Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Game of aerial chess crucial to showdown

Brodie Retallick of the Chiefs competes with Luke Romano during their teams' last clash. Photo / Getty Images
Brodie Retallick of the Chiefs competes with Luke Romano during their teams' last clash. Photo / Getty Images

Lineouts are the Rubik's Cube of professional rugby, a puzzle some can unlock and others never quite master.

Men like former Springbok lock Victor Matfield seemed to be invincible and the rugby world heard stories that he locked himself in a soundproof room with the lineout calls turned up, studying the opposition.

When Chiefs forwards coach Tom Coventry worked in the Hawkes Bay, he reckoned over a season he could work out opposition lineouts if he kept a running log on their calls and systems.

"You began to see a routine with the same calls, that's the way the lineout is in the modern game," he said.

Some teams made verbal calls, others used eye language and body movement.

"There are lots of ways of doing it and you can actually try and eliminate some of the things that go wrong by keeping it simple," Coventry said.

A fortnight ago the Crusaders came to town and mugged the Chiefs' lineout, which was without their senior tactician and captain Craig Clarke, who had the flu.

The rematch is this Friday, the sudden-death meeting, where a further malfunction will be fatal.

Clarke, his sidekick leader Liam Messam and new All Black Brodie Retallick are the key figures in the Chiefs' lineout, the blokes who sense the moves and share the target load in the subplot of aerial chess.

Clarke has been a great foil for Retallick, calmly taking him through the job specs while Retallick has boosted his captain's style with his enthusiasm and impact.

The 21-year-old won multiple franchise awards as the coaching staff's player of the year, the players' rookie of the season, and has produced quality work throughout the year.

When this week's semifinalists last met, Retallick hit 52 rucks as the Chiefs kept clawing back into the contest before losing 21-28 in Hamilton.

"It is a huge work rate and no one in our team got anywhere near him," Coventry said of his rookie lock.

"If I could get eight forwards to work as hard as that boy does it would be a difficult team to beat.

"He has a big engine and does not seem to get knocked around. He has one of those body types. The people I used to speak to when he was a kid used to say he kept going and so far so good.

"A few people have tried to upset him but he is reasonably calm.

"He gets hot under the collar for a couple of minutes and then disses it and gets on with things."

Retallick might grizzle about some of his treatment but he is reminded that is part of his rugby education and he will get a lot more people coming at him before he is finished.

The lineout keys were to find space and that involved many factors like speed on the ground, setting decoys and working fast so the opposition could not get set to challenge.

Analysis in the modern game is massive and lineouts come under special scrutiny.

"Teams can work out your calls, they are very quick to pick up on cues that are delivered," Coventry said.

"We have had a team yelling out words that we use when we throw the ball in, trying to double bluff us where the ball is going to go.

"It's just another tactic, the top edge, it's what makes the difference between winning and losing the odd lineout when you are hot on attack or under pressure on your own line."

The Crusaders got on to some of the Chiefs' ploys in the last round and made that pressure tell.

Sorting those basics and tidying up other setpiece areas, parts of the defence and penalty concessions at the breakdown, had all been part of the Chiefs' remedial work.

Some of the side's edge may have been blunted once they knew they had qualified for the finals, and sometimes it was counter-productive to try to get players up for a sustained run.

"We thought there was plenty on it to finish in the top slot rather than No 2," Coventry said.

"Maybe in their own minds they had achieved what they wanted to a couple of weeks beforehand and we were relying a bit more on them being able to do it for themselves in the last few games.

"There is more at stake now because you lose and you are gone. From my experience, desperation and anxiety help to get better performances out of your squad."

- NZ Herald

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