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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 3, 2012 @ 11:08 am

    Earls needs to dominate his channel

    Liam Toland

    THE 2009 US PGA money list was topped by Tiger Woods having earned $10,508,163 (€8 million). That year, way out in 100th place was Ted Purdy. When you delve deeper, as coaches do, certain facts pop out. Purdy played 30 tournaments to Woods’ 17 where the average earned spanned from Purdy’s $27,957 (€21,100) to Woods’ $618,127 (€469,000) per tournament. The gap between number one and 100th was $9,669,456 (€7.4 million).

    However, the process or performance that would concern the coaches, video nerds and the man himself, was 2.67 per cent difference or 1.84 shots per round; that’s all.

    Ireland played Wales twice last year. Most recently they were beaten by 22-10 and last March in Cardiff they fell 19-13. By understanding those loses we may understand how to win on Sunday and we may discover the gap is not that large. Our cause is aided by the Gatling gun of injuries for the Welsh which affords us a real opportunity.

    Last week I looked at some of the provincial Key Performance Indicators (KPI). I left you with the question; will the individuals revert to their provincial type and therefore affect the performance of the hybrid? It’s easy to conclude that only time will tell.

    Time was against us in Cardiff (and that try) last March but there was a simple two-versus-one opportunity with one minute left that converted would have won Ireland the match. Keith Earls was on the wing and primed but the opportunity was lost inside him.

    Woods would, Purdy wouldn’t.

    It is all very fine to take KPI number one – never give up – where winning the mental battle puts you in pole position but then the skills and tactics must win the match and by extension individuals in their combinations.

    Team selection is an early indicator of tactics and game-plan concepts. Although Donnacha Ryan should be starting I can understand the logic of Donncha O’Callaghan’s inclusion. Last time out against Northampton Saints O’Callaghan had his finest “O’Callaghan” performance in years. Not since the exposed red underpants at the lineout days has he wreaked such havoc in the maul and breakdown, single-handedly turning dead ball into Munster ball. But the Saints are not Wales and with France around the corner will Ryan remain on the bench until Italy and how will O’Callaghan’s inclusion guide tactics?

    To fully understand the team selection one has to delve into the game plan that Ireland propose to play and allow past games to inform this adjustment as the limited time available affords an opportunity for gradual change.

    Whatever about O’Callaghan the inclusion of Keith Earls ahead of Fergus McFadden is telling – and riskier. Over the past seasons, and in particular at the World Cup, Ireland were not the first-phase attacking team of yore where our most potent source of five-pointers (or subsequent three-pointers) were from lineouts and scrums (Brian O’Driscoll under the posts in Croke Park against Australia for the draw directly off a scrum in November 2009).

    Due to Leinster’s comfort in multi-phase around the park aligned with Munster’s much narrower multi-phase approach, the Irish team has become more accustomed to scoring/pressurising from multi-phase based on a violent clear-out at the breakdown (hence O’Callaghan). In the absence of O’Driscoll, McFadden appears more effective in this environment than Earls.

    Statistically, monitoring effectiveness of a player is based on obvious measurables such as tackles made/missed, yards carried, etc. On Sunday I’ll be looking at the opportunities created beyond the aforementioned.

    Clearly Earls is an extremely talented international and if he can add value to the ball, especially in traffic where McFadden has the edge, he will have achieved enormously in replacing O’Driscoll. The question is can Earls dominate his channel when Ireland are in multi-phase possession, allowing a very exciting back three to prosper? To answer this, watch what happens to the ball after it has come through Earls’ hands.

    Although Mike Ross, Rory Best, O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell will carry the ball, clearly Cian Healy and the Irish backrow will do the damage. I really hope Ross, having vastly improved on his running lines and confidence around the ball, is very, very selective with his time on it such as when Jonathan Sexton is down a blind alley or there is no other receiver available. At Six Nations level he takes too long to cross the line and get his body into an offloading or rucking position. He should understand there are times he simply should not get in the way of the ball.

    Scrumhalf Conor Murray has been a revelation over the past months. He has a style of play that will influence his team’s performance. A real challenge for him is finding the balance between controlling, passing and being sucked into the dog fight. It appears he loves all three but at times in Munster’s campaign he has enjoyed leading the fight at the coalface even more. He happens to be great at this but Ireland may require more control of himself and his natural instincts to unearth the talent out wide. Earls needs space to flourish, McFadden less so. Variety is the spice of life and in Healy and the backrow he has buckets of carriers and also a second line of carriers.

    Simon Zebo’s cracking try from Denis Hurley’s deft hands had its origins in how O’Connell varied his ball-carrying very similarly to Jamie Heaslip’s cracker in Croke Park against France in 2009. O’Connell created Zebo’s space by being a decoy receiver, fixing buckets of defenders in midfield. Heaslip’s space arrived as O’Connell swivel passed on receipt of the ball, sucking in French defenders more accustomed to him carrying into traffic. Stephen Ferris has developed a great offloading game allied to his rampaging that will create more space for those outside him.

    When I watched Peter O’Mahony as Munster faced London Irish in last August’s friendly at Thomond Park I could see outstanding technique around the ball whether Munster were in possession or not. In many ways he appeared like those young Australia backrows, full of athleticism but based on technique. I wondered then what his best position would be as he played number eight that day.

    At times I felt his work rate ebbed and his talents weren’t at the coalface often enough. His work rate has vastly improved to the extent international openside wing forward could be his happy home for many years to come.

    Although I expect minimum changes to our style of rugby on Sunday it is in the margins of errors/tactics from last year’s encounters that will turn us from Purdy towards Woods. Murray and Sexton have the key to maximising our backrow initially and then our outside backs. They have the ingredients to tackle a brilliant Welsh outfit.

    I really hope Rob Kearney can continue to enjoy his rugby, Leinster style, influencing all around him driving us towards Tiger Woods.

    As for players who can influence the tactics of a game; welcome back to Munster, James Downey!

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