The maul continues to grow in importance as Ireland lead the way

THE MAUL IS enjoying a resurgence at the top levels of world rugby, to the point that it has become one of the key attacking weapons for many teams.

Among the international sides who are increasingly focused on the maul as a means of amassing tries are Ireland, who have scored directly from the set-piece in their last two Test matches against South Africa and Georgia.

Those efforts continued a theme from Ireland’s forward pack, who excelled at the maul during their Six Nations success last season. It would be little surprise to see the Irish pack rumble over from five metres out against the Wallabies in Dublin on Saturday.

Ireland’s maul creates a try against Georgia last weekend.

“It’s a good set-piece and it’s something you can plan out to a certain degree,” says Ireland number eight Jamie Heaslip. “Like all good set-pieces, when you drill them and execute them, they’re sometimes very hard to stop.

“Being on the other side of it, defending well-executed moves off mauls is tough work to get in there and break it up. South Africa got in for one against us two weeks ago, so all teams pride themselves on that.

“As a pack, you want that chance, you want to kick the corners and say ‘let’s go’. It’s man-up time, I suppose is the best way to describe it.”

It’s interesting to note that Heaslip indicates how difficult it is to defend against the maul, particularly when the attacking players know their mualing roles in such depth and possess the power to turn angles, bracing, binding and blocking into a serious amount of forward momentum.

Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby, a 65-times capped international during his own playing days as a back row, explains the maul in similar terms.

“It’s becoming a really vital part of the game again and we, like everyone else, work really hard at that. We also have lots of improvements to make in that regard.”

It’s intriguing that Easterby underlines that attacking teams are being allowed to continue mauls for longer than was the case in the past. As with every other element of the game, refereeing plays a crucial role in mauling, and the impression is that attacking sides have been favoured in recent times.

That said, it was interesting to see Nigel Owens penalising France at an attacking maul last weekend against the Wallabies, as shown below.

France were pinged at an attacking maul last weekend.

As highlighted in the image below, Owens halts the French maul after Thierry Dusautoir essentially benefits from blocking by Uini Atonio [17].

What is of most interest in this scenario, whatever about the manner in which Owens penalises France, is that the Welsh referee is looking out for the defensive side. Yes, it’s an easy penalty for him to give in this instance, but how many times in the last year have we seen similar play from the attacking team be allowed?

Will referees begin to ensure that there is more balance between attack and defence in the mauls? It’s certainly something to keep a close eye on.

Ireland came up with a clever tactic of countering the mauling strength of South Africa two weekends ago in Dublin, even if they did eventually concede the try that Heaslip mentions above.

This is entirely within the laws of the game and a tactic that Ireland frustrated the Springboks with on three occasions at the Aviva Stadium. Referee Romain Poite was happy with Ireland’s actions, but it’s probably not something that match officials would want to become widespread.

A physical contest is always something to be welcomed at the maul, surely.

While the maul may not be the most glamorous aspect of the sport, it is an increasingly important one. The level of power, technical skill, timing, preparation, video analysis and visualisation that go into creating a strong maul are worthy of deep respect.

Watching how attacking prowess is met by defensive intelligence at the maul as we build towards the 2015 Rugby World Cup will be fascinating. The match officials are likely to play a key role.

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