On The Path

On The Path Header Photo
One Step At A Time: 2020 was a tumultuous year for Ireland’s new head coach and his charges, and not just because of COVID. The changes that Andy Farrell has made to Ireland’s game plan have brought some high points, but plenty of teething problems as well.

“Look, if we hadn’t (earned a place in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals), obviously people would be in the long grass and there would be a lot of bullets being fired,” he said.

Penney said had the outcome not been what it was with regard qualification, he’d still have been happy with the team and how they’ve progressed. “I would still be very proud of the progress and the areas of growth that we’re getting, but I would have had to put on the flak jacket and the hard hat probably (if we lost). I really believe in this team and the direction in which it is going.”

Whilst admitting the win just takes the heat off, Penney is convinced Munster are moving forward.

“That’s why I’m sitting in this chair and I love it because we’re on a wee pathway to something pretty special. If I can’t have faith in it then I don’t deserve to be sitting here and if I get criticism and I can’t defend myself, then I shouldn’t be sitting here.”

-Rob Penney, in an interview with the Irish Examiner, January 21st 2013.

Reviewing Ireland’s development in the first year under their new coaching ticket has brought to mind Rob Penney, and the above quotes from his interview in the Irish Examiner in January of 2013 are a microcosm of his time as Munster head coach. Under Penney’s stewardship, the southern province always seemed to be building towards his goal of playing the Canterbury-inspired 2-4-2 attacking system with ease, but they never quite got there. That could have happened if Penney had taken the one-year contract extension that was offered to him in 2014, but he didn’t, so there is no way of knowing now.

It begs the question of whether or not Ireland are moving in the right direction under Andy Farrell and his assistants? And more to the point, how far do they have to move in that direction before silverware comes? Or before you start to wonder if Ireland are ever going to fully take to the style of play that their coaches have envisaged? Like Penney, Farrell is trying to get his team to play with more adventure than the previous regime, but the transition doesn’t appear to be anywhere near complete. How do you measure this kind progress? Is it results or quality of performances? Or maybe a combination of both?

When assessing Ireland’s growth under Farrell and co., it is useful that they started and finished 2020 against the same opponent, a Scottish team who began the year with a performance that was much better than anything we saw from them in 2019, and maintained (and in places improved upon) that standard. The first clash was a stuttering 19-12 win for Ireland (which should have been a draw), and the second was a dominant 3-to-1 try victory for them, so on that basis you could argue they made huge strides over the course of the year.

Their displays against Italy and Wales were impressive too, but when it came to the stronger teams, they were soundly beaten, and their second-half outing against Georgia in the Autumn Nations Cup was the most insipid I have seen from an Irish side since the RWC 2007 implosion. You have to take the bad with the good, and in a year where Ireland produced mixed performances, there was plenty of both to pore over.

Green Shoots

It has been clear from the outset of Farrell’s tenure that Ireland are now using the 1-3-2-2 attacking shape under the tutelage of Mike Catt. A faltering lineout and sloppy breakdown work have stalled their attacking momentum on a few occasions, but there have still been glimpses of how effective this system can be when everything clicks into place:

The try in the first clip above was chalked off for a perceived forward pass, but it’s a good example of Ireland using two- and three-man pods of attackers and convincing dummy runners to exploit the full width of the pitch.

Ireland’s attacking strategy hasn’t just been about creating space in the tramlines, though. There have been intricate ploys added to their repertoire that are designed to take advantage of gaps close to the breakdown and in midfield as well, such as looping off 9 instead of 10, and inside passes across the face of one runner to another to confuse defenders:

The above were utilised in a game where Ireland enjoyed dominance over a disjointed Welsh outfit in the Autumn Nations Cup, but disappeared the following week in their dismal loss to England. One can only hope that as time goes on, they develop the confidence to use these plays in matches where the stakes and opposition defensive pressure are higher.

Outside of what they are doing with ball in hand, Ireland’s application of the boot since rugby resumed has been noteworthy. I have covered their increased use of short-range kicks before, but their kick-heavy game plan in the opening minutes against England in the Autumn Nations Cup was interesting. England normally dominate territory, but Ireland decided to use their own tactics against them (initially anyway), and it discommoded Eddie Jones’ players:

I think Jonny May’s two tries in that fixture spooked Ireland, and they abandoned their kicking strategy altogether and started chasing a lead as a result, but it showed that their coaches and players are not slaves to an ideal of playing ball-in-hand rugby, and recognise the need to play in the right parts of the field.

Although it isn’t as aesthetically pleasing, hoofing the ball down the other end of the field can be the wiser course of action if your opponent likes bossing territory, or if weather conditions are poor. If Ireland can combine the different strategical elements examined above (expansive attack, trick plays, short/long-range kicking) together game-to-game and improve their physicality/accuracy up front, then wins over England, France and the Rugby Championship sides will follow.

Habits

Notwithstanding the fact that they have made decent headway in terms of changing their attacking style, Ireland have been guilty of reverting to old ways when they fall behind on the scoreboard. Muscle memory is hard to alter, and we have seen this with Ireland where they have repeatedly sent forward runners careening into the jaws of the opposition defence off 9 and 10 against France and England, despite the tactic not bearing fruit:

This hasn’t worked for Ireland since their pinnacle win over the All Blacks a couple of years ago for different reasons. They have been mostly without Dan Leavy since mid-2018, Tadhg Furlong has been out of form/injured since the end of the same year, and the success they enjoyed pre-2019 meant that everyone analysed them in detail and placed a premium on negating their strengths.

The other issue that they are having with adapting to their new game plan is, at times, they are going wide-wide for the sake of it, without committing any defenders. Moving the ball out to the touch-line doesn’t automatically generate space; in order to do that, defenders need to be engaged on the inside, and we have seen some lateral back play from Ireland in their more difficult games:

Every team has to make yardage through their forwards at some point, and this is where I think Gavin Coombes could solve a lot of problems for Ireland up front if he does get selected at some stage. The Munster back rower has been a revelation this season, an archetype blindside flanker in the mold of Jerome Kaino, and while he has no shortage of pace and skill, Ireland could really use his ability to win collisions in the heaviest of traffic:

Coast-to-coast rugby is devastating against disorganised defences because there will be a hole somewhere along the line once you put the ball through the hands, but against well-drilled teams, it’s a waste of energy unless the defenders are being fixed close to the ruck or in midfield. I get the impression that Ireland think they are doing right by their new coaches just by getting the ball into the five-metre channel, but if they can’t make any sort of ground up the middle, then this type of play becomes easy for their opposition to contend with.

Waiting Game

The raft of younger players that have been included in this Ireland squad will not only bring an injection of energy, but they are clean slates with regards to their thinking of how they should play at international level. That’s not a slight on Joe Schmidt (who has been the most successful coach to ever grace Irish shores), but there have been periods of matches when the senior players have shown that they are still programmed to his game plan.

Paul O’Connell’s addition to the backroom team looks to be a direct response to Ireland’s lineout/maul failings throughout 2020, and it demonstrates a proactiveness on Farrell’s part that bodes well. On top being a totemic figure that the players will run through a brick wall for, the Munster legend’s arrival will free Simon Easterby to focus on defence, and more importantly the contact zone, an area where Ireland were found wanting against a bruising English pack.

Can Ireland get back into the groove of beating the best teams in the world again? It depends on what they deliver game-to-game. Will it be the dreadful mash-up of styles that we saw against France or the lethargic showing against Georgia, or will we see more of the team that crackled with the intensity that you would expect from an Andy Farrell-coached side (not to mention no small amount of verve) against Scotland? If it’s the latter, the there’s no reason why Ireland can’t ascend to the summit of Test rugby again.

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