Lineouts are an essential part in modern top flight rugby. In this article we will focus on the 2020 partial Six Nations Championship to seek some trends. I chose the Six Nations simply because data was available.
Surprisingly, most teams don’t have a named lineout coach – with the responsibility seemingly given to the forwards coach as a specialist scrum coach is often appointed.
England had Steve Borthwick – now “redeployed” as a skills coach, with (Scot) Matt Proudfoot taking over the whole Forwards Coach role after winning the Rugby World Cup with South Africa.
France have appointed Karim Ghezal and William Servat as “set piece and specific tasks” coaches – with Ghezal focusing on lineouts and Servat on scrums.
Italy have appointed Giampiero De Carli as forwards coach when signing Franco Smith as permanent head coach.
Ireland have a forwards coach, Simon Easterby, and a scrum coach. But no named lineout coach.
Scotland – exactly like Ireland – have a designated forwards coach, Danny Wilson, and a scrum coach, but no named lineout coach.
Wales don’t have named coaches for either elements of the set piece, with Jonathan Humphreys simply in charge of the forwards.
Quick reminder of the laws of rugby:
The attacking team gets to choose the maximum number of players taking part in the lineout for each team. The minimum is 2, an option pretty much never used, and there isn’t technically a maximum. I would say this makes 13 the maximum as there are 15 players minus the thrower and scrum-half, but I can’t find any reason why it couldn’t be 14, with no number 9.
Lineouts with more than seven players are reserved for novelty plays – like Wales against New Zealand back in 2012.
Note: neither Jiffy or the person naming the video noticed there were 13 players, not 15.
Why choose different numbers
While the “classic” lineout has 7 players, generally called a “full” lineout – there are advantages to reducing the numbers.
A 6-player lineout is often used with the seventh forward standing in the scrum-half position. This allows a faster forming maul. International teams also use this to draw defenders in (with forwards looking out for a maul) and the scrum-half then playing as an extra back.
The 5-player lineout has two major advantages: 5 opposition players can’t form two separate defensive pods of 3: leaving them with lots of decisions to make.
It also allows the attacking team to have two loose forwards in the backline. Often ready to play off 10, or supporting a hard-hitting centre.
From the 2020 Mens Six Nations, over a total of 10 matches (note this excludes Scotland-France as the data wasn’t available):
The most common set-up was the 6-player lineout. The most effective however, was the full/7-player lineout. The 4-player set-up was rare and proved costly for teams.
Remember that this data doesn’t show the context in which decisions were made. For example, the 7-player set-up was probably chosen much closer to the try-line, meaning the defence may choose to put less pressure on the catch but more on the drive.
The 4-player set-up is a personal favourite. These stats show very poor results from them. The reason may be that teams spend less time training them. It may also be that they are used in more desperate situations when the main lineout options are already struggling. Unfortunately it is very difficult to find this information.
Womens Six Nations
Luckily for us, the Six Nations have also shared data from the Womens Six Nations tournament, out of 9 matches.
This time, the 5-player lineout is the most popular, although not the most successful. The 4-player set-up, the least efficient in the men’s 6N, turned out to be the most efficient in the women’s. Although this is to be taken with a pinch of salt as the numbers are quite low.
Unlike the mens 6N, the choice of numbers doesn’t seem to have as much of an impact on the success rate. However, we cannot look at lineout numbers as a causation of success as the decisions are far more complex.
Last but not least: out of 9 matches in the W6N, there were 197 set lineouts (quick ones are excluded from this data), for an average of nearly 22 per match. In the M6N, the average is nearly 26. This is more than a lineout every four minutes of play. Showing just how crucial a dominant lineout is.
I would explain the difference between the two by the difference in kicking distance – making womens teams less reliant on territorial kicking for touch as not many players have Emily Scarratt’s boot.
Lineouts are cool. I wish I had more data available. To make these tables, I used data available from the Six Nations tournament: https://www.sixnationsrugby.com/match-data-downloads/
Please get in contact if you come across anything that could support or contradict my theories.