While Ireland’s victory over Wales in February was impressive, it must be noted that it was against a team who are undergoing a major transition (both in terms of personnel and playing philosophy) under Wayne Pivac. Their other two performances in the Six Nations were characterised by the recurring theme of an inability to build up a head of steam against organised defences, particularly against an England side who seem to have their number.
The grinding carries from the likes of Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, CJ Stander, Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw aren’t as profitable as they were in 2018, and Ireland’s need for at least one more distributor/kicker in the backline is painfully obvious. The upcoming Test windows have come too soon to try Joey Carbery out at full-back, but Garry Ringrose has fulfilled this role for club and country before, and even though he has been injured at various stages of his career, there’s no reason why he can’t continue to develop these aspects of his game.
Not only would having a second playmaker broaden the scope of Ireland’s attack, it would also allow them to switch the direction of the attack from one side of the breakdown to the other more regularly. Reverse plays are nothing new; every professional team uses them these days and Ireland are definitely no stranger to them, but there are methods of doing so that Ireland could catch their opponents off-guard with that they haven’t tried yet, and a tweak to their wide-wide attacks could solve the problems they are having in that area, too.
Same-way attack is brutally effective when you are winning collisions, but when you’re not (which has been the case with Ireland lately), it is easy for the opposition to just keep getting up off the deck and folding around the corner for the next phase. Sudden changes in the direction of the attack are a good way of keeping your opponent honest, and there have been occasions throughout Ireland’s recent Test matches where they could have benefitted from doing this.
One of the most glaring examples of Ireland’s attacking woes this year came in the 36th minute against England when they moved the ball into midfield, and Bundee Aki got snared well behind the gain line:
Ireland go with a standard openside play in this instance (despite not being on the front foot), but what if there was someone lurking in behind the attacking line ready to take a pass from Furlong at first-receiver so that they could throw the ball long to an onrushing winger or full-back on the blind side, as illustrated in the image below?:
Two passes is enough to get the opposition defensive line into motion, as well as drawing defenders away from the short side (and in the above image we can see that Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi and Jonny May have turned their shoulders completely towards the open side so turning to scramble back would be a challenge if play were to change direction).
There is always the possibility that an opposition player could anticipate the play and intercept the pass, but it would force them to think twice about what they are doing, and the half-second of hesitation that accompanies making such a decision can often be the difference between making a line break or not. Watching this game back, the degree of ease with which the English defenders sauntered when they didn’t think that Ireland were going to attack their channel was noticeable. This kind of confidence is the mark of a team who are comfortable in defence, and Ireland could have used that against them.
The usual method of outfoxing a blitz defence is to kick; teams who race off the line know they are taking the risk of leaving space in behind, and if the side in possession decide to put boot to ball, it becomes a question of whether they can execute the kick without getting charged down. This normally happens on the open side of the field, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to do so because the zone in behind the gap between the outside centre and the winger is the most vulnerable with regards to probing kicks.
At the same time, defending teams have accounted for this by reconfiguring their backfield to ensure that this space is covered, and it would be worth attempting to pass open and then kicking blind. Using the same example as above, the image below shows a feasible kicking trajectory for this ploy:
As you can see from this picture, by the time the ball had left the first-receiver’s hands, the defenders on the blind side had already drift across, leaving an unmarked zone to exploit. A kick into this area wouldn’t guarantee a try (or even regathering of possession), but it would create chaos in the opposition ranks. It wouldn’t be the first time that Ireland targeted this area with a kick; Joe Schmidt’s signature diagonal box-kick move was designed to exploit this space, but going open and then blind drags defenders away from the part of the field that these moves are trying to get the ball into.
Another possible fix for Ireland’s openside release plays is a change in how they map out their decoy runners. In the example below, they use a close-in carry to wind up for a big openside release, but it’s predictable and ineffective, even with Rob Herring running a convincing line off Johnny Sexton’s shoulder:
Instead of passing the ball along one line of attack as they did, Herring and Peter O’Mahony could have accelerated ahead of the other players in the backline as the ball goes through the hands (as illustrated in red in the below image), splitting the attacking line into two waves at the last second with the ball going in behind to the second line (as illustrated in blue in the below image):
This would have created a block that would have given the intended recipients more time and space, and it would add another layer of cognitive complexity to what they are doing so that they wouldn’t be as easy to read. The most likely outcome of using this ploy in the above sequence would have been O’Mahony isolating the edge defender, Owen Farrell (circled in green), creating a 2-on-1 for Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway against Jonathan Joseph, and it’s hard to imagine Ireland not scoring a try from there.
I think Garry Ringrose and/or Joey Carbery (wearing 15 when he returns to fitness) would be best-placed to act as the focal point for these draw plays/delayed-line splits (not to mention acting as a general playmaking foil for Johnny Sexton), but it wouldn’t hurt to have other players who can fill in if they are occupied elsewhere. Robbie Henshaw’s kicking skills were good enough for him to play at full-back in his early years, so he provides another option for Ireland in that regard.
A Brave New World
There is merit to having two crash-ball merchants in the middle of the pitch, but when the opposition pick two monster centres as well, it goes a long way towards nullifying the influence that these players have over the course of the 80 minutes. Ireland have had no end of success in the past with their structured, phase-play tactics, but trends come in and out of fashion in rugby, and it pays to be ahead of the curve, even if you are winning.
When I started watching rugby back in 2008, South Africa had only recently been crowned World Cup champions and went on to win a Lions series not long after. New Zealand and Australia (who had been finding it difficult to beat them and the other traditionally ‘big’ sides like England and France) countered this by ramping up their aerobic fitness and playing a brand of rugby predicated on keeping the ball in hand for long periods in order to run larger opponents off their feet. The stranglehold that the All Blacks had on international rugby in the years that followed was eventually undone by everyone adopting a rush defence system, and now things have come full-circle with the Springboks lifting the Webb Ellis Cup last year.
The COVID-enforced break has caused people in all walks of life to reassess what they do, and the same applies to rugby strategy. The types of plays outlined in this article might not always come off, but they are certain to make opposition defences check their line speed, thereby giving Andy Farrell’s team more breathing room in attack, which is something of a novelty now that blitzing is the norm. Ireland do have the players and the coaching intelligence/experience to outmanoeuvre these rush defences, and one can only hope that the recent pandemic-induced breather has given them enough time to recalibrate their game plan.