Ireland need to target Phillips and threaten a counter

Fri, Feb 1, 2013, 00:00

Delaying gratification is a real trial but what a treat I gave myself having kept the Wales v Australia autumn Test match under wraps until this week. Armed with the remote, I recalled John Maynard Keynes’ response to the accusation of changing his mind; “When my information changes, I change my mind. What do you do?”

Let’s start at the end where on 79 minutes and 33 seconds Kurtley Beale crossed the Welsh line with behemoth winger Alex Cuthbert failing to stop him. Up to that point Wales had outplayed Australia in almost every facet bar the lineout (which was terrible). In that moment the score went from 12-9 in Wales’ favour to 12-14, and Australia beating Wales four times in a row. Interestingly, at 184cm and just over 90kgs, Beale is the “same size” as our two starting wingers today. Beale did okay!

With the Welsh back three in mind there are two massive factors when defending. Firstly, tackle technique: Andrew Trimble is brilliant at the straight on hit, but before the tackle occurs, reading the ever changing environment of two v two that become two v ones very quickly is a more important skill, especially with the Welsh. The test for both wingers tomorrow, and where the world class ability of Brian O’Driscoll shines out, is judging when to step in and when to stay out. Here is where Trimble could have come unstuck, if he was playing.

As the match rolled on Wales looked good, even down 12 players as amongst others, Alan-Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies, Dan Lydiate, Adam Jones, George North and James Hook were unavailable.

At the World Cup, Sam Warburton was phenomenal at the breakdown but has waned over recent months and has been limited to under one turnover per match. That said, he has developed a very threatening ball rip technique, whereby he twice stripped the standing Australian ball-carrier in contact.

Warburton loitering

If Ireland have perfected the choke tackle, Wales are working a new technique by focusing on the point of the ball and rotating it violently from under the arm. There is another danger with Warburton loitering, especially as he allows his inside defence to make hits, freeing his feet position to pounce.

The danger is magnified as he’s often on the less protected open side.

The extraordinary width of Mike Phillips’ pass allows Wales to get the ball outside Jamie Roberts to their powerful back three. From touchline scrums this is devastating on defences as outhalf Dan Biggar stands miles away. On receipt he will skip a hard run from Roberts to hit Jonathan Davies, who is, within two passes, 35 metres from the scrum on the far side of the pitch.

Now the fullback, Leigh Halfpenny, has many options, especially if the scrum is deep enough, as Ireland’s back three will be covering the potential kick, causing Brian O’Driscoll headaches. Phillips’ power pass means an off-the-top lineout can come from the non-traditional front as he finds his 10 either way, affording Wales more options in attacking lineouts.

Without Shane Williams and Lee Byrne, Welsh creativity is from the power lines and less about wriggling free. Crucially, Phillips’ pass, allied to Biggar’s variety of positioning, means Wales have many ways of moving the ball out wide, where they will get number eight Toby Faletau combining with the big midfield deep inside their half and 22, deciding very late to kick or pass, depending on the Irish reaction to the move.

There are many clues for Ireland in the play of Australia, who have a very proactive deep kick reception, always shifting the ball with two big passes.

Although flirting with counterattack, well over 90 per cent of the time they kick. Australia’s threat to counter is used to pull Wales forward to kick into the space behind. If Wales don’t chase, then the counter is on! It is crucial Ireland threaten a counter but are patient as field position may be more beneficial.

Phillips in isolation

Mike Phillips’ confidence and physicality is an opportunity for Ireland as he tends to get involved defensively by filling into the pillar and not remaining neutral. Australia had massive blindsides in the opening minutes but failed to spot a lonely Phillips in isolation. Rewind Ireland!

Ireland should employ a rolling lineout maul going infield to generate a blindside as Phillips tends to defend the blindside in isolation. Their forwards make multiple tackles which forces multiple phases, keeping Welsh backs free. In the past Ireland couldn’t get beyond their forward defence. Australia gained ground when forwards took on the fringe five to ten metres wide and very flat, shifting their feet laterally and offloading to an angled run. Davies is very strong over the tackle. However, Roberts tends to get ahead of 10s in line speed; an opportunity for Irish blindside wingers to expose Biggar.

Without Wyn-Jones, Bradley Davies and especially Lydiate, Wales are weakened. What then will Kidney bring? Only a performance can answer these questions but now the head coach has built a team of coaches around him a poor performance cannot be tolerated. Hence tomorrow is his watershed, where we should no longer be interested in blah, blah, blah answers.

Finally, as Jonny Sexton departs provincial rugby I wonder how his relationship with us over the coming seasons will change? As an outhalf can he maintain the same influence over the Ireland team? Conscious of Ronan O’Gara’s impressive winning averages, Sexton’s relationship with Ireland at the helm now becomes a matter of winning averages with no space for delayed gratification.

PS I wonder what the IRFU’s Philip Browne is going to do with all the money he has saved on Sexton?

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