There was an average of thirty lineouts per match in the opening round of the 2022 Six Nations.
The average in international matches in the early 1970s was more than double that number.
Why are there much fewer lineouts now than ten or twenty years ago?
This article looks at averages in the modern game. We also review how and why the number of lineouts per game has changed through rugby history.
How Many Lineouts Are In A Rugby Game?
There has been an average of 25 lineouts in international rugby matches since 2015.
The early 1970s had an average of 63 lineouts. This dropped below 40 at the 1995 Rugby World Cup and continued to decline slowly.
The average has been below 30 since the 2011 World Cup.
These numbers are based on elite international tournaments such as the Six Nations and the Rugby World Cup.
How The Number Of Lineouts Per Game Has Changed
An analysis of international matches between 1970 and 1973 showed that there was an average of 63 lineouts per game.
By the way, there were also about 38 scrums! We have a companion article on the number of scrums per game.
Yes, the flow of a rugby match was very different back then. Very stop-start, very forward-oriented, and not much continuous play.
The chart below shows the clear downward trajectory in the number of lineouts. There was a major reversal of this trend for a few years in the early 1990s.
But generally, the average numbers have decreased until leveling off to about 25 lineouts in recent years.
Why Did The Number Of Lineouts Decrease In Recent Years?
I’m not going to analyze the trends in the 1990s – it’s probably not as interesting to you as more recent times.
So, let’s take a closer look at the trends in this century i.e. since 2000.
There was an average of 31 lineouts in the 2000 Six Nations (and in the World Cup the previous year).
The average stayed about thirty up to the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
But notice how the number tumbled significantly to 24 in the 2011 World Cup and have remained in or around that level since then.
So, what happened in international rugby between the 2007 and 2011 World Cup? Well, the diagram kinda gives the answer away!
Global rollout of Experimental Law Variations in 2008
World Rugby started a massive project of experimental law changes to the sport back in 2005. The project was called the Experimental Law Variations.
This was quickly shortened to “the ELVs”.
The goal was to deliver a more exciting spectacle in terms of attacking rugby and flowing play. They sure weren’t trying to bring back the 63 lineouts from the 1970s!
These laws were first tested at college, under-age, and amateur levels.
Finally, a number of the “experimental” laws were brought into the global game permanently.
Which law most affected the number of lineouts?
At the time, one law was numbered “19” and read as follows:
If a team puts the ball back into their own 22 and the ball is subsequently kicked directly into touch there is no gain of ground.
If you didn’t watch much rugby before 2008, then I’ll tell you that this was a massive change.
Teams used to be able to throw a long pass back to their fullback standing in the 22, and a good kicking fullback could launch a long high diagonal kick over the line in the opposition half.
Even when the ball didn’t bounce before going out of play, the opposition lineout was still at the point where the ball crossed the line.
A back could also catch the ball outside their 22, scamper back over their 22 line, turn and kick the ball out. Again, the opposition lineout was as far downfield as they could get.
Of course, teams can still do this after the ELV changes but they’re at a major disadvantage. Now, the opposition gets the lineout from the point where the ball was kicked.
But the ELVs brought about a major change in defensive kicking.
Modern defensive kicking
The best kickers will try to kick for the corner and get that bounce before the ball goes out. However, it’s a difficult skill.
After the ELVs, kickers in their own half (and outside the 22) were far more likely to kick the ball long down the centre of the pitch.
This is what led to the reduction in lineouts.
Our Analysis Of The Numbers Of Lineouts In The 2022 Six Nations
I tracked the number of lineouts in the opening round of the 2022 Six Nations.
- Game 1: Ireland versus Wales
- Game 2: England versus Scotland
- Game 3: France versus Italy
Number and timing of lineouts in the first half of matches
The table below shows the minute in which a lineout occurred.
|Minute||Round 1||Round 2||Round 3|
You can see there were a lot fewer lineouts in the first half of the match between Ireland and Wales.
The conditions in Dublin that day were very wet and blustery, which is difficult for the throwers.
Both teams may have been more reluctant to kick penalties to the touchline instead of kicking for goal.
Number and timing of lineouts in the second half of matches
The second half saw more lineouts in all the matches.
|Minute||Round 1||Round 2||Round 3|
Most of our statistics come from studies published by World Rugby (formerly the International Rugby Board).
In recent years, they have outsourced the collection of match statistics to companies that specialize in tracking events in sports as the match is happening.
Here’s an example report.
This is how television networks can flash fancy statistics up on the screen during halftime and post-match analysis.
There are also statistics from the companies that provide GPS counters to individual teams. You can check out our article on the usage of GPS in rugby.
Where do the older statistics come from?
But what about the matches from earlier times?
Every few years, the World Rugby authorities would commission an analysis of these kinds of statistics to see how the sport was affected by rule changes.
Former Welsh referee Corris Thomas was usually their main man for statistical analysis.
Incidentally, Corris was the referee when Munster beat the All Blacks in 1973.
For the quoted numbers of lineouts in the early 1970s, Thomas sat down and analyzed grainy old television footage. He had an easier time in later years!
Here is a book that references the work by Thomas:
- Unholy Union by Mike Aylwin (the book is available on Amazon)
We’ve also used statistics and facts cited in these research papers:
More About Lineouts
Check out these articles: