Alan Quinlan: 'Lineout failings have been coming but some smart adjustments can lift it off the floor'

"A second kick that has been out on the full, we've seen a plethora of poor passes. Maybe it's to be expected, it's a hot day, but there are question marks there." - Stuart Barnes

Rory Best looks dejected after an off-day for the Irish lineout in Twickenham. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

Conor Murray had just left the field for a HIA and Ireland were 15-10 behind but, all things considered, Joe Schmidt's side appeared to be in decent shape, despite a few early errors, as the clock ticked into its 32nd minute.

Stuart Barnes, my Sky colleague on the gantry, had even just sounded No 9 alarm bells for England after Ben Youngs box-kicked out on the full, giving Ireland a strong attacking platform a couple of metres outside the home 22. However, just three minutes, two lost lineouts, and one knock-on later, Manu Tuilagi was pointing gratefully towards the sky as Twickenham erupted in the late summer heat.

Gasping for air under their own posts, Rory Best's side were starting to deflate in body and spirit.

I've re-watched the game a number of times in the past week and I'm confident most of Ireland's failings are fixable. Uneducated, knee-jerk reactions are unhelpful at times like this.

Last Saturday's performance highlighted some things we already knew, reinforced other issues we suspected, and brought about some harsh home truths; lineouts can decide games, Devin Toner is appreciated more in his absence, and Ireland's set-piece is not where it needs to be.

First thing's first, lineouts are difficult - whether that is throwing, calling, or catching them. Much like scrummaging, the unforgiving techniques and timings that make all the moving parts run slickly and in tandem are often lost on those who haven't been in the middle of one.

The tactics in the side-on battle between forwards would be appreciated by chess grandmasters. There are only so many moves you can make. One wrong call in a critical area of the field and 'checkmate' could be staring you in the face.

Lazy analysis tends to solely target the man throwing the ball in to a malfunctioning lineout, but for the most part it was Ireland's sluggish movement at the set-piece and some poor calls from Iain Henderson that put that aspect of their game under so much strain.

Calling lineouts is a vastly under-appreciated skill that requires a cool head and sharp mind. I ran lineouts during my career and played alongside one of greatest lineout operators the game has ever seen in Paul O'Connell.

Paulie had some tough days calling the shots too, days when you feel like a conductor who can only command bum notes. The 2002 Heineken Cup final defeat to Leicester still lingers painfully in the memory. Geordan Murphy's first-half try came after a Tigers steal, Ben Kay snatching the ball in front of my nose.


A 22-year-old Paulie, a key lineout figure that day alongside Mick Galwey, was distraught in the Millennium Stadium dressing room after the 15-9 defeat, but he learned from those lessons to become a world-leading lineout commander.

Henderson, like James Ryan, is relatively new to this area of the game in the international arena, where easy set-piece ball doesn't exist against the top sides.

The most frustrating thing about the lineout last weekend was how it crumbled so easily under pressure from just two, albeit very talented, locks in Maro Itoje and George Kruis.

For Best to say "we thought we were in a good place" afterwards was one of the biggest concerns because the lineout is actually an area where you - aside from the noise - can replicate the intensity of a Test in training.

Before the 2003 World Cup squad was picked, our forwards coach Niall O'Donovan split us into two packs for a couple of days and we went right at each other - lineouts, scrums, you name it.

The intensity of those duels was ferocious, and without a referee at the lineout you had to be incredibly sharp, possibly even more so than in a Test, to win your own ball.

Simon Easterby and I were in direct competition back then, two No 6s desperate to nail down a World Cup spot. My lineout work was pretty solid at that stage but there was a big change in my perception of Simon around that time.

He always had great agility in the air but as a quiet fella he didn't strike you as a natural lineout caller. But when he got to work you could see he had a deep understanding of the set-piece; he was a great reader of opposition moves and was well able to call his own ball.

I'm sure it's been a tough week for Simon, but he knows all he can do is prepare the forwards as best he can to deliver in Cardiff. I suspect there has been a big focus on simplifying the calls, going back to basics, and nailing down a number of go-to lineouts in times of need.

Ireland were a bit leggy last weekend, possibly on the back of a heavy block of training, but they need to inject a bit more urgency into their play this afternoon.

As someone who got great pleasure from disrupting opposition lineouts any way I could, I can tell you that the longer you're waiting for the ball to be thrown in, the better chance you feel you have of pinching it.

Defensive lineouts need to get set too. The hooker and lineout caller are throwing away a big advantage if they give the opposition enough time to assess the set-up and predict where the ball is going.

Last weekend's failings have been looming for a while; the lineout stats are at their lowest ebb since 2015 and at a retention rate of 84 per cent, Ireland's lineout has been performing worse this year than every other top-10 ranked side bar Fiji.

For a bit of context, the lineout completion rate was at 92 per cent at the end of Ireland's momentous run in 2018.

Something to consider, though, too, is that the two games where Ireland have retained less than 80 per cent of their lineout ball this year (66.7 per cent v England and 75 per cent v Italy in the Six Nations) have been with inexperienced second-row partnerships from the start - Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux in Rome, and Henderson and Jean Kleyn last week.

With Toner and Ryan in situ, Ireland's lineout appears to be a lot steadier, but the trip to Cardiff gives Henderson a great opportunity to right the wrongs of last week as the lineout leader, and alongside the more familiar face of Ryan.

Ireland's lineout is creaking and Wales will be looking to tear it right down. But the set-piece needs to hold firm, as do the players propping it up.