Having dispatched the pre-tournament favourites in a dominant display, England’s win over New Zealand has seen them reach new heights at this World Cup with their level of performance. While there was lots to like about their semi-final showing, this analysis will specifically focus on England’s excellent lineout defence and how their decision-making dismantled the All Blacks at source.
Before we look at England’s four turnovers at the lineout, we’re initially going to examine the All Blacks first set as a way to illustrate how England look to make decisions defensively.
Lineouts can often resemble a game of chess where the position of a piece is often as important as what it’s going to do next.
If we look at the players positioning in both lineouts above, England’s is quite basic with potential jumpers-circled in red-covering the front (Tom Curry), middle (Maro Itoje) and back (Courtney Lawes), plus lifters interspersed between them.
Keeping in mind the chess analogy, New Zealand by comparison look to have two pieces out of place.
Firstly, Scott Barrett as a jumping option isn’t even looking at Codie Taylor throwing in the ball. Secondly, lifter Joe Moody is arriving late to the lineout.
While it’s relatively easy to process these cues with a still image, Itoje as England’s lineout caller has to react immediately to eliminate all the potential chess moves.
In the end, although Itoje points to the space and reads New Zealand’s lineout intentions correctly here, Mako Vunipola doesn’t react as quickly and England can’t get a jumper into the air to intercept.
Having established what lineout callers are looking for when entering the set-piece, lets take a look at England’s first defensive turnover.
As we can see in the picture above, New Zealand initially get the jump on England again here. Despite all England’s jumpers being in the same general positions, the All Blacks still manage to spot an English chess piece out of place. Using Brodie Retallick’s superior foot speed over Vunipola-circled in red-as a front-lifter, Codie Taylor throws to Sam Whitelock at the tail of the lineout for the take.
Rather than settling, Lawes attacks the centre of New Zealand’s maul instantly by trying to get between All Black lifters Moody and Retallick. As a result of his disruptive effort, the ball is dropped at the back of the maul and Lawes is able to smother Taylor in a tackle as his shoulder disengages.
Itoje-who had intelligently been using a lock’s instinct to peer through the forest of legs-follows Lawes up to rip the ball from Taylor’s grasp and win the turnover.
What stands out here is that the English locks don’t just accept that New Zealand have won the ball once Whitelock takes it in the air. Instead, both Lawes and Itoje keep their heads up and adapt on the fly once the maul phase of the lineout starts to win the turnover.
Looking at the second turnover, England once again continue to adapt their defensive lineout.
If we throw our minds back to England’s positioning on previous lineouts, they appear to have shuffled their pack for the lineout in the image above. Rather than having Curry at the front with Itoje and Lawes behind him, England have placed two props-Kyle Sinckler and Mako Vunipola circled in red above-there instead.
Thinking of the chess pieces again, England are intentionally leaving the front of the lineout open for New Zealand’s Barrett to claim the easy catch. So why are England doing this?
Much like laying a pawn as a trap on a chessboard, England are trying to encourage the All Blacks to go to the front because it’s the worst lineout ball to play off.
If New Zealand maul; England have a good chance of pushing them over the sideline. If New Zealand pass off the top; England have time to rush up in defence and push the All Blacks backline back. With this trap in mind, let’s take a look and see where Codie Taylor ends up throwing the ball.
With Taylor winding up for a big throw and Brodie Retallick ignoring Kieran Read at the middle of the lineout, Lawes recognises early that New Zealand are trying the exact same throw as at the previous lineout.
Crucially England have adapted their positions defensively and the faster Curry lifts Lawes at the front this time instead of Vunipola, allowing the English lock to steal the ball. In essence, New Zealand have fallen for England’s trap at the back of the lineout while trying to avoid the one at the front.
Once again, England’s ability to adapt during and between lineouts makes the difference here. Having won this crucial lineout, George Ford clears the ball into touch and allows his team to get their breath back.
From this clearing kick, New Zealand set up another throw-this time going for 6 men instead of 7 in the lineout to try and take some of England’s potency away.
As the shot above indicates, England have slightly changed the picture once more with Sinckler-circled-isolated while still leaving Barrett open at the front of the lineout again. This time Itoje calls Curry to lift him in order to cover any throw to the back while encouraging the All Blacks to throw to the front.
Once it’s clear that the ball is going to Barrett, Itoje comes in from the side to engage Barrett and try to steal the ball while it’s being transferred. If we look at the first GIF in this article, this is something Itoje looks to do regularly.
While it’s marginal here, so long as he is the first man to engage, Itoje is technically entitled to do this as the maul is not yet formed. Itoje must also be careful not to close the gap in the lineout before the ball is thrown in, something that he is a little guilty of in the article’s first clip. However, this time it’s a canny piece of decision-making from the lock that pays off later in the play.
Having latched onto Barrett and come through the middle; Kieran Read falling then allows Itoje to pull the ball-carrier towards him and win the maul turnover for his team.
England’s last lineout turnover comes exactly 10 minutes later. With New Zealand struggling to build any kind of attacking momentum at this stage, they try to catch Billy Vunipola out of position and go for a quick lineout.
However, the chemistry between the Saracens trio of the Vunipola brothers and Itoje-and the English lock’s sheer athleticism-allow England to adapt on the fly to steal the ball again.
After dismantling an excellent All Blacks team in the semis, England face a resurgent South African team in the World Cup final. Having lost only one lineout all tournament, the Springboks pride themselves on their set-piece. However, with an ability to adapt on the fly and consistently turn over opposition ball, England’s lineout defence has the potential to help both lift the team and lift the trophy this Saturday.
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