Line-outs will be key factor in deciding who wins
The battle of the line-out will be the most fascinating duel of the afternoon. It is far more complicated than it looks and requires a combination of physical agility and smart analysis.
A good line-out needs precision, perfect timing and a symmetry between the hooker, lifters and jumpers. Nearly everything that goes wrong with it is down to hesitation.
IN THE ENGLISH CORNER: GEOFF PARLING
Picking Geoff Parling is a really brave decision by Stuart Lancaster, but absolutely the right one. Leaving the experienced Tom Palmer in there would have been tempting, but the line-out has been much better when Parling has come on. I played with him for a year at Leicester and found him to be one of the best line-out managers I’ve come across.
Jump starter: Geoff Parling will do battle with Alun Wyn Jones
IN THE WELSH CORNER: ALUN WYN JONES
The return of Alun Wyn Jones (below) will help Wales, but he’s rusty – he’s only played a game and a half since a three-month lay-off. It doesn’t help him that hooker Ken Owens is Wales’ third-choice, which means that the vital rapport between thrower and jumper may take longer to establish. He won’t yet know Wales’ ‘banker’ throw.
England have a stronger set of jumpers than Wales, so Parling has more tools at his disposal. Tom Croft is the best back-row jumper in the world. Mouritz Botha has done his job really well at the front of the line and Courtney Lawes is a real athlete to bring on.
The line-out manager will nominate a call and a ‘check-out’ option – effectively a Plan A and a Plan B. The hooker will be ready for either, depending on how the opposition are lined up. The call will probably involve really simple numbers – for instance: ‘The call is 88, the check-out is 32’. During the Six Nations, it is important to keep developing calls to avoid being worked out. In the first week a call might be applied to a double movement (one dummy, then a jump), then the next week that could become a triple movement – adding an extra dummy – to make sure the opposition are always guessing and in the wrong place.
Getting it right: The line outs will be key
If you are using dummies, it has to be for a reason. The timing is vital — it must look convincing; go slow so they think they have you, then quickly move away so they can’t recover. England have been dummying in one area then throwing the ball too far away. If you dummy at the front, the hole is just behind it, but England have then thrown back to where the next ‘pod’ of forwards is standing, which means the opposition are waiting for them.
There are different types, flat and fast or looping ‘floaters’. Whatever the type of throw, the key is to find space, particularly in Tests where it is so congested, so the holes are not obvious. Sometimes the throw comes before the jump — the hooker throws to the area that has been called and the movement follows.
Getting it right: Ken Owens and Dylan Hartley will need to get their throws right
CRACKING THE CODE
These days, codes and calls have become too complex to work out, but Parling and Jones will still spend hours analysing the opposition line-out to look for clues and patterns in body language. They have detailed systems they can access on their laptops of every type of line-out and every player.
v WALES, 2005
BEWARE THE TELL-TALE CLAP!
Some jumpers clap when they are dummying without even realising it. I used to use that.
I had to tell my own team-mates who didn’t even realise they were doing it.
It used to irritate me if a back-rower waved for the ball to signal to the hooker — it would give the game away!
Before we went to Cardiff in 2005, I spent a lot of time analysing their calls and I thought I had cracked them. I was sat in the dressing-room at the Millennium Stadium before the game feeling confident, but they suddenly decided to start calling the numbers in Welsh. My wife knew how to count in Welsh, but I hadn’t asked her to teach me because I’d seen so much footage of them calling in English.
v SOUTH AFRICA, 2003
In 2003, I had learned South African numbers before we played the Springboks at the World Cup. We had a South African, Sherylle Calder, as our vision awareness coach. I asked her what a word in Afrikaans was and she said ‘three’. I asked her another and she said ‘five’. It became obvious they were just using a simple number calling system in Afrikaans, so I learned all the words and we cleaned up against them. It was probably the only time I got one over on Victor Matfield.
Spying: The Australian used to watch England practice their line-outs during the 2003 World Cup
v AUSTRALIA, 2003
Before the World Cup Final in 2003 we were training at the Manly Seagulls ground, outside Sydney. There was a row of houses up on a hill overlooking the ground and we were convinced the Australians were spying on us. A couple of years later, I was chatting to Scott Johnson on the Lions tour and he admitted that he had been spying, to help them work out our line-out. He had been sat in one of those houses and the old lady who owned it kept bringing him cups of tea while he filmed our sessions!
THE OTHER KEY BATTLES
It will be explosive as Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi line up against Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies. The danger is that the England pair will fly out of the line to make big hits on their opponents, and could get stepped. Barritt has got a big role helping Tuilagi in defence. Wales may have the edge in this area, but Tuilagi is capable of making a couple of breaks to change the game.
THE OPENSIDE FLANKERS
Sam Warburton will present the biggest test yet for his opposite number, Chris Robshaw. The England skipper is often described as a six-and-a-half — not an out-and-out openside — and Warburton is one of the best breakdown forwards in the world, who provides quick ball for his team. But I’ve been impressed by Robshaw at Harlequins. He can compete.
Big test: Sam Warburton will be a major challenge for Chris Robshaw
Rhys Priestland showed at Twickenham last summer what a quality player he is. Owen Farrell is very inexperienced and has to lead the team in attack, but I’m sure he will take that role in his stride. There will be a contrast in styles — I think Farrell will be more controlled. He might not bring his back line into play to the same level, but he makes good decisions and is a born winner.
I think it will be close for an hour, then one of the centres will produce a game-changing moment. If I had to bet, I’d go for Wales to score then hold on to win by a handful of points.
Ben Kay is a rugby analyst for ESPN’s Aviva Premiership Rugby coverage.