Scotland's lineout will be pivotal at the World Cup

Scotland have a nightmare World Cup draw. They’re not favourites to make it out of their group. Ireland and South Africa stand in their way, two teams who nobody would be surprised if they win the whole thing. But Scotland are riding a wave and a rare sense of optimism appears to be creeping in. But who is the key player to Scotland?

The crucial player to Scotland’s success isn’t Finn Russell’s attacking flair, or Darcy Graham’s fast feet, nor the solid front row of Zander Fagerson or Pierre Schoeman. No, it’s someone who played just three times between 2017 and the start of last season, Richie Gray.

Read more: Scotland Rugby World Cup squad

Against England in the Six Nations, 6ft 10in Gray was a source of guaranteed lineout ball on Scotland’s throw. When England were throwing in he was a menace. At best England retained ball under huge pressure and at worst they were turned over. That led to fantastic attacking opportunities where Russell was able to orchestrate his attack against a broken defence. 

The key for Scotland in this World Cup is to dominate at the lineout. To get out of their pool they need to beat one of Ireland or South Africa, in addition to getting by Tonga and Romania. Ireland and South Africa are two of the best lineout teams in the world.

Their target will be to dominate their opponents at the set-piece. Scotland would have felt that force four years ago had they been able to beat Japan in their home World Cup. Japan thought they could run around South Africa. Instead, the Boks took charge and starved the Japanese of quality possession.

Related: Stuart Hogg: I was the slowest Scotland back before retiring

Richie Gray, Scotland

Richie Gray carries during the 2023 Calcutta Cup win at Twickenham (SNS Group/Getty Images)

That will be Scotland’s story in this World Cup unless they take charge of the lineout. It’s one of rugby’s truths. It’s why tight-head props earn the big bucks and why teams spend small fortunes on locks who never threaten the opposition line. You can have the best backline but without clean ball there’s only so much they can do.

Against Ireland in the 2023 Six Nations, second row Gray went off injured in the first few minutes. Scotland lost five of their 12 lineouts. They managed just one line break to nine by Ireland. And even failed to shut down a makeshift thrower in Josh van der Flier.

A rugby match is an ecosystem. Removing an attacking weapon like a lineout can have knock on implications in parts of the game you wouldn’t usually expect. Increasingly teams will look to keep the ball on the pitch when they kick. They don’t want to give up a launch play opportunity by kicking to touch. It allows teams the opportunity to counter-attack but that is a price they are willing to pay.

If you can’t win your lineouts, though, then teams will kick to touch, slow the game down and remove those counter-attacking chances. That is the fate of lots of exciting ball in hand teams who can’t consistently win lineouts. The wings of the butterfly flap over your failing lineout and you end up with no way to unleash your best weapon.

If Russell, Ali Price, and the Huwipulotu midfield are to fire, it will be because that forward pack and especially the lineout work of Gray are letting them. It’s not bad for a player who looked like he wasn’t going to get another go for Scotland just a few years ago.

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