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Dublin: 3 °C Saturday 14 December, 2019

'It's nice that some of the unseen work is now getting noticed' - Ireland's Best

Ireland hooker Rory Best sat down with The42 to chat lineout plays, defensive mauls and refereeing trends.

THE ‘TEABAG’ WAS the difference at the 2011 World Cup.

A dummy jumping pod at the front drags half the French lineout forward, the true jumping pod at the tail lures the remainder of les Bleus’ defenders to that area.

Bang! Right through the gaping-wide middle comes stealthy loosehead prop Tony Woodcock, accepting a pop pass off the top from Jerome Kaino, brushing past Nicolas Mas and scoring New Zealand’s only try of the final.

Teabag Source: YouTube/MasteRugby

That particular lineout play had been in cold storage since 2008, when the Kiwis used it against Australia in the Tri Nations.

One wonders what Ireland and the other contenders have up their sleeves for the tight knock-out games to come. It is certainly within the realms of likelihood that an intelligent lineout or maul play will decide this World Cup.

Ireland have used a couple of their own in recent seasons, notably with Sean O’Brien’s try against Scotland in this year’s Six Nations or the excellent Rhys Ruddock score against South Africa in 2014.

Hooker Rory Best will be a key man if and when Ireland unleash their trick plays against Italy and France, or perhaps even later in the tournament. He says the increased focus on this area has been a natural by-product of defensive improvement elsewhere.

“I think defences are so good now off set-piece, with the backs coming up so hard, that the space is more and more limited,” says Best. “You’re trying to find different ways to try to combat that and if we can see little chinks in the armour around the lineout, it’s a great place to set it up.

Generally teams do the same things off a lineout, for example what the guy at the back does or what the guy at the front does. It’s a bit more predictable what they’re going to do defensively, so you can have a look at it, really analyse it, and try to pick something out.

“New Zealand have done things like this a few times now, you look at that final in the last World Cup, that try scored through the middle of the lineout. It’s somewhere they could predict how France could defend that way.

“They had a move to manipulate the space identified there. I think it’s when teams are getting better defensively, you have to try and find somewhere else. Sometimes it’s about maybe looking a bit closer to source.”

We can bet with certainty that the likes of Best, Simon Easterby, Paul O’Connell, Joe Schmidt and all the other experts in other World Cup squads have been studying the lineout habits of their upcoming and possible opposition for those chinks.

Source: RBS 6 Nations

Best explains that the feeling of a clinically-planned and perfectly-executed move like that O’Brien score against Scotland is joyous for the forwards: “The front five forwards especially, they probably don’t get the credit for many things!”

Ireland’s maul has been a major, major strength during Schmidt’s tenure, an area into which they clearly invest a huge amount of training time. That makes sense, given that a well-organised maul is so difficult to halt.

Again, the impression is that this is a facet of the game that may well be the difference in the tightest fixtures of the World Cup.

I think the maul is a bit strange in that it’s like the scrum; it comes in and out of fashion from time to time,” says Best. “Not that long ago, when you could sack it at anytime, everyone was saying ‘the maul is dead.’

“Suddenly you figure how to get the maul ideally set up. When you get a maul set up and moving, it’s very hard to stop legally. It’s something we work quite hard on. It’s nice for the forwards to see the maul back in fashion and being rewarded. Ultimately, it has the ability to win you games.”

The maul has certainly enjoyed a stunning resurgence in the build-up to and opening rounds of this World Cup. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction: we have seen a growth in the defending of the maul too.

Wales are the most notable recent proponents, with a superb counter-drive to sealing the deal against England, but the likes of Ireland have used other tactics too.

We’ve seen Schmidt’s side stand off completely from the maul at times, either sending a tackler around to the tail if the opposition transfer the ball to there or tackling the man at the front of the opposition ‘maul’ if they don’t transfer after the lineout catcher lands.

It’s worth stressing that these are not the primary defensive maul tactics for Ireland all the time, but they do add variety to their efforts.

Source: RBS 6 Nations

“You just try to do something a bit different,” says Best. “All the defences are getting tighter and the attacks are getting a bit more streetwise as well. The higher up the levels you go, the tighter the margins become.

“Some of those lineout defences, you see teams not engaging and they run around and tackle, or they sack it. It’s all just about changing the picture for the opposition a little bit. You don’t always want to do the same thing, because then you become predictable.

“Teams then focus on your predictability to pick a hole in it. If you can give a picture where teams are analysing it and seeing that sometimes you do this, but most of the time you do this, and occasionally that, it leaves uncertainty and it’s harder to plan against.

“If you know someone’s going to do a specific thing, there’s a lot of ways to capitalise on it.”

The maul stand off is not an easy thing to do for a forward whose aggression levels are peaking in a Test match. The urge, the instinct, is to hammer into the attacking team’s pack, smashing at their maul attempt. Patience is a virtue at these times.

I think it takes a lot of discipline and there’s a lot of cogs in the wheel. It’s a bit like a really good try. One person is going to score it, but there’s been a lot of good work done by others to create it,” says Best.

“It’s the same with these defensive ones. If we’re sending someone around to tackle it and one of our guys engages it, the guy going around is going to be penalised because he is offside.

“One guy hasn’t done what he’s meant to do and someone who shouldn’t be penalised is penalised. There’s a lot of trust in your teammates there.”

‘A lot of good work done by others to create it.’

This is the philosophy of Irish rugby with Joe Schmidt at the helm, where players are almost more desperate to provide the so-called ‘unseen work’ than score tries or make massive hits.

Rory Best, Mike Ross and Paul O'Connell Men like Best, Mike Ross and O'Connell are the real stars of Joe Schmidt's squad. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It’s the era of unseen work being seen by all.

In this age of increasingly-educated rugby supporters and media, the little details are getting more credit that ever, dovetailing nicely with how Schmidt himself views rugby.

“As a front five, it’s nice that some of the unseen work is now getting noticed,” says Best. “I think coaches probably did notice, but now it’s really being laboured. Because things are so tight, the smallest little turn of the shoulders defensively from you running a line somewhere can free up space somewhere else, for example.

“Because it’s so tight in Test rugby, it’s being noticed more now and from my point of view it’s nice that the unseen work, maybe hitting three rucks in a row to free up space on the fourth phase, is noticed. That’s generally what I would bring.”

Indeed he does, Best often being one of Ireland’s most effective rucking players when he is on the pitch. Swift ruck ball is the foundation on which Schmidt has built this Ireland house and despite their success in recent years, and the addition of several new floors, the ruck remains the primary base.

Best says he engages with ruck stats post-match, but that he always has an accurate impression of his performance in this area anyway. Reviewing the good and bad clear-outs is an important part of his week, reinforcing the why the former happened and learning from the latter.

It’s something that we’re constantly working on,” says Best. “Because the bar has been set so high on our rucking, when we don’t reach it Joe is not very happy! That’s an understatement a little bit.

“That’s one of those things where we set our stall out under Joe at the start. We want to be good a rucking team, we need to make sure we keep hold of the ball, whether it’s catching, getting the ball back and ultimately get your ruckers in.

“When you make that a focus and become very good at it, the tough thing is to make sure you maintain it. It might be big jumps at the start, but we’re now probably at the position where it’s only small improvements you can make.

Joe Schmidt with Rory Best 7/2/2014 Best is a valuable leader in Schmidt's squad. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We’re recognised as a decent rucking team now and we can’t move away from it. If you can control the ball, you can control the game in large areas.”

The referee is always a man who has a telling say in the breakdown battle of any Test match, often forcing Ireland and other teams to adapt their efforts in order to fall in line with the match official’s particular hot spots.

Best believes referees are favouring the attacking team at the moment, and “rightly so,” with the focus on ensuring that new fans are attracted to the sport in a World Cup year.

For the Ireland hooker and his teammates, adaptability is the key as their thirst to be the most disciplined team in the world continues.

“The coaches sit down at the meetings with referees and the refs are saying ‘these are the big focus areas.’ There’s joining the maul in front of the carrier, for example, or there’s the offside where they don’t want you to put your hand in front of the tryline when you’re defending pick and gos near the tryline.

That technically is offside because your whole body has to be behind the offside line. Little things like that, you’ve got to make sure that we do things to combat that to make sure we are as legal as possible.

“Ultimately, we want to be the most disciplined side. We’ve seen trends where when we concede fewer penalties than the opposition, at Ulster too, you generally win the game. It’s not always the case, but a lot of the time it will be.

“We need to make sure we know what they’re hot on so we give them that. We still can’t let the opposition get an advantage by not having our hands down. You’ve got to gauge how far you go and we have to be the most disciplined team in the tournament.”

Ireland will push it to the limit, whether it’s with the referee, the lineout or the maul.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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