The last couple of weeks have been full of interesting dialogues between the good and the great in the world of rugby. Firstly, new England head coach Steve Borthwick told Eddie Jones – quite bluntly – that he had left behind a team that was not particularly good in any area of the game.
Then the professional players in Wales tried to establish a conversation with the Welsh Rugby Union about their contracts, and failed. But perhaps the most fascinating head-to-head debate occurred across the Tasman Sea, with ‘the Professor’ Wayne Smith and Queensland coach Brad Thorn discussing the merits (or otherwise) of the driving maul.
The head honcho of the triumphant Black Ferns side at the recent Women’s World Cup weighed in first:
“I don’t like the driving maul as part of the game. There are six or seven forwards in front of the ball. There is no access to the ball. It is legalised obstruction. I would get rid of it entirely. You could do it very easily by changing the laws so that if the attacking team chooses to kick a penalty to touch inside the 22, then the other team gets the throw-in.”
It probably came as a mild surprise to the Prof when the counter-attack was led by one of his ex-charges with the All Blacks, and a League international to boot:
“I hear what he [Smith] is saying but it [the maul] has got a uniqueness. You take away the maul, the scrum, the lineout – you might as well make it ten men, and you’ve basically got rugby league.
“Everyone goes, ‘You went from league to union, and the games are getting more similar now,’ but they’re light years apart as a forward.
“There are breakdowns, lineouts, what we don’t have anything like in league.”
The argument against the driving lineout as a form of legalised obstruction was reinforced further by Wayne Smith’s interviewer, rugby journalist Mark Reason:
“It’s a nonsense. American football is the sport to watch if you want legalised blocking, but this is blocking and evasion that has been choreographed over a century. And even the NFL is likely to outlaw the quarterback sneak next year because the attacking side has an unfair advantage.”
This is the type of NFL play Mark Reason is referring to:
Can’t stop the @JalenHurts QB sneak.
📺: #SFvsPHI on FOX
📱: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/FKUP5TcOqi pic.twitter.com/d44523fMtY
— NFL (@NFL) January 29, 2023
In rugby terms at least, his claim is very far from the truth. Legalised obstruction, with players ahead of the ball is a common feature of play in all aspects of Rugby Union: on decoy plays in attack, on cleanouts ahead of the ball at the breakdown, on secondary shoves at the scrum, on ‘escorts’ for the receiver of a high kick – to name but a few. Refining obstruction to the point where it is no longer considered illegal is the key to success in all of those areas.
Those comments also do not take into account the current tide of refereeing, which is increasingly cognizant of the process of ‘double-banking’, whereby the lifters get ahead of a lineout receiver before he ever returns to terra firma:
The two Munster lifters on either side of the catcher (in red) seal off the contest for the defenders in black (the Ospreys) and are promptly penalised for their trouble. This penalty probably recurs at least once or twice in every game at elite level in the current climate. The officials are trying to preserve access to the ball for the defensive side at the start of the contest, whether that is in the air or on the ground.
Mark Reason pinned much of his reasoning to the recent England versus Italy match from the Six Nations, in which England scored three tries out of five directly from driving lineouts. In reality, that does not represent a form line in the Six Nations as a whole, either now or in last year’s tournament.
At the end of last year’s tournament, Rugby World pulled relevant stats from the 2022 tournament to show that the lineout drive was not a dominant factor at all:
England were the only Six Nations side to score significantly more tries from set-piece than from broken play. Take a look at this table:
Yes, that’s 32 tries scored from lineout starters, but a massive zero tries scored directly through the maul. Individuals breaking off from the drive to dot down were not counted as integral to it by the Opta “Stats Perform” team who collated the figures.
Fast forward to the current tournament, and we find that only six tries of the 36 scored after round two have originated from lineout drives with the ball retained all the way to the goal-line, or short breakouts from the back of advancing mauls.
A breakdown of the game between Scotland and Wales, played the day before England v Italy, provides a more typical view of the effectiveness of the driving lineout. There were 12 total lineout drives at Murrayfield beginning in the opposition 22, with the outcomes as follows:
The tries scored and penalties earned by the offence were outweighed by the number of defensive stops and turnovers. The stats emphatically do not support the view that the driving maul is the unstoppable force painted in the Wayne Smith interview. If anything, the maul is trending in the opposite direction.
The other half of the counter-argument is that constructive attacking play based off a maul platform has become very important indeed in the modern game. It has become increasingly difficult to concentrate forwards in a short area at the ruck: back in the 2000s there would be an average of eight to 10 forwards committed to a ruck, now that average has halved to between four or five.
The areas where you can rely on that forward concentration, and therefore an increased possibility to move the ball into space successfully, are the scrum and the maul. The scrum has its own technical officiating issues, so that leaves the lineout drive as the likeliest platform for a quick set-piece strike play:
This example comes from the third quarter of the match at Murrayfield. Although Welsh fullback Liam Williams was off the field on a yellow card at the time, the try neatly illustrates the potential of the driving maul to compress forwards in close defence, and create space further out.
When Finn Russell launches the cross-kick, all of the Welsh forwards are inside the near 15-metre ‘box’:
The last Welsh back (left wing Rio Dyer) is defending on the far post and has no chance to make up the ground to defend his opposite number Kyle Steyn; even if Williams was present, Scotland would still probably enjoy an advantage in numbers around the ball at the point-of-receipt.
The URC game between Munster and the Ospreys highlighted the creative use of the dummy maul as an attacking ploy to exploit all those forwards ‘stuck in the box’:
The compression of the Ospreys’ forwards in maul defence allows Munster to isolate the Ospreys hooker Elvis Taione around the tail with a deft switch between hooker and right wing, taking play deep into the 22.
It became one of the dominant themes as the game unwound:
On this occasion, Munster ball carrier John Hodnett (in the red hat) splits from the maul in order to pull Taione wide and create a hole for replacement hooker Diarmuid Barron on the in-pass. This is far from a dour and predictable outcome. It is constructive and encourages ball movement instead.
The pièce de resistance was another version of the isolation play on the first defender towards the end of the game:
There are seven Ospreys defenders condensed within only ten metres, and that enables Munster to work the move between Barron and their fullback Shane Daly in acres of space. It would not have been possible without the threat of the lineout drive compressing defence around the first point of contact:
It may seem like a paradox, but rugby needs its core physical elements in order to create space off the need to defend them. Take away the scrum and the driving maul, and where else can you achieve that concentration of forward presence around the ball? Not at the ruck, which are serviced more often than not by no more than one ball carrier, two cleanout players and one tackler.
That is why the lineout drive, and its associated rewards, has to remain in place if the desire is to distinguish Union from its sister code. Abolishing the driving maul would be another step towards celebrating the uniformity of physical types promoted by rugby league, as opposed to the diversity of rugby union.
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