Mind Games: ‘2! 17! 8! 12!’?...?What does it all mean?

2014-03-23 10:00

Why, I was asked recently, do rugby players shout all those numbers before the ball gets thrown into a line-out?

It’s not quite in the league of “why do cricketers always rub their balls?” but indicative of the fact that not all sport fans are necessarily au fait with the technicalities.

In trying to answer the question, it became apparent that others in our group also didn’t quite understand why line-outs appeared to be such complex exercises.

I realised I needed help to spell it out for them.

And who better to enlist for lucid insight than one of South Africa’s greatest lock forwards – Mark Andrews, the Springbok and Sharks veteran.

A “go-to” man throughout his career, Andrews provided fascinating insight into what he said could either be a dead simple or an incredibly complicated process.

Hookers need to master deft skills: throwing the ball hard and fast or lobbing it slowly over varying distances; and the catchers, normally both locks and one or two, or sometimes all three, loose forwards need to have their wits about them.

In most cases, line-outs have three zones – front, middle and back – and teams have all kinds of ploys to ensure they win the ball by knowing its destination zone while simultaneously hiding their intentions from the opposition – hence the numbers or codes.

You might hear the player designated to call the line-outs shouting a string of unintelligible numbers but these codes have been worked out in advance and practised, and the players know what to expect – or, as Andrews puts it – most times they do.

The numbers sound as though they have no relation to the numbers on the jersey – 2! 17! 8! 12! – but the players will know that “17” means a throw to the middle of the line-out and that “8” means the ball is going to the man in the number 4 jersey (the call of “8” being double the number on his jersey, of course).

This is a simple ruse – getting the players to respond to a number other than their playing number – but it can get more complicated when in some teams the players have numbers they respond to when playing in their own half and others when they’re on attack.

But that’s not all. It’s one thing knowing the ball is coming to you but more acts of legerdemain are required to ensure your opponent doesn’t work it out and steal the ball.

Thus, some players tug at their shorts, clench their fists or fiddle with their collars to indicate to the thrower what type of ball to deliver – hard and low, normal height or a gentle lob – giving the jumper the advantage of knowing what to expect.

The permutations are endless. Sometimes even a player’s nickname could be used to trigger a move.

The use of Afrikaans often provides the smoke screen. Andrews recalls how when playing in New Zealand they could override a call simply by shouting “gooi agter” but this can go wrong?…?such as when the Boks realised Wallaby lock Daniel Vickerman, a former SA Under-21 international, understood what they were saying.

Other errors provided moments of great hilarity.

Former Bok captain Wynand Claassen tells of moving from Northern Transvaal to Natal and asking what the call was for a peel-round move.

“Just shout a word beginning with ‘U’,” he was told. Unfortunately, his English was “not so well” and in the game he shouted, “Onions, boys, onions!” a few times only to be met with no reaction.

Players pride themselves on being able to crack the codes – Ollie le Roux and Victor Matfield were said to be particularly adept at the art – but it often goes wrong.

As Andrews dryly remarked: “The complexity of the call is determined by the most stupid bloke in the line-up!”

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