Match statistics can often be misleading, and when you examine the figures from Ireland’s win over Russia, you would naturally assume that it was a completely dominant performance from Joe Schmidt’s side. They had 589 metres run compared to Russia’s 150, 16 line breaks to Russia’s 2 and 23 defenders beaten to Russia’s 11. They can point at the humidity as a factor (and playing in a stadium with a closed roof and no air-conditioning must have been unimaginably tough), but they left too many tries out on the pitch.
There’s a nagging feeling that they haven’t fully bounced back from the defeat to Japan, and try bonus point aside, this performance won’t have convinced anyone that they have regained their confidence. Keeping Russia tryless wasn’t all that impressive because Lyn Jones’ side had nothing in their attacking armoury except the garryowen. This wasn’t quite a 2007-level failure from Ireland; there were positives in terms of their ability to expose their opponent’s weaknesses and create scoring chances, but the high error count remains an issue.
Every team in this competition bar Japan have been finding it hard to adapt to the humidity levels, and even though this contributed to Ireland’s age-old problem of wasting try-scoring opportunities being a source of frustration against Russia, they didn’t do themselves any favours with loose offloads that weren’t on. In the below example, we see Andrew Conway passing from the deck to Iain Henderson late on:
It’s probably unfair to criticise Conway in this instance because Ireland had already secured the bonus point and Henderson was running a great support line, but flinging the ball around this close to the opposition try line isn’t the best idea. Defences become more aggressive the closer they are to their own whitewash and resourcing the ruck to ensure that they held on to the ball and then starting again would have been a better course of action for Ireland.
Ireland were guilty of over-playing with sequential passes from forwards when it wasn’t advised throughout the game. It was obvious from the get-go that handling was going to be difficult because of the conditions, and Ireland got a bit of change from repeated one-out carries in the first quarter. There was also a propensity on Ireland’s part to cluster together around the point of attack, making this space congested, with players stepping on each other’s running lines.
Below, we see Johnny Sexton and Bundee Aki attempting to execute a wraparound, but Sexton delays the pass too long, waiting until he is right on top of Aki to release the ball:
Trying to catch a pass from someone that close to you when it’s fired at full-speed is a thankless task, and if Sexton had given the ball earlier, it would have made life easier for Aki.
Even when Ireland did retain possession for a couple of phases, they allowed Russia to interfere at the breakdown by diving in off their feet, putting hands on the ball and obstructing Luke McGrath’s path:
This is exactly what happened when they played Japan, and while it’s true that Russia should have been penalised for committing these offences, the onus is on Ireland to smash the jackalling player off the ball so that it can be presented cleanly to the 9.
Towards the end of the above example, you can see Jean Kleyn jogging to the left of the ruck to get into position for the next phase when his primary concern should have been nuking Russian #14 German Davydov out of the contact zone. That’s not singling the Munster lock out; there were numerous occasions where the Irish forwards should have made more of an effort to clear the ruck out, and in a few cases, they got their entry wrong or didn’t get their shoulders low enough. These things won’t have gone unnoticed by a detail-obsessed coach like Schmidt, and he must be seething at his players falling into the same trap for two games in a row.
There were other aspects of Ireland’s game that warrant further review; they were penalised at scrum-time for the Russian props driving in on the hooker and as illegal as this may be, Ireland need to be more streetwise in how they counteract it. They failed to deal with Russia’s up-and-unders in the third quarter after dominating in this area in the opening stages, and as greasy as the ball was, it was the same for both sides.
The Bright Side
The result of this game and the nature of Ireland’s performance were compared to the close call against Georgia in 2007, which is unfair when you consider 1) the amount of tries that Ireland scored and 2) the countless chances they manufactured but didn’t convert. There were some interesting wrinkles to Ireland’s attack that aren’t previously unheard of, but potentially a sign of what’s to come down the line.
Ireland regularly used inside-passes to take advantage of the gaps left close to the breakdown by the Russian forwards, with the line break for Rob Kearney’s try coming straight off one of these plays:
The Irish full-back ends up needing no support to get over the try line, but if you look at Luke McGrath’s running line after passing to Jordi Murphy, you can tell that Ireland’s players were well-drilled in anticipating a try on the back of these plays, and we’re guaranteed to see more of them from ireland.
Ireland got a massive return from attacking kicks yesterday, with Peter O’Mahony’s try coming from Sexton stabbing a grubber-kick through the Russian defence:
Russia’s line speed was quick all game and Ireland used this against them with this kick from Sexton. It’s a nightmare trying to backtrack when you’ve raced so far forward, and this wasn’t the only kicking style that Ireland implemented to make Russia pay for their enthusiasm off the ball. Conway’s bonus-point try was the end result of a perfectly-weighted chip-kick from Jack Carty, with no Russian player acting as a sweeper in behind the front line of their defence:
Once Keith Earls got a hold of the ball, Ireland were in open country, and a much-needed fourth try was just reward for a team who had cleverly profited from the space afforded to them by their opponent.
We saw Ireland utilise long-range kicks to put Russia under pressure, too. Cross-field kicks aren’t anything new, but what was interesting about Ireland’s use of them was the fact that they were deployed off first-phase, as opposed to the usual shot to nothing when penalty advantage is awarded to the team in possession:
I suspect these attacking ploys were used with a bigger picture in mind. Irish rugby fans will be familiar with Jacques Nienaber’s high blitz defensive system from his time with Munster, and each different type of attacking kick used by Ireland in against Russia would be suited to exploiting the spaces left at the inseam between the ruck and the first defender and at the edge of the defence by the way that the Springboks defend at present.
The loss to Japan means that playing South Africa is no longer a certainty, but even if Ireland do have to face the All Blacks, they will have a fine-tuned strategy for getting around onrushing defensive lines. The inside-ball in particular appears to be designed to target sides who have players who are slow to get back into the pillar position at the fringes of the ruck, and with South Africa playing Pieter-Steph du Toit in the back row, having his team practice a move that exploits the lock’s shortcomings could prove inspired by Schmidt.
Back On The Wagon
In spite of all of the negatives, Ireland got everything that they needed from the Russia Test. It wasn’t pretty, but it keeps them on track to top the pool provided that they can bonus-point Samoa and Japan lose to Scotland. Apart from the rib injury sustained by Jordi Murphy, Ireland came through this fixture unscathed, and Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery and Robbie Henshaw should get game time before Ireland (hopefully) dive into the deep end of this tournament.
The nine-day turnaround before that game gives Ireland enough time to get their injured players fit and firing, dissect where they went wrong against Japan and Russia and put together a performance that’s good enough to get four tries against a Samoan side that have been struggling thus far. Top of Schmidt’s list of objectives for that fixture will be getting rid of his team’s habit of taking the foot off the gas after going into a big lead, and if Ireland can maintain their concentration in those situations and improve their accuracy, they should get five points from their final pool match.