Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Examining The Eagles Lineout

By Derek Sagehorn

As the doldrums of August give way to fall, the break in the American fifteens schedule seems interminable. As East and Midwest teams begin to play matches warmup matches, Western teams will start pre-season conditioning in the coming weeks. The Eagles, having finished with a frustrating loss to Italy and an expected win against Russia, look to November to build on their 2016 effort. The New Zealand Maori, Romania and Tonga await.

The Eagles Elite Training Squad, presumed candidates for the fall campaign, will be working on fitness per coach John Mitchell’s directive. The investment in conditioning has paid dividends already, as seen in the final 30 minutes of Italy match. In 2015, the Eagles would compete for the first 50 minutes with Scotland and Japan only to fade down the stretch. The new look Eagles pushed Italy to the edge for 75 minutes. Those final five minutes of the contest should be the focus for the Americans this fall.

Another aspect of the game that will be highlighted for remedial work will be the American lineout. The set-piece seems to befuddle Americans, especially the scrum. While first-line props Chris Baumann and Titi Lamositele have acquitted themselves well in that area, the Eagles lack depth at the position. By contrast, no one has raised their hand to take charge of the lineout in 2016.

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Zach Fenoglio, the Eagles first-choice hooker for 2015, has retired from international rugby. His steady hand at the line of touch will be missed. As Jake Frechette documents, Denver tied with Ohio with the most accurate and effective offensive lineout in Pro Rugby in 2016 with a 79% completion rate. For context, professional teams typically look to win over 80% of their own lineouts. Anecdotally, Glendale, Fenoglio’s Pacific Rugby Premiership side dominated lineouts as well.

Lineout wins or completions are important for several reasons, chief among them is possession. Teams want to retain the ball they’ve earned through either strong defense or penalty. But lineouts also offer an excellent attacking platform. Like the scrum, forwards at a lineout are confined to a small area—offering attacking teams more space out wide. Lineouts, however, offer an extra 10 meters of space to the attack due to the offsides line imposed on all players not participating in the contest. Moreover, the hinge between the last man, or tailgunner, in a lineout and the first defender in the backline offers a natural channel to attack. In order to exploit this space, teams want to win their own lineouts consistently, cleanly and quickly.

In 2016 Mitchell so far has started either Joe Taufete’e or James Hilterbrand at hooker. Taufete’e’s San Diego side struggled, completing only 61% of their lineouts. That number is not wholly attributable to Taufete’e, because the hooker sat out several games due to injury. Hilterbrand, based on the summer tests, is accurate, even in the hard-to-reach back pod of the lineout. Taufete’e threw reasonably well as a replacement against both Russia and Italy.

The  success of offensive lineouts isn’t solely due to the accuracy of the thrower. Much of it is derived from the ability of the jumper to get “open” or create enough separation so the throw can be caught and transferred cleanly. A jumper can get open in front or behind a defender. This can be accomplished in several ways: speed of foot and lift as well as deception. The Eagles succeeded in fast jumps such as this one against Russia, but struggled to against Italy. Early against Italy, Cam Dolan uses that an early, quick jump to secure possession in the 22.

Teams trying to create separation by speed will typically throw to the front. The jumper will use quick twitch muscles to jump before the opposition has time to react. A powerful lift from his supporters will ensure that the attacking jumper will be able to rise quickly and also lean forward slightly to cut off the opposition. But just as often teams can fail when trying to win ball through speed, especially when there is only one “speed” jumper on a team. Below, Dolan tries to go quickly but is well-marked. The Italians are specifically marking Dolan to take away this easy victory in the lineout.

The second method for creating separation is deception. Players will feint, step forward, look off or fake a lift in order to gain time and space for the true target of the throw.

Here, we have an Eagles throw in near halfway after an Italy clearance kick. With the ball coming from the right, it is a great attacking position for American backs. The Eagles are calling the lineout at a huddle but there seems to be some confusion with the call. The delay prompts some Italian whining, seen below.

Once the call is in, the Americans approach the line. It is a full lineout with an Andrew Durutalo occupying the traditional halfback spot as an “insert.” He can enter the lineout at any point to jump or lift. There is a pod in the middle with Clever, Dolan and Peterson. The Italians have matched this pod in the line.

The Americans seem to have trouble setting the line as Lamositele asks his teammates to step off to allow for a wider tunnel. The players appear jittery and keep looking around for the signal. Then we see Dolan step forward and Clever turn to support him. This is a feint, but there is little effort put into selling it by lifters or jumper. Clever makes a half-hearted attempt to lift while Dolan just hops out of the lineout. Obviously some of this is by design, Clever wants to get to the back lift quickly and Dolan wants to clear a path for him. But the delayed call means the Italians have plenty of time to count and observe the movement and decline to meet it.

The decoy fails and, consequently, the Italians get up at the same point in the line only a fraction of a moment late. A perfectly thrown ball may have gotten into Peterson’s hands, but a slight wobble means that the Glasgow lock has to reach across the imaginary center line to retrieve it. Ball lost and an attacking opportunity is lost.

The Americans are gifted with an almost identical opportunity a minute later. This time they opt to use a five-man lineout. As you can see below, Lamositele is lined up at the front and there is a two meter gap between him and the nearest jumper, Nate Brakeley. The Italians are matching that formation, but are cheating forward. They are worried that a fast jumper like Dolan or Brakeley will race forward and jump in the front. Brakeley, in particular, is doing a good job of sowing these seeds in the minds of the Italians. Notice how his head is turned, eyeing the front, and shoulders turned that direction.

Brakeley finishes his performance by making an emphatic turn and jump towards Lamositele. The Italians are caught looking at him and lose a moment to turn and match Peterson’s jump in the back. The separation, created by deception and speed, creates a window for Peterson to take the ball cleanly.

In addition to separation, a successful set-piece jumpers and lifters extend themselves fully. This means that lifters lock out their elbows to ensure that the jumper gets as high as possible. The front and back lifters must get as close as possible to ensure there is maximum stability in the lift. For jumpers, they extend their arms fully to ensure that they can collect the ball at the highest point. Below we can see lifters Dolan and Baumann as Peterson catches the ball. While Dolan is close, he has not fully locked out his elbows. But both lifters are very close together, which allows Peterson to extend over his left side to collect the ball with both hands--right down the middle.

As expected the Eagles lineout works very well against fellow Tier 2 nations. But when we play a side like Italy, success in the lineout requires many things to go right. The call must be made without fuss and communicated, the players must move quickly and commit to their decoy moves, finish their lifts and jumps. Finally, there must be an accurate throw. Without attention to these details, the Eagles will struggle to win more than 65% of their lineouts. In a tight game, with a Tier 1 scalp on the line, two or three more clean possessions from the set-piece could make the difference.

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