Andy Farrell’s Ireland era started not with a bang, but with a whimper, on Saturday, and although Irish supporters would have taken any sort of a win to get confidence back after being annihilated by New Zealand in their last outing, the manner of their victory didn’t exactly inspire hope in a Six Nations where they have to travel to London and Paris.
It wasn’t a dire performance from Ireland, and revamping a team’s coaching ticket is always going to bring teething problems, but you don’t get gradual learning curves in Test rugby. Farrell and Mike Catt’s time with England will have taught them not to panic after a scrappy first game in charge, but overall, there were more negatives than positives, and if they play like this again on Saturday, Wayne Pivac’s Wales side will tear them apart.
Ireland ran into many obstacles when trying to generate momentum on Saturday, and chief among them was their lineout maul formation. Gaining traction from a catch-and-drive is a useful starting point in attack, and even if you don’t make any headway with it, it drags in the opposition forwards so that your backs have more room to manoeuvre.
Scotland placed a premium on shutting Ireland down in this area, though, with some of Ireland’s mauls attempt being hauled to deck before they ever really got going:
You could argue that contact is made before the Irish jumper’s feet hit the ground, but it was a fraction of a second in the difference, so Scotland got away with it.
Scotland’s swimming around the side of the maul was a source of consternation for Ireland, too. There is more leeway given to the defensive team in this facet of the game compared to a couple of years ago, and it allows for a fair amount of disruption:
The most disappointing maul effort from Ireland came in the 60th minute, when Hamish Watson managed to fight through the middle and steal the ball from Ireland’s grasp:
This is a rarity at Test level, and it happened because, like in the other two examples above, the Irish forwards weren’t packed together tightly enough, so there was space for their Scottish counterparts to get through and disrupt. It’s strange that this was an issue for Ireland, because it has never cropped up before under Simon Easterby, but it will need to be one of their primary work-ons in the coming weeks.
Ireland’s maul improved out of sight when Devin Toner came on; his ability in this phase of play and experience are invaluable, and on the back of the amount of yards Ireland were able to make out of touch when he came on, he has made a strong case for his inclusion in the starting XV against Wales.
Inaccurate breakdown work at key moments was costly for Ireland in this game. A knock-on from Jordan Larmour at the bottom of a ruck in the early stages was the result of Irish bodies piling into the breakdown messily:
This error handed Scotland a scrum in a prime attacking position and they ended up scoring three points from it, and the irritating thing about it was that it was avoidable; if the shoulder height and rucking technique from the arriving players were better, Scotland wouldn’t have been gifted a cheap score.
Scottish interference on the floor also disrupted Ireland’s attacking sets, with breakdown steals occurring at points in the game where it looked like Ireland’s phase play was about to pay off:
Ireland’s troubles at the breakdown can’t all be attributed to illegal Scottish play; as mentioned above, some of their entry was below par technically, and they didn’t help themselves by conceding penalties for going off their feet into rucks when there was no need to do so:
I thought that Mathieu Raynal’s unique referring style hindered Ireland badly in this fixture. The French referee was happy to let Scotland away with neck rolls, side entry and off-the-ball cheap shots, but there are games where this happens, and Ireland have to make sure that they are doing everything in their power to prevent poor refereeing from being a deciding factor.
These turnovers gifted Scotland long periods of possession, and to make matters worse, Ireland’s defence gave their dangerous backline an entry point into the game. On the whole, Ireland were patient and well-organised in defence, but Scotland got into their rhythm on more than one occasion through slow line speed, drop-offs in tackle intensity and missed tackles from the home team:
Scotland are considered to be a weak side (physically and mentally) by many, but in reality, they are adept at hanging in games and fighting back when the outcome appeared to be a foregone conclusion. Their second-half comeback against England last year should have been enough of a warning for Ireland not to give them reason to believe, yet Farrell’s team repeatedly threw them lifelines. They got away with it this time, but their remaining opponents in this Championship won’t need to be asked twice if given these kinds of opportunities.
He Who Dares Wins
It was clear from the way that Ireland attacked in this match that they are trying to alter their offensive strategy from the highly-structured system that they used under Joe Schmidt. There were signs of this in their first try when Johnny Sexton scored a try from a deft swivel pass from Cian Healy a few metres out from the try line:
Teams usually rumble through several one-out carry phases when they get into the red zone like this, and Ireland were especially fond of doing so under Schmidt, and for good reason. He placed a huge emphasis on breakdown detail, which meant that Ireland were extremely proficient at holding on to the ball, but by doing something unexpected on Saturday, Ireland caught the Scottish defence out and scored a try without having to expend a massive amount of energy crashing away at the defensive line.
In general, Ireland moved the ball wide from parts of the pitch that they normally wouldn’t, which yielded a decent return. The rationale behind this is the same as that of the swivel pass for the Sexton try; if the opposition are set up for one thing and you do another, you’re going to catch them off-guard:
When Ireland ran the ball from deep in their own half, Scotland weren’t expecting it, so their wingers had dropped back, assuming that a kick was coming. As we can see below, this left space at the edges of the defence, which Ireland exploited with screen passes:
This, coupled with the absence of the preordained strike plays that were a hallmark of Schmidt’s tenure, signifies a change of philosophy in Ireland’s attack. They were guilty of running cross-field at times, but when this happened, it seemed to be because they were looking to attack space. It’s something that can be rectified easily, and after getting a competitive fixture under their belts, Ireland’s attack should run more smoothly in Round 2.
On the back of the increase in tempo when John Cooney was brought off the bench, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get the nod to start against Wales; Conor Murray proved his critics wrong by producing a solid performance, but if Ireland want to go with a more chaotic, fast-paced style of attack, then Cooney would be a better fit.
Striking A Balance
There have been calls from all quarters for Ireland to cast off the shackles and play with freedom and verve, and while they do need more enterprise than in previous years, they have to be careful not to go too far in that direction too quickly. A measured approach to changing how a team plays is often best because when they try to change too much at once, it’s easy for them to get caught out badly.
Knowing when to kick and when to run is vital for any team; too much of the former and you’ll spend the majority of the game defending, too much of the latter and you’ll wear yourself out going side to side (not to mention run the risk of conceding a turnover deep in your own half). Even Graham Henry’s All Blacks made sure they were in the right area of the field before they started throwing the ball around. As much of a cliché as it is, I thought that Ireland were guilty of playing too much rugby in their own half against Scotland. That may sound self-contradictory after saying that they should start being more expansive, but they struggled for territory until the final quarter.
Larmour’s kick and regather and Cooney’s subsequent box-kick in the 67th minute was a classic example of the type of territorial pressure that I’m talking about. It’s probably being hypercritical to expect Ireland’s tactics to be spot-on in their first game under a new coaching ticket, but we have seen over the weekend that they will face some formidable opponents over the course of this tournament, so there isn’t much time for them to iron out the creases.