The Artful Delicacies of a Loose Head Prop
Ray McLoughlin analyses the causes for Ireland's failure in International Rugby
That Ray Mcloughlin should have emerged from international front row rugby with a brain at all is in itself a cause for wonderment. That he should have emerged with a capacity to appreciate some of the complexities of the game of rugby is indeed remarkable, given the amount of brain cell damage that must have been done during countless bruising confrontations from Athlone to Adelaide.
Mc Loughlin is credited/blamed with having introduced organisation and reflection into Irish International rugby. Having been capped consistently since the beginning of the 1962 Intemational season - his first cap was in the Twickenham drubbing when 9 Irish players came onto side for the first time, these included Willie John McBride - he was made Captain in 1965.
Ireland had won 3 of its previous 23 matches but in the 1965 season it won 3 and drew 1 out of 5 games. Having drawn with France and beaten Scotland and England they lost by 14 points to 8 in Cardiff, despite having dominated the first half. Following that game they went on to beat South Africa for the first time ever, so that by the end of the season Ireland had enjoyed by far its most successful season for many years.
McLoughlin was largely responsible for this. He imposed a degree of cohesion and organisation to the Irish play by carefully planning moves beforehand, insisting on total concentration of the task in hand and by taking direct responsibility himself.
The following season was a less happy one. The Probables did magnificently in the trial, winning by 30 points to 6 it was generally expected that the team would achieve great things. However it lost 11/6 to France in Paris and following a draw with England at Twickenham, it was then defeated by Scotland in Dublin.
The disappointment of this performance was all the because of the greater because of the expectations that had been aroused by the performance of the previous year and some of the Irish press became hostile to McLoughlin and his approach game. In particular there was hostility to his efforts in the 1966 season to introduce innovations into line-out play in order to overcome some problems in the line-out at that time.
One commentator described these variations as absurd extravaganza.
McLoughlin was replaced as Captain for the last match of the season by Tom Kiernan and Ireland defeated Wales in that game by 9 points to 6 at Lansdowne Road. The McLoughlin era was over.
He was picked for the British Lions tour of Australia, New Zealand that summer and was chosen for all but one of the 6 test matches.
On returning to Ireland McLoughlin decided to take a rest from rugby. He had been intensively involved in the game for 8 years and calculated that it was time for him to concentrate on his career and family life.
However in 1970 he started to train again in Athlone and he was persuaded to play for the local side. He automatically came back into the Connaught team and became reserve for Ireland in the 1969-70 season.
He came back onto the Irish team in 1971 and was chosen for the Lions tour of New Zealand and Australia in that summer. He was chosen for the first test but had to cry off due to injury and he finally left the tour altogether following the second test match.
That 1971 Lions Tour was to be the most successful ever but it got off to a shaky start with a defeat by Queensland in the first match of the tour. The forwards had got a roasting that day and there were apprehensions that the brilliance in the back line which included Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Mike Gibson, John Dawes, Gerald Daview, John Bevan, David Duckham and JPR Williams would be frustrated by an insufficiency of good quality possession.
Carwyn Jones called on McLoughlin to take over the coaching of the forwards and this became his first opportunity to apply his talent for organisation and tactics since he was captain of Ireland in 1965 and 1966.
McLoughlin was in charge of the forward training for the first half of the tour and at that point responsibility was transferred to Willie John McBride. Between them they made a major contribution to achieving a position where the Lions pack in New Zealand had succeeded in matching the All Blacks and the major New Zealand provincial packs for the first time. The result of this was that the Lions backs got enough ball to show their brilliance with devastating effect.
The party appreciated that it was McLoughlin and McBride who had built the platform for that breathtaking display of rugby genius.
McLoughlin continued to play for Ireland until 1975 winning in all 40 International caps excluding Lions test matches. Had he not opted out from 1969 to 1970 he might have matched Willie John McBride's record number of caps.
It has been reported that McLoughlin was nominated by Irish Rugby Union for the position of Manager of the 1977 Lions tour of New Zealand but that he turned it down.
McLoughlin looks descreetly askance at the performance of Irish rugby sides in recent seasons but he refuses to be drawn into specific criticisms of either players or administrators. I put to him a series of questions about the current Irish team and what might be done about improving its performance. •
What did you think of the Irish team's performance against Scotland?
It is difficult to evaluate how improved the Irish side was because of the ineptitude of the Scottish team. Not alone were they technically inept in many departments, but they lacked fire and commitment to an extent even greater than Ireland did against England.
The Irish pack was going to do better against Scotland anyway. It is a busy. lively pack, and if the game loosens out a bit at all, it can be quite effective. The problem with England was that they monopolised possession and then refused to loosen up the game and maintained a tight, close energy sapping type of game right through. As a result the Irish forwards were enveloped and overpowered and rather helpless to do anything about it.
Altogether, even allowing for the weakness of the Scottish team, I think this was a better performance by Ireland.
What do you consider was the problem with the scrummage against England?
The overall problem obviously was an aggregate of many problems. I think there were a number of players who didn't just try hard enough on the day. The worst feature was the fact that we were pushed around on our own possession.
I always feel that the most important player in maintaining the stability of the scrum on your own ball is the tight head prop. He must pin down the opposition loose head prop and prevent the drive coming through the loose head prop of the opposite team because that is where the lift and the drive ususally emanate from if the scrum gets a big push on.
I suppose I am saying really that Gerry McLoughlin fell down on the job a bit against England. I must say I
was a bit surprised at this because thought he did very well last year particularly against Charlie Faulkner of Wales and the French prop and I would have thought that either of these, and in particular Faulkner, would prove harder to pin down than Cotton whom I never considered very good as a loose head prop. His better position is tight head.
I wonder in fact if Gerry McLoughlin was out of sorts on the day or wasn't feeling as well or as fit as he did last year. Somehow I think he didn't do himself justice, and I am sure he will come again.
Was it a lack of strength or technique?
As I said I didn't think he seemed as vigorous as he did last year but I think also that his technique was a little bit at fault. However, to be fair to him, we must remember that he usually plays loose head prop. He played loose head for example for Munster against the All-Blacks last year and had a very' good game in that position.
What was wrong with his techique in the English match?
Broadly speaking there are two different ways in which a tight head prop can scrummage against his loose head opponent. In the first method he can go outside the loose head and use his arm to whip the loose head down into a bent and weak position. This is all very well if in fact the tight head is stronger than the loose head and succeeds in whipping him down in this way.
However, if he only half succeeds so that his right arm is sort of parallel to the ground, all he is doing is providing the loose head with a platform through which the loose head can lift. Therefore to be half successful can be as bad as being an absolute failure, because you are helping the opposition instead of making it difficult for him. Once that happens a tight head is much better to abandon the idea of trying to bring the loose head down using the outside arm and should not use his arm at all but simply keep close to the hooker, put his right shoulder on the loose head's neck and pin him down in that way.
In the English game I felt that Gerry McLoughlin tried too hard with the outside arm and should have abandoned it earlier. However, that probably is as a result of lack of experience at tight head and I am quite sure he won't make the same mistake again.
In the English match we were completely dominated in the line out. Is there anything that might have been done to correct that on the day?
Not that much I think.
Ireland used the short line out with Mike Gibson with considerable success last season and even though there is nobody as good as Mike Gibson in this department on the team now, I still feel that John O' Driscoll can be quite effective in the short line-out situation.
I felt during the English match that there might have been more short line outs but on reflection I think it is probably correct to say that between the Irish 10 yard line and the English goal line the majority of line outs were English throw ins and you must excuse the leader of the pack or captain for being reluctant to call short line outs inside his own l0-yard line.
However, when there is complete domination as there was in the English game there is a case for trying something different just for the sake of trying something different on the grounds that it cannot really be worse than the orthodox situation.
There would have been a case I think for following a policy of simply flinging the ball into the middle of the field where there is no reason to suppose that it wouldn't be a so-so break. There is no reason to suppose that English centres are any better than Irish centres. In fact I would say they are not as good.
However, the leader of the pack or captain cannot really embark upon a policy like this unless it has been provided for beforehand. It should really be an option for him going into the game. Otherwise he would have to invent a signal on the field, he would have to communicate to everybody what role he requires from them in response to such a signal and it is impossible in an International match to do that. It is impossible to be heard for a start and quite out of the question to organise a new initiative which hadn't been provided for beforehand.
I feel that such an option may not have received enough attention before the English game because there would not have been the expectation that the line out would be as bad as it was. However, I always am a believer in having the maximum options available beforehand because you cannot be sure how things will work out on the day.
The big problem about following a policy of throwing over the line out on a consistent basis is that you require a very accurate thrower in. Indeed if it is a wet or windy day even with an accurate thrower in, there can be quite a number of false starts due to crooked throwing.
However it's easy to be wise after the event and I return to my first mark that I don't think there much that could be done on the day.
Is it not true to say that Ireland always been short of good line jumpers?
I don't think you could really say that. In the past ten years we have had Terry Moore, Ken Goodall and Mike Gibson who were quite exceptional by any standards. Unfortunately however, for one reason or another, none them lasted very long.
But we have had many players who in my view were good line out players even though they wouldn't have been considered to be line out specialists. I thought Bill Mulcahy was an excellent line out player and it was very seldom that Willie John McBride, Mike Molloy or Bill Mulcahy were dominated in a line out.
There is a lot more to line out play than high jumping. There is the question of timing, changing position,jumping a split second before the opposition and in front of him, good co-ordination of the thrower and above all good throwing in.
Is it possible for line out players to improve their jumping capability?
Yes I believe it is. I would say there have been some International line out jumpers who would not do a standing jump in excess of 18 inches. Compare this with Alan Martin of Wales who had a standing jump of 30 inches or Mervyn Davies who had a standing jump of 33 inches.
It is very seldom in club training sessions that you see second-row forwards or line out jumpers carrying out any specific training to contribute towards their jumping capability. Apart from doing squats which can increase the snap in the relevant leg muscles, I think that running backwards on one leg can do a lot to increase the snap in the quadriceps. You can find that as between two players who will cover 100 yards on two legs with not more than a seconds difference between them, there can be as much as 7 or 8 seconds difference between them in running 50 yards on one leg.
However, as I mentioned earlier, there are other factors that are more relevant than how high a jumper can jump.
What are these factors?
The most important thing of all in my view about line out play is accurate throwing in. This is of such outstanding importance that it is remarkable how little attention is given to it. It is essential that the most important factor in selecting whether the ball is thrown in by a prop or a hooker or a winger is the ability of these players in throwing the ball in. Once the best thrower is selected he should practice the technique over and over.
The second most important factor is timing between the line out jumper and the thrower in. Remember a player with a leap even a foot higher than his opponent will fail to get to a ball if he jumps a second too early or a second too late provided that his opponent jumps at exactly the right moment. Much too little attention is given to this matter of getting the timing correct.
lt is necessary that systems are worked out between the jumper and the line out thrower so that the line out thrower can know exactly the split second that he should begin his jump, This split second will be different depending on whether he is jumping at the front, in the middle or the back of the line out. I have frequently seen line out practice at coaching sessions where no effort is made to force the line out player to examine the technique of the thrower to determine the point in the throwing action where he should begin his jump.
In the orthodox line out I believe the next most important thing is the matter of having flexibility of positions, It is very sterile to keep one jumper at No.3, another at No.5 and another at No.7 all of the time unless they are dominating the opposition from these positions. If they are not a lot can be achieved by being able to move them around and switch them. It is important to have a slick and unconfusing system for bringing this about but it is possible provided that timing and co-ordination between the jumper and the thrower in has been achieved and provided there is an efficient set of line out signals.
Flexibility in moving players around the line out is often impaired by an over-rigid and cumbersome set of line out signals.
Ireland did very badly in the rucks and mauls against England. What was the reason for this?
Two seasons ago and three seasons ago the Irish team was particularly bad in broken play situations. I say team rather than just forwards because it is as applicable to backs as to forwards.
In circumstances where a player of either side is caught in the tackle or where a ball goes loose giving rise to broken play situations, the first actions taken by the players nearest to the breakdown situation are the most critical ones in determining which team ultimately will win the ensuing loose maul or loose ruck and indeed if the immediate reactions are sufficiently quick and decisive it can happen that a loose ruck or maul is avoided altogether.
Two seasons ago and three seasons ago Irish players, both backs and forwards, with some exceptions, were bad at instinctively moving immediately to the breakdown situation, at shielding the ball, at keeping the opponent away from it, at not being sucked into the opposition, at presenting it to a supporter at the right moment, i.e. at the all important task of securing the ball.
Backs are particularly important in this matter because very often it is a back who is nearest to the breakdown situation and there has been a tendency in Irish teams for backs to stand back and wait for the forwards to arrive rather than move in and secure the ball themselves. A split second lost as a result of this can be decisive.
In contrast New Zealand backs are excellent at this aspect of play and the Welsh backs are quite good at it also. This excellence of New Zealand backs; and Welsh backs, in my view, always has been an important element but not the only one in their effectiveness in loose ruck and loose maul situations.
Last year there was a remarkable improvement in this area and clearly Noel Murphy and Fergus Slattery must have given considerable priority to the problem and must have given a lot of time to it because it takes a while to achieve a noticeable improvement by a team in this area of play.
There is a temptation to say that it has been lost this year but I think that would be a somewhat impetuous judgement because perhaps the most important of all factors in determining effectiveness in loose rucks and loose mauls is the matter of winning primary possession.
In club match situations the winning of primary possession need not be that critical to performance in loose ruck situations because a good loose rucking team can dispossess the opposition a lot of the time.
However, if you are playing against a team whose forwards are continually winning the ball and whose forwards and backs just refuse to give it away to the opposition and have the right techniques to prevent the opposition from getting at it, then all the loose rucking and loose mauling expertise in the world will not correct this. As between equal packs of forwards the trend in the loose ruck and loose maul situation will usually swing with the trend in primary possession.
England were winning the majority of primary possession. It is fair to say that they were basically better at mauling and rucking the ball in any case, but I think the first factor is the more relevant.
What do you think should be the areas of emphasis in going into the French and Welsh matches?
The matter of not giving away penalties has to be as it always must be the matter of first importance.
Given the fact that the beginning of this season. will have damaged confidence a bit, I feel that there should be a re-assertion of the importance of all players on the field in moving to the breakdown situation rapidly and in securing the ball in order to contribute towards winning second phase possession.
I feel there should be a concentration on emphasis on line out options however radical, e.g. throwing the ball into the middle of the field on a continual basis in case that there is a dominance in the line out situation achieved by either of the oppositions.
I feel some consideration should be given to the question of whether the Irish kickers should always go for a touch when kicking an attack if things aren't going too well on the opposition's throw in at the line out. If we were doing pretty well in our line outs but if they were winning their line outs very securely, might it not be better that we had a throw in 40 yards from the French line than that the French had a throw in 30 yards from the French line? It is hard ever to be conclusive about this matter.
I have seen many coaching sessions where there is never any attention at all given to what the drill or attitude should be when the opposition is throwing the ball into the line out. It is a certainty that they will be throwing the ball into the line out for the large part of any game. The matter of making it difficult for the opposition to get a clean ball in the line out is highly important and I feel that a lot of attention and emphasis should be given to this matter.
For example it should be clearly set out to each of the players in the line out which of them should cover across the field on an opposition line out and which should concentrate on applying pressure and going through the line out, and indeed it is worth giving thought to whether there might be a different back row defence which would minimise the time which the opposition had to use possession from the line out.
How do you see the prospects against Wales and France?
I think i would be more optimistic than most. I think it is unreasonable to attach too much importance to the English game. I think a lot of people had an off day on that occasion and it must be remembered that the previous six matches played by Ireland, i.e. last season and the two games in Australia, were all good performances and one bad performance following six good ones doesn't justify a disregard of the qualities which gave rise to the six good performances. I'd be inclined to ignore the Scottish match also.
The Irish forwards will do better against France than they did against England certainly. You will have noted that the English forwards dominated the French forwards in Paris. I think it is unlikely that either the Welsh or the French packs will dominate will dominate the Irish pack in the scrums to the extent that applied against England. Mick Fitzpatrick is very experienced at tight head and on many occasions i have played against him i always found him a very solid customer. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the new Welsh loose head will at all be comparable with Charlie Faulkner.
I see the matter of primary possession in the line out as being the most critical factor in both of these games not only because of the importance of primary possession but because of the influence that it can have upon the success in second phase play.
He would be a brave man who would forecast an Irish win in either circumstance, but given the scoring capabilities of Campbell and Patterson and of Ward if he is brought into the side, I see us having a reasonable chance in both games.