after a brief window of patience, Ross’ strength and formidable hindquarters play an important role in denying the Pumas’ desperate attempts to rescue the situation.

33.44 POC Ross Resists

Ireland did maul on four other occasions with varying success and had a late chance to score again from a five-metre line-out [below]. With five replacements on in the pack at that stage, there was less organisation in the maul, but it patiently made headway.

Kieran Marmion decided to snipe off to the right of the maul when a final shove might have seen Ireland cross but, either way, Plumtree will have been disappointed to see the maul fail to score in this situation.

Ireland can certainly not expect to score from every single five-metre maul, but the closer they move towards being 100% in that area of the game, the more successful a side they will be.

Another positive outing for Ireland’s pack

The scrum was another positive element in Ireland’s performance last Saturday, although that is largely the domain of scrum coach Greg Feek. At the line-out, Plumtree’s main responsibility with Ireland, the forwards were superb.

Watching Argentina’s attempts to get to grips with the Irish line-out in the second Test on Saturday will be fascinating, with a week of analysis behind them. Whether we will see new strings to Ireland’s line-out bow remains to be seen.

Plumtree is preparing for his final match as Ireland forwards coach, and Ireland have likely begun the process of filtering the market for his replacement. With Super Rugby in-season and most clubs having tied down coaching staff for the 2014/15 campaign in Europe, it may not be an easy task.

Losing Plumtree is a blow for Schmidt’s Ireland, but the continuing presence of Paul O’Connell and several other excellent line-out forwards in the squad is a comfort.

This article was written for – a technical resource for coaches and players of all levels.

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