Ex-Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt has made a huge impact on the Ireland national side, winning two back-to-back Six Nations championships in 2014 and 2015. We already know after two rounds that success won’t be repeated in 2016, and there are some general reasons for it – a long list of injuries and the loss to retirement of Ireland’s two talismanic figures of the last decade, Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll, being the most obvious.
In this article however, I would like to focus on the specifics of Ireland’s attack, and the issue of why Ireland’s attack philosophy is not producing the required results. Let’s take a look at some key stats:
|Average tries per game||Average kicks per game|
|Ireland vs. last 10 top-tier opponents*||1.4||29.2|
*Excluding RWC warm-ups: France x3, Wales x2, Italy x2, Argentina x1, Scotland x1 & England x1
In only one of these matches have Ireland scored more than two tries in a game (the four against Scotland in the spectacular final round of last year’s 6N). Their try average of 1.4 is one of the lowest among top tier nations while their average number of kicks per game is one of the highest. In the one game they really tried to keep the ball, kicking only 11 times while making 254 passes and building 175 rucks against Wales in the 2015 6N, they only generated one penalty try from a collapsed driving maul on the Wales goal-line.
So what is going wrong with the Ireland attack? In my opinion there are three key areas, which contain a fair degree of overlap:
- Heavy dependence on Johnny Sexton
- Midfield selection
- Over-use of the kicking game
Opponents (like France over the weekend) have learned to target #10 Johnny Sexton because they know that both Ireland’s kicking game (via high bombs and diagonal kicks for position) and handling game (via his patented wrap-arounds) depend on him for their success. Ireland do not have a replacement who can manage both aspects to the same high level as Sexton, nor do they select a second distributor/kicker who can share some of the load while he is on the field.
Ireland’s midfield selection gives great strength in chasing high kicks because both Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne had played all their football in the back three prior to being moved into the centres. Add in Tommy Bowe and the Kearney brothers and you have five serious threats to win back any ball kicked up in the air by Sexton.
But although the high kicking game has been mighty effective for Ireland over the past couple of seasons, remedies have been found by several of Ireland’s opponents. For example, from 2015 onwards Wales committed two defenders to the backfield (Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny) rather than one after being kicked to death by Johnny Sexton in the 2014 6N. They haven’t lost a tournament match to Ireland since.
The France-Ireland game last Saturday showed the key areas in action:
The sequences beginning at 3:35 (from lineout) and 56:23 (from scrum) are clearly scripted three or four-phase packages designed to finish with attacking kicks to the corner.
After cleaning out at the first ruck @3:46, both 12 Henshaw and 13 Payne drop back towards either midfield (Henshaw) or the near side-line (Payne) to await the 4th phase kick from Sexton. This in turn moves them further away from the forward support inside, with whom they would be expected to connect in any handling movement.
Now look at the attacking set-up at 4:27 after Henshaw wins the ball back in the air: there are no less than 12 Ireland attackers all grouped in the left 5-15m zone, leaving only three Ireland backs against five French defenders beyond that area. Another corner kick by Sexton is the only real option, and the French wing Vakatawa successfully defuses the bomb.
The other two situations at 36:05 and 52:40 illustrate how Ireland view even turnover ball in the opposition half as a primary opportunity to kick off Johnny Sexton. In the first example he’s looking for the corner in a situation where most sides would keep ball in hand, while in the second example he puts up an excellent high bomb on the full-back Medard from France’s own 40m line – again with Rob Kearney and Henshaw on chase.
The second clip package illustrates some of the negative effects the fixation with the kicking game has had on Ireland’s ability to exploit opportunities and maintain continuity with the ball in hand:
The issues can be broken down into two basic areas:
1. Running lines
(at 13:28 and 25:55). Ireland’s basic aim has to be to prevent the French cover inside linking up with their wide defenders. In the earlier example those defenders are quite exposed – Ireland have a 3-on-2 overlap and 11 Vakatawa is facing two Irish attackers in the wide channel, with the defender inside him (10 Plisson) about 10 metres distant when Robbie Henshaw receives the ball at 13:39 in the overhead replay. If the receiver beyond Henshaw (Rob Kearney) can preserve the space with his angle of running, there will be a clear opportunity out wide.
Kearney begins his run just outside the French left post, when he receives the ball from Henshaw he is on the left 15m line, when he passes to Jared Payne he is halfway towards the 5m line – he has run around 25 metres, but mostly towards the corner flag. The angle of Kearney’s run actually connects the last three French defenders (11, 10 and 6) so that by the time Payne receives the ball the 3-on-2 has become a 3-on-3. Kearney had to straighten his run inside the 15m line to check Plisson and Lauret and prevent them linking up with Vakatawa.
Much the same pattern is repeated at 25:55, with the angle of Robbie Henshaw’s run dragging two extra French defenders into the target space, so that by the time he makes contact there are five French defenders against three Irish attackers!
2. Connecting forwards and backs
The continuation of the second sequence illustrates how Ireland are struggling to keep their attacking cohesion and the potential width of their attack, which was always a hallmark of Schmidt’s teams at Leinster.
At 26:01, #13 Payne joins the ruck set by his fellow centre when there is no real need to do so – another example of over-resourcing the ruck! This becomes important when Ireland are ready to move the ball across field two phases later at 26:09, with an advantage in numbers. There is a pod of three Ireland forwards outside Johnny Sexton, but Payne is struggling to make up ground as the backs receiver slotting in behind them. Neither Sexton nor the forward ball-carrier C.J.Stander can pass to Payne because he is still running into position and not looking at the play. The lack of connection between backs and forwards means a slow ruck and a smashing hit on Dave Kearney when play stays narrow on the next phase.
The situation is repeated later in the sequence at 26:36. Again Ireland have an opportunity to shift the ball wide with the last France defender pressing up at midfield. If the forward ball-carrier, 5 Devin Toner can link up with Payne there will a chance to exploit the space, but Payne is standing too wide and too flat for Toner to reach him – he should be tucked in behind him to receive the pass. Again ‘no connection’ means a momentum shift in favour of the defence, and Dave Kearney is turned over by another hard French hit on the next phase.
The final example, from an attacking Ireland scrum at 45:08, shows the attacking mechanics in place. Ireland have engineered the overlap situation against a line of French forwards at 45:18, and 23 Fergus McFadden is in the correct backs ‘pocket’ behind to receive the pass from Toner. However McFadden and Robbie Henshaw get their timing wrong on the final pass and the opportunity again goes begging. Somehow symbolically, the sequence ends with another kick by Johnny Sexton.
It is hard to escape the feeling that
- Ireland’s use of the kicking game has ‘maxed out’.
- The Ireland backs division needs surgery to improve attacking cohesion.
Such a fertile attacking mind as Joe Schmidt’s cannot be pleased with the results he has seen recently. In my opinion, for all their value physically and on the kick chase, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne do not look like a centre pairing which can drive forward the desired improvement. Maybe Joe Schmidt will turn to Ian Madigan at 12 and shift Henshaw out to 13 – that would certainly take some of the pressure off Sexton and give Ireland a backs receiver who can kick, run and pass behind that forward pod in midfield. Maybe he will introduce huge Ulsterman Stuart McCloskey at 12 to run straighter lines. Both would be radical changes, but they are changes that Schmidt may be already contemplating for the dust-up with England when he says:
“I think you will see guys over the next three games that you probably haven’t seen in the tournament so far… We haven’t been in this position where mathematically we are a chance but realistically the chance is a long-shot, where we actually get a window of opportunity to maybe blood a few new guys and chase results at the same time.”
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