Ranking the 2016 RBS 6 Nations Hookers on Lineout Delivery

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistFebruary 2, 2016

Ranking the 2016 RBS 6 Nations Hookers on Lineout Delivery

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    Lineout throwing could be considered one of the most understated arts in rugby, and the 2016 RBS Six Nations Championship rugby tournament will put some of Europe's most accurate hookers to the test in seeing who has the steadiest arm.

    This is also one area of the game that most susceptible to inconsistent statistics, and only the best hookers can maintain darts-like precision over the course of an entire season.

    We've selected the top two hookers from each of the six competing nations, ranking each candidate on his lineout delivery. Recent form is a crucial factor in the order, but for some of the more experienced entrants, we may also take into account set-piece reputation.

    Superb lineout delivery doesn't necessarily equate to a superb hooker, but it's a specialist job at which some excel.

Honourable Mention: Luke Cowan-Dickie

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    Eddie Jones could have a hugely promising prospect on his hands if he can mould front-row utility Luke Cowan-Dickie with the proper direction, but for the time being, the 22-year-old remains a raw power.

    It's clear he has spent some time interchanging between prop and hooker based on the fact his throwing at the set piece can sometimes be suspect, but it appears his future now sits in the No. 2 jersey.

    The Exeter Chiefs youngster has just one England cap to his name and stiff competition at hooker, but if he can clean up the lineout to go along with his fine graft around the park, he can step up to the international plate.

12. Davide Giazzon

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    Davide Giazzon is likely to struggle for playing time at this year's Six Nations so long as Leonardo Ghiraldini remains fit, while Treviso team-mate Ornel Gega will also provide competition for a place on the bench.

    Like the aforementioned Cowan-Dickie, Giazzon is able to provide cover at prop, and that spread of his talents may have turned him into a form of jack of all trades, master of none. He is brutish in the work he does, but "accuracy" wouldn't be listed as one of the Italian's top traits.

    The 30-year-old came on as a substitute in the Azzurri's defeat to Ireland at last year's Rugby World Cup, where ESPN Scrum's Tristan Barclay noted he botched his first lineout. Giazzon's luck didn't improve by much afterward.

11. Camille Chat

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    Given he's just 20 years of age, there's limited material to judge just how good a lineout-thrower Camille Chat really is, but the early evidence suggest his greatest assets may lie elsewhere.

    First and foremost, the Racing 92 recruit is a gifted athlete who is brilliantly strong with ball in hand and space ahead, but the lineout is a part of his game in need of improvement.

    Thankfully, he's surrounded by elite talent in Paris and already has two tries in seven Top 14 starts this season, showcasing what a terrific attacking outlet he can be.

10. Sean Cronin

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    Despite earning 48 caps for Ireland, Sean Cronin has only made eight appearances for the national team as a starter. Even sadder than that is the fact that despite being so involved with the squad since making his bow in 2009, he has never started a Six Nations match.

    The Leinster hooker might have taken more of the spotlight away from figures such as Rory Best—and Jerry Flannery before him—if the lineout was a more cemented, surefire part of his game.

    Cronin has done well to finish with tries in two of his last five international outings, but until the squad can lean on him to throw more precisely in clutch set-piece clashes, he'll always be second choice.

9. Guilhem Guirado

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    France are one of three Six Nations outfits entering the tournament with a hooker as their newly elected captain, but Guilhem Guirado is far from sitting among the elite when it comes to lineout-throwing alone.

    Perhaps a lack of leadership in the French pack can be held accountable for any misfiring form internationally, but Toulon's hooker will now be held accountable should anything falter at this year's competition.

    It's also worth noting Guirado has never completed an 80-minute match for Les Bleus, per Statbunker— something that could be seen as a concern regarding stamina.

8. Leonardo Ghiraldini

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    Jacques Brunel's Italy squad isn't oozing with superstar talent, but Ghiraldini's summer switch to Leicester Tigers is indicative that he does stand out as one of the Azzurri's more impressive and reliable figures.

    It's since been revealed Ghiraldini will move on to Toulouse at the end of this season, which is another sign of his quality across the board. The competition with Leicester's Tom Youngs has kept him on his toes at Welford Road.

    The lineout still may not be called Ghiraldini's greatest strength due to the fact he's such a threat carrying the ball, but it's hardly a weakness. AGFX.TV reported him as the Pro12's most frequent thrower of the 2012-13 campaign during his days with Treviso.

7. Ross Ford

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    There's hardly a doubt British and Irish Lion Ross Ford could be considered the complete hooker package were he only able to scrub up in the lineout, which remains just shy of the world-class levels displayed by his peers.

    No other hooker in Vern Cotter's pack boasts the same engine that the Edinburgh veteran Ford does, but it's sometimes the case that finesse can be sacrificed as a result. Ford's lineout consistency leaves much to be desired.

6. Pat MacArthur

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    It's been almost three years since Pat MacArthur last made a start for Scotland, and while it seems highly unlikely he'll pip Ford to the No. 2 shirt this year, his throwing can be considered one area in which he wins.

    Cotter will need to see a great deal more from the Glasgow Warriors front-rower in order to hand him anything more than a bench role, but while he's not as great a threat out wide, his darts are certainly superior.

5. Ken Owens

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    At 29 years of age, Scarlets hooker Ken Owens is entering the patch of his career where he has to be eyeing a starting berth in Warren Gatland's Wales squad, and it isn't the lineout that's letting his game down.

    In May 2014, OptaJonny confirmed Owens was the most accurate thrower in the Pro12 that season with a success ratio of 92 percent, but Owens finds himself jostling with a new breed of younger, more mobile athletes.

4. Rory Best

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    Where would Ireland be today without the rolling maul they've utilised at great length in recent years? It's a valid question, but it's also worth asking where they'd be without the man whose technique has largely allowed that set piece to become such a fiendish weapon—their new captain, Rory Best.

    The breakdown specialist knows as well as anyone what devastating damage a perfectly orchestrated lineout can do. Murray Kinsella of The42 provided quotes from Best delighting in his set-piece work:

    I think the maul is a bit strange in that it's like the scrum; it comes in and out of fashion from time to time. Not that long ago, when you could sack it at anytime, everyone was saying the maul is dead.

    Suddenly you figure how to get the maul ideally set up. When you get a maul set up and moving, it's very hard to stop legally. It's something we work quite hard on. It's nice for the forwards to see the maul back in fashion and being rewarded. Ultimately, it has the ability to win you games.

    The 33-year-old can seem like an intense character, and any pressure on him is likely to have multiplied after he became Ireland's captain.

    The Ulster hooker can hit his targets just fine, whether it be long range or short, but prolonged consistency has always been Best's greatest concern. With Ireland already in a period of transition, the captain can't afford any lulls right now.

3. Jamie George

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    Saracens star Jamie George could be considered something of a latecomer to the Test scene considering he's already 25 and has just three caps to his name. However, England are surely glad to have their hands on him now.

    Previous coach Stuart Lancaster never seemed enamoured with George as a starting prospect. Although his chances of starting this year aren't too bright thanks to the competition in front of them, it's only because the Red Rose is somewhat blessed in his department.

    Speaking to the Guardian's Robert Kitson last August, George revealed how imagining himself back in his "happy place" was his secret to finding the perfect lineout throw:

    When I’m throwing I like to put myself in my bedroom and let nothing else come into that bubble. It’s a place where I’m comfortable. Golfers call it their happy place. I haven’t got a lot of money so it’s a very small room. I’m not in there aiming at anything in particular. It’s just a way of lowering my heart rate and settling my nerves.

    It certainly seems to be working if his Saracens form is anything to go by. Were it not for the obstacle posed by his new England captain, George could be considered a shoo-in for the team's No. 2 jersey.

    Having Sarries team-mates George Kruis and Maro Itoje could also be considered a great advantage to George, who has developed a firm relationship with the pair of lock contenders.

2. Scott Baldwin

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    Scott Baldwin's ascension through the Welsh ranks has been somewhat meteoric in recent times; although he made his international debut in 2013, he had just two Wales starts to his name coming into 2015.

    Fast-forward 12 months and the Ospreys No. 2 is Gatland's favourite to start in the Six Nations. He ended the 2015 World Cup as Europe's top lineout-thrower with 49 to his name, according to Simon Thomas of Wales Online.

    That figure was just seven fewer than the tournament record of 56 thrown by New Zealand's Dane Coles, and Paul Williams of Rugby World was recently in awe of Baldwin's superb, darts-like spiral throwing.

1. Dylan Hartley

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    For all the controversy that has surrounded his appointment as Jones' captain, there's no fighting the fact that with Dylan Hartley back in control of the lineout, England's set piece is sure to make instant improvements.

    Leicester's Youngs had been Lancaster's go-to hooker in the wake of Hartley's ax from the World Cup squad, and the lineout was one of the first areas to suffer as a result of the Northampton star's absence.

    Ignoring the fact he's had more than a year's worth of suspensions in his career—Hartley has never received a card in the Six Nations—few hookers in the world have more advanced mastery of the lineout.

    Hartley is aware of his reputation, too, and when he was told he hadn't been carded in 23 Six Nations starts—that number has since risen to 25—he responded by pointing out his pristine lineout record, per the Daily Mail's Chris Foy.

    "That’s a lovely stat," he said. "Did everyone get that? But you might have just given me the old commentator’s curse! They said the other weekend I had the best lineout stats in the world and I threw one not straight, so I’m just going to pretend I didn’t hear that!"

    Part of Hartley's strength as a lineout leader and a captain is his ability to marshal players as he sees fit. A strong voice and a steady hand are crucial attributes when it comes to executing a perfect set piece.