Why Wales' lineout was so bad and why it's not just Dewi Lake's fault

-Credit: (Image: Huw Evans Picture Agency Ltd)
-Credit: (Image: Huw Evans Picture Agency Ltd)

Who'd be a Welsh hooker?

You'll either end up giving your all to the game to the detriment of your body, turn up at camp only to be told you're not really in contention to tour, or have just a one in three chance of not being called either Evan or Efan.

At least, based on current odds. Granted, the last one isn't awful, but it does seem a perquisite.

And, most of all, whenever the Welsh lineout goes awry - and it often does - the blame largely falls at your door. You need only ask Dewi Lake. Ryan Elias and countless others know only too well.

In Sydney on Saturday, Wales' lineout operated in the mid-70s percentage-wise. It may not sound dreadful, but for context, in last year's Six Nations, Wales had the worst lineout success in the competition and that amounted to around 85 per cent of lineouts won across the five games.

What makes it all the more frustrating is that the lineout, by and large, was Wales' best source of attacking opportunities. Given their inability to create line breaks in recent matches, the threat of their driving maul was, frankly, Wales' only realistic chance of getting over the whitewash.

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Unfortunately, it's a running trend.

The numbers back that up in previous years, Wales' lineout has been as fallible as it is threatening. In the 2022 Six Nations, Wales had the worst lineouts won percentage, despite throwing 92 per cent to the front or middle, yet still half of their tries in the tournament came from lineouts.

That's a remarkable statistic, given you'd say the front and middle is generally considered conservative ball. At least, it's not exactly conducive to scoring from.

Of course, that bizarre stat alone should tell you Wales' lineout problems don't lie solely with whoever is wearing the number two jersey.

Instead, it's a wider approach to their lineout work that is ultimately the cause of the issue. Wales lost three lineouts on Saturday, with another one pulled back for not being straight - a call that Gatland disagreed with post-match.

Going through each of them, there's far more at play than just the hooker's throw.

Starting with the first one, Australia have it marked up fairly simply here. They're got pods ready to get off the ground at the middle and back. Once Dafydd Jenkins makes the call to himself, it's just a case of who gets off the ground first.

You could argue the throw isn't the best, but Wales haven't created any separation so Lake's throw would need to be perfect anyway.

It's a similar case for the second one, although Lake's throw is better this time. As a hooker, you'd generally accept that anything over the second-row's head is a good throw.

Again though, Australia - and the nuisance that was debutant Jeremy Williams - get up and disrupt the throw. It's not helped by the fact that Jenkins seems to signal the target is him.

As for the third lost lineout, it's again a case of Wales going to the front - albeit later in the match when Lake had been replaced by Evan Lloyd.

The throw is a little low, but you're effectively making life harder for the hooker by condensing things in such a way. It's easier for a hooker to actually throw to the back often, as they can just let it rip.

And, at the back, there's more space to exploit, if you can create that window. At the front, if it's telegraphed, it's hard to really get clean ball if both jumpers get off the ground.

Against South Africa, Wales were good in that area. Lake went to the back early on, while he also made South Africa's superb lineout defence think twice about giving up a certain area of the lineout by taking the easy option at the front when it was there.

In Sydney though, virtually everything was towards the front of the lineout. Rarely was there much in the way of movement or deception to get Australia to bite.

When they did that, they actually won some decent ball off the top through Taine Plumtree to get them into the centre of the field.

Obviously, Lake started both games, but the second-rows were different. Matthew Screech and Ben Carter started against the Springboks, while it was Jenkins and Christ Tshiunza against Australia.

It's probably the case that the former pairing are just that little bit better at calling to space, although Jenkins isn't necessarily a bad caller - as his work at Exeter shows. At Test level though, he possibly doesn't feel as if he's currently surrounded by enough experience to call to space.

If you are someone like Jenkins or Adam Beard - a vastly underrated lineout caller - you're bound to back yourself in the air when things are difficult.

But the hooker's throw and the caller's reading of things are just facets to the wider philosophy to the lineout. Really, it all comes down to Wales' long-term approach.

The phrase 'max drill' isn't one that you'd find too many Google results on, but they'll certainly be buzz words in the pack. Essentially, in darts terms, Wales approach their lineout as if they're needing to hit double top every time they step to the oche.

They back their lifters and jumpers to get off the ground ahead of the opposition and create a win-zone for the hooker to hit with a near-perfect throw. The upside is it pushes lifters and jumpers to be on it each time, but it narrows the window for the hooker as seen in the examples above.

The problem is that, as you can see, if the opposition get off the ground, it only serves to narrow that window further. It's less about calling to space and creating separation, more about backing everything to be on the money.

Because of that, particularly if Wales go front and middle as much as they did in Sydney, you do find most starters plays begin on the back foot with less than quality ball.

Of course, when it works, then creating metres in midfield becomes so much easier. Just think to Wales' work from starter players in the World Cup last year and it all starts with clean ball off the top.

In that sense, it's high-risk, high-reward.

The real shame is that Wales' lineout does hold some decent attacking potential. The maul, having powered over for one penalty try and had another chalked off for obstruction, is a genuine threat.

The way they looked to target Australia's lineout defence was less impressive, with this move failing to isolate the Wallabies' tail.

Done right, this move could pick apart the join. However, Wales go to the front, then peel to the second pod, before feeding Josh Hathaway.

As the Wales wing gives the inside ball to Lake, it's abundantly clear that the move is too condensed and rushed. As such, the inside defender at the tail never needs to commit to Hathaway as he's confident in the numbers either side of him, meaning he can drift back to Lake when the pass comes, forcing the knock-on.

Now, had the lineout gone to the tail, Wales would have instantly committed more from the back, opening up better possibilities to attack.

It's going to be interesting to see how the two teams adjust their lineout next week. With former England coach Geoff Parling in charge of the Wallabies' lineout, you'd imagine he'd be delighted with how Australia got off the ground to pressure Lake's throws, although he might feel they were a tad impatient in defending Wales' penalty try maul.

As for Jonathan Humphreys, is he likely to tweak much? You'd hope Wales try to vary things more at the lineout this week, taking the easy options when they're on to keep the Wallabies guessing.

Or, they'll keep aiming for double top and seeing what lands in the bed. Either way, the fault once again won't lie with Lake if that's what they do.