Category Archives: Irish Rugby

3 wins, but more rapier needed for Ireland to really flourish?

There was a joke going around at the weekend that Joe Schmidt analysed the performance of the surgeon who removed his appendix on Saturday night, and had some video analysis pointers for improvement! It’s always good to be a little bit ‘positively contrarian’ after big wins in Irish sport, and I have my inclinations that St Joe will be bringing some realism to proceedings when he wraps up this November.

First thing first, what an Autumn series eh?

Many, myself included said before that given our injury crisis, 2 from 3 would be very useful. The South African win and the way we held onto our shape and defensive structure despite waves of Aussie attack on Saturday were a joy to behold.

Sure, we’ve been here before with Eddie, but this time it’s different right? Well, let’s temper things slightly with a more sober analysis of our Autumn.

At a recent ‘Off The Ball’ roadshow after the Saffer game, an audience member asked the panel, including BOD, Wood and Gerry a question along the lines of ‘is Joe Schmidt’s gameplan too rigid, and hampering Ireland’s backs?’. The poor fella was ridiculed by Ger Gilroy and the crowd, and his question rubbished by the panel.

But if we’re to be very self critical and realistic, it’s a relevant question that Schmidt’s Ireland will have to answer before RWC’15.

Contenders

In my opinion, we’ve a long way to go before we can really be seen as World Cup contenders, despite being third in the world, with a ‘good’ 6 Nations year, fixture wise, on the horizon.

It might be blasphemy to say it, and indeed it is picking holes in three excellent performances, but relying on manic defence, frenzied, structured and high tempo attack and Murray/Sexton to kick well will only get us so far. Both big wins this Autumn came without much of a sniff of backplay, with our centres primarily used as close in carriers.

Looking at it, Ireland’s gameplan is relatively limited. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but another string to the bow would be useful.

Cast yourself back to the last famous Aussie win in Eden Park, and remember how we demolished them up front, but struggled to put anything together in the backs, bar Bowe & Kearney kick chases. Similarly at the weekend, and against South Africa, low risk, smart kicking and measured rugby was the order of the day.

But as we saw against a brutish England pack in Twickenham last Spring, this sort of rugby doesn’t always work. Mike Ross looks worryingly like he might not last until next September at this early juncture, and given our paucity at scrum and lineout time, it will only take one off day from our halfbacks and we could be staring down the barrel of a defeat.

Incision

This might sound like a slight over-reaction and an attempt to bring the mood down, and perhaps it is, but, smart kicking moves and forward play aside, Ireland struggled a little for incision this Autumn, compared even to 12 months ago.

So what’s the answer? Getting Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy back into the team would be one way to do it. Both bring a carrying X Factor that none of Heaslip, Ruddock, POM, McGrath or Best can match.

Similarly, with Toner’s form dipping slightly in the past few weeks, both Iain Henderson and Dave Foley might be worth looking at in the second row. For all O’Connell’s incredible superhuman showings, the weakest part of his game is still carrying. Toner is very effective at maul and lineout time, but perhaps we can sacrifice that?

But it’s the backline that the bigger questions need to be asked. Darcy and Henshaw worked pretty well at the weekend, but neither man is going to unlock a defence too often with subtlety. Without making the mistake of writing dear old Gordon off, perhaps we could benefit from a certain golden haired Ulsterman to step up? Olding isn’t test standard yet, but his footwork, passing and skill set bring something very different to Ireland’s backline, as the line against an admittedly tiring Georgia for his try showed.

Or maybe the answer is in front of us, in the form of Blackrock’s finest Mr. Madigan? Another assured performance on Saturday will have done his confidence the world of good.

On the wings, Zebo had his best game for Ireland for quite a while. Strong in defence and elusive with the ball, his game still has kinks, but he could be a critically important wildcard for Schmidt in the coming year. The Corkman was criticised for attempting an offload to Sexton and giving the ball to Oz, but for me, that was unlucky more than poor play, along with smarts from Foley to knock it back.

Overall, it’s an incredibly exciting time to be an Irish rugby supporter. With 10 or so games left until the World Cup, we’re looking in good shape for our best attempt of the professional era, with a strong squad and many walking wounded to come back in. There are many ways to skin a cat as they say, and a low risk, high tempo gameplan will likely continue to be our mainstay, but if Ireland really want to maximise their chances next Autumn, we need gamebreakers who can create without structure. Zebo, Olding and Henderson might be inexperienced and gambles, but you don’t win a World Cup without that X Factor, and that’s the sort of rarified air that Ireland are now part of.

The return of the magnificent lineout maul withdrawal

They say fashion is cyclical, and in rugby circles that also seems to apply.

In the past few years, we’ve seen such dashing Spring/Autumn trends as

  • the second 5/8th inside centre
  • the bosher inside centre with offloading hands (Jamie & Ma’au most notably)
  • a penchant for kicking the ball away while in the opponents 22 (most notable during the first two rounds of the Heineken Cup)
  • and of course the ‘taking the man out in the air debate’ flavour of the month, which was perhaps the least palatable of all!

Trending

Coaches learn from each other, and in this era of video analysis, teams watch each other very closely, so when a new innovation comes along or is recycled, you can be sure someone is ready to return fire.

Ireland’s forward play in recent times has been a hotbed for trending topics, most notably the good old held up defensive maul, but also the potent attacking maul of last year’s 6 Nations.

On Saturday, we saw another bit of artistry from Ireland’s forwards, catching the opponents off guard. Expect to see it on the catwalks of Paris, London, Edinburgh and Cardiff this Spring and Autumn, if it’s not outlawed by then.

Truck & Trailer

The uncontested maul isn’t a new thing. ‘Truck and trailer’ has been around for quite a long time, and for almost as long, defending lineout teams have chosen to sneakily retreat, forcing the attacking team to hold onto the ball at the front of the maul, or risk giving away an offside penalty.

Once a good rolling maul starts, it’s very difficult to stop legally. This loophole allows teams to prevent the maul, by not engaging it – thereby putting all the players in the rolling maul in front of the ball carrier offside and allowing the team “defending” it to run around the back and tackle the ball carrier.

Though, in my opinion, there’s a flaw in the rules, it’s still a loophole, and the possible outcomes are lucrative for the defending side.

If the dis-engage is gotten correct, one of three things can normally happen:

- The attacking side keep the ball at the front of the pack (thus it’s not technically a maul) and are forced to run into the nearest defender.
- The attacking side transfer the ball to the back of the pack, which often results in an obstruction penalty.
- The attacking side transfer the ball to the back of the pack and an opposing player, not offside because no maul is formed, comes around the side to scrag him.

Check out Italy executing the move perfectly here, with some, eh, grainy footage from 2007.


It’s certainly a risky tactic if the opposing team is switched on. It’s a risky tactic, especially when the attacking side have dynamic carriers at second row. It’s also risky in that you give the ball catching lineout player the opportunity to turn, instigate contact (and therefore the maul situation) by offering a stationary long arm hand off. The maul can then be formed, with ball fed to the back as usual, but with the catcher able to assume a more dynamic mauling position. But it’s worth the risk for most.

Vogue

For some reason, the uncontested lineout maul has come back into vogue in 2014.

Saracens have been using the tactic to great impact, and other teams have been catching on.


Sarries trialled it against Munster in Thomond recently, and Paul O’Connell was incorrectly pinged despite doing everything right. Glasgow, coached by the excellent Townsend, have also used it, defusing a big Montpellier pack with Scottish smarts. Ali Kellock mentioned this in a recent BT Sport piece which explains the trend well:

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At the weekend, Paulie, SImon and Joe brought the tactic on again, using Jack McGrath to bamboozle a big Saffer pack, and benefiting from their surprise twice.

 

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Smaller, lighter and smarter teams should be able to make hay while this ruling remains, and Japan were another side to use the tactic, outsmarting the Maori pack.


While the trick is out of the box a bit now, expect the uncontested lineout maul to be retained in the dark recesses of Joe Schmnidt’s coaching toolbox, ready to be brought out next September perhaps.
Now, if only we were playing a large, often disorganised, often brutish pack that we might need to outsmart in the group stages

World class Ireland, in three key areas…

Normally, the pre game match analysis is a banal affair, but yesterday on RTE, I noticed two very interesting things happen.

Firstly, a clown of an analyst was once again caught out for the ill-prepared, controversy seeking fool that he is ( let’s not give him any more air time).

Secondly, a few small words, picked up by Conor O’Shea afterwards, gave us an insight into the mindset of our coach.

In the middle of an interview done last week, Schmidt had the following to say, with reference to the start of a new challenge, the loss of a key man in our #13 jersey, and a mounting injury lists:

“Change motivates, change is a positive continuum”

Some coaches and many media men speak of ‘transition’ as a negative. The smartest, like renowned sports psychologist Michael Gervais said last month on a visit to Dublin, see it as a necessary evolvement, a challenge to iterate and improve. Schmidt seemingly falls into the latter group.

In year gone by, I’ve criticised Irish rugby plenty of times for needing to rely on irregular intangibles like passion and underdog status, or sticking too rigidly to a game plan and failing to adapt based upon the circumstances, or the team in front of them.

This doesn’t happen very often to a Schmidt team, and yesterday showed why we’ve one of the best coaches in the world.

Corporate Knowledge

This was one of the great Irish performances of the modern era.

Let’s not kid ourselves, we’ve flattered to deceive quite a bit, and it won’t win us a World Cup, but it’s another excellent building block on the road.

Mr. Thornley often talks about ‘corporate knowledge’ within a team, and Ireland’s is as high as any squad. Look closely at yesterday, and you’ll see small, smart things that accumulate to make a big victory that are both player and often coach led.

  • The tactic to pull away from the South African maul, not engage and send Jack McGrath around the back
  • The tactic of using Sexton as a wide ‘shooter’ in the defensive line, the O’Driscoll position, to cut off South African attacks
  • The beautiful rolling maul
  • The Bowe try, which came from a perfect set move (below)
  • The enormous rucking effort of the much maligned Zebo
  • The beautiful Ruddock try, created from smart body position from a rolling maul
  • Taking channel one ball where possible against a savage Bok scrum

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Ireland are one of the smartest teams out there, and given the respective 23 men squads yesterday, we needed all of our smarts. We will be worried by England, Bok and All Black power, skill and strike running, but if any of these three teams are below par, we can take them.

Elsewhere, there were huge performances from quite a few places. The 12/13 axis, though quiet, looked solid. If there was a definition of ‘to the manor born’, it would be Robbie Henshaw, who looks like he could be a ’100 capper’ even at this stage.

Jack McGrath, though suffering in the scrum, made an enormous 17 tackles, while Ruddock, who’s selection was question beforehand, played an unfamiliar role and still came out as a potential MOTM candidate.

But along with the coach, it was real world class in two other areas that saw Ireland home.

‘Pivot’al

If you’ve got a world class coach and two of the best halfbacks in the world, you’ve every chance of winning trophies. While the Murray/Sexton axis has had difficult days (both singularly and together), yesterday illustrated just how good both of these guys can be. Excuse me for being slightly sycophantic, but there’s a fairly good argument to be made that this is the best pivot partnership in world rugby at the moment.

Murray, from some poor early days in green, has grown into an all rounder. His breaking threat, but also his kicking and spatial awareness yesterday were important. The young Limerick man seems to have picked up traits from all of the scrum halfs he’s played with – pack marshalling from Stringer,  break from Reddan and physicality from TOL, and put them all together into one powerful package.

Outside, this was J10s finest moment in an Irish jersey. Immaculate from the boot, dangerous on the break and ROGesque when kicking to the corner. One part of Sexton’s game which doesn’t get plaudits is his defense. At one stage, in the second half, Duane Vermeulen got up a head of steam and charged at him. A weaker outhalf would have attempted to chop. Sexton, along with Heaslip, went high, knocked the brute back, and further set the tone.

The below, with a nice cameo from Kearney, illustrates how effective both men are at identifying space, keeping up with play and attacking it.

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Even more so than O’Brien, Healy, POM, Kearney, or, whisper it, O’Connell, keeping both of these guys fit for next September will be critical.

A word too for Mike Ross. Here’s a guy who’s not traditionally the fittest, who hasn’t played in a month and yet who sustained 72 minutes against a brutish opposing pack. What a hero.

The Aviva rocking, a strong Saffer side sent packing and an Irish team that can only improve. These are good days. Let’s hope they continue.