Ireland lost five of their 15 throws last week as England dominated throughout most of the 80 minutes. They misfired in other areas too, as Head Coach Joe Schmidt candidly acknowledged this week, but fixing their game out of touch will be high on the agenda.
Much of the talk this week has centred on the absence of Devin Toner but an analysis of Ireland’s Guinness Six Nations performance hints that while the big second row might solve their issues at the phase, the return of James Ryan could have a similar effect.
Toner, 6’10, is famously excellent at lineout time, giving the Irish thrower a high central target to hit that most defensive lineouts simply can’t get near – or at least not in the split second windows required at Test level.
Toner’s presence also creates space for Peter O’Mahony to win ball through fast takes at the front or athletic leaps at the tail.
O’Mahony actually took by far the most lineout catches of any Irish player during Guinness Six Nations 2019. O’Mahony’s stats are boosted by the fact that he also played every minute of the Championship, one of just five players and the only forward to do so. But even still his 30 takes is eleven more than the next player (Grant Gilchrist of Scotland, who caught 19).
Toner, one of the most successful lineout exponents of recent seasons, was only available for 56 minutes of Guinness Six Nations action in 2019 due to an injury suffered early in the second half during Ireland’s loss to England. That restricted him to just three lineout takes as Ireland.
But it is the next man on Successful Lineout takes list who could hold the key to a turnaround in the phase.
James Ryan, who played the full 80 in four out of the five matches, landed 14 successful catches.
In Toner’s absence, the Leinster man mostly played in tandem with Iain Henderson, Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux. That trio took a total of 12 lineouts – Henderson catching six, Dillane and Roux three each.
Toner is named on the bench this weekend but the pack named by Ireland includes four good targets in the shape of Henderson, Ryan, O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne.
The throw and timing issues are the other key factors and Rory Best would surely have relished the opportunity to target that set of jumpers. Instead, Niall Scannell will get the chance to do so with Best starting from the bench on this occasion.
Ireland will also face a different challenge from Wales, who won their latest Guinness Six Nations Grand Slam with the least efficient in the competition, securing their own ball just 76.4% of the time and landing just one steal over the entire course of the Championship.
In contrast, the importance of the lineout to Ireland is hard to overstate. 64.3% of Ireland’s tries originated from the phase – the highest single source of try origin of any team during the 2019 Guinness Six Nations. Their % of ball successfully won out of touch (91%) was second only to Italy, who achieved a remarkable 93.4%.
Ireland rely on their lineout to control the game, and Schmidt and co will hope that getting their success rate back into the 90s will enable a momentum shifting win on Saturday.