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Turning over an opposition lineout

By: Stats Perform

Rugby union can be an odd game at times. The moment-to-moment gameplay of individuals hurling themselves towards each other in pursuit of the ball, the sharp hands and minds of players looking to exploit any gap or split second indecision is frequently interrupted by pauses for set pieces.

The lineout is one such example. Teams regularly utilise this set play as an opportunity to secure a platform to either establish field position or launch an offensive move. However, what happens when possession of the lineout is lost? In this instance the defensive team suddenly has the attacking advantage against an unorganised opposition, set up to be on the offence.

This blog intends to provide an analytical insight into the actions of international rugby union teams, focusing on how they react to the situation of gaining possession directly from the opposition’s lineout, and how they look to exploit this scenario to their own advantage.

Within this article I have focused on the possessions and actions of the world’s top five ranked international teams according to World Rugby in November 2016 (NZ, AUS, ENG, IRE & RSA), analysing events after they had received the ball directly from an opposition’s lineout. This may not refer to a direct lineout steal by an individual; it also includes lineouts that the opposition have lost due to a handling error within the lineout or the lineout being overthrown and will be termed an Opposition Lineout Turnover for the remainder of this blog post.

Causing disruption

Before establishing how teams use the ball from an Opposition Lineout Turnover, it is important to establish which team is the best at causing such an event. It may be unsurprising to learn that the world’s number one ranked team, New Zealand, come out on top.

Over the course of 25 games spanning a 23 month period, New Zealand averaged an Opposition Lineout Turnover every 6.10 lineouts faced, the most frequent of any of the five teams featured within this analysis. In a close second to the All Blacks are England, who forced an Opposition Lineout Turnover every 6.81 lineouts faced.

Perhaps surprisingly it is the Australians who come out fifth when compared to their rivals in this regard. Australia only forced 24 Opposition Lineout Turnovers in their 25 matches, forcing a turnover for every 12.13 lineouts faced. To highlight the deficit in this area, New Zealand forced 27 more Opposition Lineout Turnovers when compared to Australia. Reasons for this are unclear, however Australia often play with Michael Hooper and David Pocock in their back line, with neither renowned for their lineout prowess with just two lineout takes in Super Rugby 2016 between them. New Zealand, however, can call upon Kieran Reid who has 94 international lineout takes and 13 lineout steals in this period.

Table 1: Frequency of lineout turnovers

New Zealand England Australia Ireland South Africa
Games played 25 24 25 25 24
Total lineouts faced 31 286 291 314 292
Total opp. Lineout turnovers 51 42 24 39 30
Lineouts faced per lineout turnover 6.10 6.81 12.13 8.05 9.40

Whilst the table above recognises that the All Blacks have been the most prolific team for gaining possession of the ball from an opposition’s throw, the table below looks to establish how each team use the ball in comparison to their rivals.

Table 2: How possessions end after an opposition lineout turnover

New Zealand England Australia Ireland South Africa
Total opposition turnovers 51 42 24 39 30
Total to opposition 23 (45.1%) 13 (30.9%) 8 (33.3%) 13 (33.3%) 11 (36.7%)
Repeat possession 5 (9.8%) 9 (21.4%) 8 (33.3%) 8 (20.5%) 8 (26.7%)
Possession kicked away 14 (27.5%) 17 (40.5%) 4 (16.6%) 17 (43.59%) 7 (23.3%)
Try scored 8 (15.7%) 3 (7.14%) 4 (16.6%) 1 (2.6%) 3 (10%)

*Please note that New Zealand and South Africa are one short in the categories due to the possession ending due to the end of the game rather than a specific action by the team.


The results suggest that there could be a divide in tactics between the northern and southern hemispheres. The northern hemisphere teams kick possession away more frequently than their southern hemisphere rivals. Northern hemisphere teams may focus on gaining field position rather than exploiting any defensive weaknesses at the time, as the southern hemisphere sides appear to.

Turning over a turnover

Each team turns over the ball back to the opposition at a similar rate, either through an individual error or by conceding a penalty. New Zealand are the outlier here, turning over the ball 23 times (45.1%). It is important to note that in 41% (23/56 possessions) of these instances the turnovers occur within the first phase of possession following the Opposition Lineout Turnover, suggesting that the team defending the lineout may not be prepared to receive the ball, resulting in a knock-on or turnover. This could be due to the frantic nature of play after a lineout has been lost; it is rarely a clean act with the ball bouncing around a crowd of bodies leading to a higher risk of error. New Zealand’s higher turnover rate could be down to their more expansive running game, which carries a greater risk of turning the ball back over to the opposition. This theory is supported by the number of tries they have scored compared to the other nations, eight in all.

The most intriguing team here is Australia who, despite forcing the opposition into fewer turnovers at the lineout, have a similar potency to the All Blacks when it comes to scoring tries from such situations, with 16.6% (four) of Opposition Lineout Turnovers resulting in a try being scored to the All Blacks’ 15.7% (8). The Wallabies also kick possession away fewer times than their rivals (16.6%).

Table 3: The next possession following an opposition lineout turnover

New Zealand England Australia Ireland South Africa
Average number of phases 3.08 2.74 3.63 4.4 3.9
Average metres made (without kicking ball away) 17.45 6.6 23.75 12.32 10.39
Number of breaks in possession 20 (39.25%) 9 (21.4%)%) 6 (25%) 12 (30.8%) 9 (30%)

The theory that Australia and New Zealand take the opportunity to counter attack is supported by the above table. Both teams make more metres in the subsequent possession than their rivals, 17.45m and 23.75m for New Zealand and Australia respectively. New Zealand are also the most potent at breaking their opponent’s defensive line in this scenario with 20 (39.25%) of their subsequent possessions involving a line break.

Interestingly though, it is England who make the least amount of metres in the subsequent possession, just 6.6m despite an 86m try against Uruguay in the 2015 World Cup. This could be linked to the fact that they hold onto the ball for the fewest number of phases than their rivals, kicking the possession away more frequently.

Table 4: Frequency of breaks after certain possession types

New Zealand England Australia Ireland South Africa Group Average
% Breaks after opposition lineout turnover 39.25 21.4 25 30.8 30 29.29
% Breaks in all possessions 23.07 14.29 16.42 12.17 12.17 15.63
Difference (%) 16.18 7.11 8.58 18.63 17.79 13.66

While it seems clear that each nation in this analysis has their own particular tactic when it comes to opportunities following an Opposition Lineout Turnover, what is consistent across the board is when they do follow-up with an attack with the ball they are more likely to break the opponent’s defensive line in that subsequent phase. The biggest benefiters are Ireland and South Africa, who see an 18.63% and 17.79% increase in the number of breaks they make in a possession following an Opposition Lineout Turnover.

Forcing an Opposition Lineout Turnover can create a significant offensive platform for a team. The top international teams break their opponent’s line more regularly in this scenario when compared to the rest of their possessions, with Australia and New Zealand particularly adept of taking advantage. However, Australia may not be able to extract the full potential out of the situation due to their comparative weakness at forcing the situation in the first place.

The northern hemisphere teams have a tendency to kick possession away in the pursuit of field position rather than trying to exploit their opponent’s potential defensive confusion. With neither England nor Ireland making as many metres in the subsequent phases than their southern hemisphere rivals. However, as these teams will play in different conditions and different teams to their southern hemisphere rivals it is hard to fully determine whether this approach is a pre-determined tactic or a case of teams ‘playing the situation’ as it occurs.