A resounding win over Wales would normally send Ireland fans into overdrive, but their victory last night was actually quite underwhelming. That was largely down to the form of the current Welsh team; it was their sixth loss on the bounce, and if the rumours of the discontent from the players being the reason behind Byron Hayward’s dismissal are true, then things aren’t looking good for Wayne Pivac.
It wasn’t that there were no positives to take from this game for Ireland; James Lowe had the dream start to his Test career, Hugo Keenan is now a real option at 15 and the scrum was a force of nature with Quinn Roux propelling Andrew Porter. At the same time, Ireland were too profligate for their coaches’ and supporters’ liking, and their attack never really got flowing in the manner that they have been aiming for since Mike Catt came on board.
Ireland are going to be met with a ferocious forward display next Saturday, and in that respect, the dominance of their scrum against Wales was heartening. Squeezing penalties/turnovers out of the opposition on your own put-in is impressive enough in and of itself, but doing so when they have the feed is a rarity at Test level:
Andrew Porter struggled against Ellis Genge when Ireland last visited Twickenham, but he has really made the no. 3 jersey his own in Tadhg Furlong’s injury-enforced absence. Ireland’s biggest problem when facing England of late is not being able to cope with them up front, but if Porter can hold his end of the Irish scrum, it will go a long way towards Ireland achieving parity in the forwards.
A lot of the credit for the Irish scrummaging performance last night must go to Quinn Roux, though, and even if Iain Henderson is fit for next weekend, there is a valid argument for starting Roux in the second row. He doesn’t have the mobility or dynamism that most elite Test locks possess nowadays, but if he can provide the same ballast in the scrum against an English eight and help nullify them, Andy Farrell might be better off selecting him and trying to use other players to compensate for his weaknesses.
The other pleasing aspect of Ireland’s performance against Wales was their use of clever interplay to get around the Welsh defence. One-two movements between Jamison Gibson-Park drew in the Welsh forwards that were tight to the ruck, freeing up space further out for the Irish backline to exploit:
Ireland also adapted to the increase in line speed from Wales by putting in short kicks that caused all sorts of trouble for their opponents:
There’s no way of knowing what the intentions of the Irish coaching ticket for this fixture were, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the above plays were being tested out with one eye on the England game. Blitz defences have been kryptonite to Ireland in recent years, but if they can execute these draw plays accurately, they won’t find John Mitchell’s defence as suffocating as they have the last few times they have come up against it.
The Bad And The Ugly
Although they outmanoeuvred a Welsh defence that was more aggressive than expected, Ireland fumbled the ball far too many times. If they are going to play with width and endeavour, then they need to be more skillful because better teams won’t give them as many chances as Wales did. Some of the combinations that they used might not have been too familiar with one another, but Ireland’s handling needed to be better:
As painful as they are to listen to, England’s players feed off these moments, and whatever about spilling the ball under intense pressure, Ireland cannot afford any unforced errors.
The other bugbear for the Ireland coaching ticket from this match would have been their players running into touch. With James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Chris Farrell and James Lowe in their starting XV, Ireland had more than enough players who are capable of straightening up when the attack becomes too lateral, yet they conceded possession with ease on three occasions by running sideways:
This is a cardinal sin for any team regardless of what level you’re playing at, and it needs to be cut out of Ireland’s game immediately. Being aware of the touch-line is vital when it comes to attack because it can be used to your advantage.
Ireland’s biggest problem in attack was the slowness of their supporting forwards to the breakdown. If they want to attack with the kind of pace that they have spoken about in the media, then their clearing out needs to be quicker and more effective. Too often, their arriving forwards were delayed getting to the contact zone or upright in their body positioning, leading to either slow ruck ball or a turnover:
With expert poachers like Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Jack Willis in the English ranks, ball security has to be paramount for this Irish pack. Even if it means leaving themselves short of attacking numbers for the next phase, they have to prevent England from having a monopoly on possession.
Ireland are in an awkward place at the moment with regards to their game plan and performances. The hyper-efficiency of the Joe Schmidt era is gone but they haven’t yet gotten used to taking advantage of the opportunities that come with the looser style of play that Andy Farrell wants from them. Add a couple of new/inexperienced players into the mix, and you can understand why Ireland made so many mistakes.
Now is the ideal time to go through this difficult change, but their error count last night doesn’t bode well for their trip to Twickenham. England have been highly proficient with their points-scoring chances post-lockdown, and unless we see a massive increase in accuracy from Ireland, they could well be in for another miserable afternoon in London next Saturday.