Litmus Test

Ireland v Samoa (Winding The Clock) - Match Preview Header Photo
Keeping The Ball Alive: Jamie Heaslip, Conor Murray and Jack McGrath try to get a handle on Alapati Leuia back in November of 2013. Ireland beat Samoa in their previous meeting with relative ease, but when the Polynesians decide to switch it on, containing them is a nightmare. A quarter-final is no longer a certainty for Ireland, but they need to make sure that they focus on what is in front of them and not what might be further down the road. Win big on Saturday and they reassert themselves and go into the last eight with some momentum, but stutter along unconvincingly and any confidence they have built could evaporate very quickly.

 

When Ireland played Samoa in 2013, they ran out comfortable winners in the end, although the 40-9 scoreline didn’t reflect how scrappy Ireland’s performance was on the day until Cian Healy, Paul O’Connell and Seán O’Brien were brought off the bench to put the Pacific Islanders to the sword. It’s oddly fitting that it was Joe Schmidt’s first game in charge of Ireland and that this Saturday’s clash between the same teams could be his last, and there’s little doubt that Ireland will take this fixture as seriously as they have every other match under their demanding head coach.

 

In terms of form, Samoa have been floundering as of late. The 78-0 loss to New Zealand was a low point for them and they finished this year’s Pacific Nations Cup with just one win, followed up by a scrappy win over Russia in the pool stages of this World Cup. That doesn’t mean that they’re going to be pushovers, though; the Pacific Island teams are somewhat similar to France in that they can perform poorly for long periods, but then suddenly turn up for a particular game.

 

And like France, they are an easier prospect when they are shut out of a match early on. Their free-flowing, attack-orientated game plan is tough to halt when it gets going, and with a bonus-point win a necessity to advance to the quarter-finals, Ireland need to treat this Saturday like a knockout match. Schmidt’s side aren’t exactly brimming with confidence themselves at present after losing to Japan and making hard work of getting a bonus point against Russia, and their performance against Samoa will give us some idea of where they’re at mentally.

 

Half The Game

Whereas Ireland’s other pool opponents all go from one touch-line to the other in attack, Samoa play more directly; they have big men from 1 to 15 and they use them to bash holes in defences and then look to get their hands free to pass the ball out of contact to support runners:

Samoa Attack 1 (v Fij 2019)

Samoa Attack 2 (v Rus 2019)

Samoa Attack 3 (v Sco 2019)

It’s quite something to behold when it gets into full swing and it’s a style of play that can be difficult to contend with because their ability to offload asks more than one question of a defence. Knowing that a team can get in behind you even if you rush up and complete your tackle makes your scramble defence is equally as important as your line speed and the sweeper becomes even more crucial.

 

An effective method stopping Samoa at source would be to commit more than one player to each tackle and have at least one of them go high to wrap their arms around the ball so that the carrier can’t get their hands free. We saw Ireland put in some excellent double-tackles in their final warm-up fixture against Wales that stopped the Welsh forwards dead on the gain line:

Ire Double-Tackle 1 (v Wal 2019)

Ire Double-Tackle 2 (v Wal 2019)

Ire Double-Tackle 3 (v Wal 2019)

Using the same strategy against Samoa would be worthwhile because it would nullify their greatest strength: continuity in attack. Polynesian teams struggle to find other ways of winning when their offloading game doesn’t work, but if Ireland allow them to express themselves, it will be a long 80 minutes.

 

Despite being dangerous with ball in hand, Samoa don’t seem to have much interest in defence. Their players are experts at putting in huge hits, but their problem is that they aren’t in a position to do so often enough. A mix of concentration dropping and a lack of awareness of where they need to be and when mean that the Samoans’ defensive reorganisation is that of an amateur team, and they are prone to leaving gaps in their defensive line, especially when they’ve been put through multiple phases:

Samoa Def 1 (v US 2019)

Samoa Def 2 (v Aus 2019)

Ireland have an incredibly dynamic forward pack, and I think Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan and CJ Stander are going to flourish with the space that will be afforded to them around the contact zone. Josh van der Flier was prominent as a linkman in wider channels against Wales back in September, and he’ll have plenty of room to manoeuvre close to the touch-line if he’s used in the same role this Saturday.

 

Access Points

Good discipline is crucial to Ireland’s game plan under Schmidt; any of their standout performances under the New Zealander have been underpinned by low penalty counts. Samoa, on the other hand, have repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with needless penalty offences in this tournament, with foul play from them being a regular occurrence:

Samoa Ill-Discipline 1 (v Rus 2019)

Samoa Ill-Discipline 2 (v Jpn 2019)

Provided that this trend continues, Ireland should have no shortage of entries into the Samoan 22, where they will be looking to exert themselves in the maul. Samoa are particularly vulnerable to catch-and-drives, with poor body height, bad numbering and no cohesion combining for dreadful maul defence:

Samoa Maul Def 1 (v Sco 2019)

Samoa Maul Def 2 (v Jpn 2019)

This facet of Ireland’s game didn’t function as expected against Japan, but it was destructive against Scotland and Russia, and with a likely focus on it from Simon Easterby in training this week, normal service should resume. There is also the possibility that Ireland will use the maul to drag in bodies before a quick dart down the blind side from Conor Murray with Jacob Stockdale or Keith Earls in support to catch Samoa off-guard and put them in two minds about how many forwards to commit thereafter.

 

Launch Pad

One of the Polynesian teams usually conjures up a massive performance and causes (or almost causes) an upset at every World Cup; Fiji knocked Wales out of the tournament in 2007, Tonga beat France in 2011 and Fiji weren’t miles away from knocking over Wales again in 2015. It would be preferable if Samoa didn’t mount a challenge this weekend because Ireland are at risk of missing out on the quarter-finals, but Schmidt’s side have to be prepared for the fight of their lives.

 

Assuming that the Japan-Scotland game goes ahead and Scotland win, a bonus-point victory would set Ireland up nicely for a probable quarter-final with the Springboks, and form at this stage of the competition is vital. A convincing win over Samoa won’t guarantee an Irish victory the following week; in 2011, they were soundly beaten by Wales after going into that fixture off the back of a comprehensive hammering of Italy, and in 2015, they were hockeyed by Argentina a week after producing what was probably their finest World Cup display ever against France. I don’t think Ireland will combust properly in this game, but there should be a closer approximation to the performance levels that they will hopefully reach next week.

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