Ireland must retain the ball better against Australia if they are to prevail
A similarly disproportionate tackle count as against Samoa last week would only spell trouble
Ireland’s Mike McCarthy and Mike Ross make one of the home side’s 163 tackles against Samoa last week. The visitors made 90 tackles. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
If all you saw from the Ireland-Samoa game last weekend was the tackle count, you’d have had a hard job guessing the scoreline. As Joe Schmidt pointed out afterwards, Ireland made almost twice as many tackles over the course of the game as Samoa and almost three times as many in the first half. Yet they won 40-9 in the end.
Ordinarily, a tackle count of 163 to 90 would mean that the team who had to make the 163 tackles would struggle. The more tackles you have to make, the less possession you have and when it’s significantly more it means that you’ve given the opposition plenty of ammunition to use against you.
It’s not completely out of the ordinary to win a game with those statistics but it would be unusual to win it by such a distance. Against a better team, Ireland would be in trouble with those numbers.
Statistics can only give an impression of course. But anyone who was there could see the reason Ireland had to make so many tackles. There was a lot of loose kicking – both in the air and on the ground – and the Samoans came back with a lot of running counter-attacks. They kept possession for much longer spells than Ireland did and kept trying to build phases. In that scenario, the Irish players had to just get the head down and make their tackles to push them back.
Tackle counts are something that didn’t exist in any sort of structured way when I started playing rugby. You made as many tackles as you could over the course of a game but nobody was coming to you with a sheet of paper afterwards saying you only made this many or that many. In my experience, it was only when Mike Ford arrived as Ireland defence coach in the early 2000s that it became something that we really gave a lot of thought to.
Mike came from rugby league and brought a system of defence with him that he drilled into us. He had plenty of work to do when he got hold of us. Early on, there was one game against England that he prepared for by working out a game plan that was based on pushing them wide and isolating them on the wings.
Mike had watched them and seen how they liked to spread the ball wide so he wanted to use this defensive system called a Turf Wedge. The idea was that you didn’t come up hard in the centre but instead pushed out to get them coming into the wide channels. Once the ball got out there, you number up and swamp them and really attack the breakdown out there. The team worked on it all week and Mike was confident that it was something that could work.
Anyway, come Saturday, everyone was in the dressing room in Twickenham before the game. It was real fire and fury stuff, everybody roaring and giving it plenty about what they were going to do when they got out there. Just before going out the door, Peter Clohessy turned around and shouted, “And if you’re unsure about that Turf Wedge shit, just come up and in!”
A big roar and everybody ran out the door. Mike Ford had his head in his hands. Lo and behold, England ran riot and won 45-11.
You can safely say we’ve improved since then. Everything is more structured and more sophisticated. Every team is answerable to a defence coach, every team has a system and every player in every team is accountable in the aftermath of a game – including for their tackle count.
One mistake in a defensive line can lead to a try. That’s the reality of it. And, very often, one of the reasons mistakes are made is that guys have tired minds on top of tired bodies. When you’re making tackles constantly, you’re putting in a huge physical effort. That’s fine at the start of a game when you’re fresh but as a match wears on, fatigue affects your concentration.
The next time you’re at a game, watch a pack of forwards organise themselves when they get up from a scrum in their own 22 and have to chase down the pitch after a loose kick. Their bodies will be hurting after the scrum - their legs, their backs, their necks will all have taken a big strain. But as they go down to where the next collision point will be, they will be talking and pointing and organising themselves into shape. That takes a lot of concentration, all so that when the time comes to make the next tackle the system is set.
Defensive coaching has become so refined over the years. It’s gone far beyond basic systems. You’re identifying threats and strengths and targeting them specifically. What foot does a guy step off? What hand does he hold the ball in? Do you go low on this guy and high on that guy? Who looks for contact? Who looks to stay on his feet and offload?
But overall, you want to try and not be the team that has to make all the tackles. I remember playing in a trial game once where our team put together a really long series of pick-and-gos that seemed to last for ages before we finally got over for a try. As we were walking back up the pitch for the conversion Paul O’Connell said to me, “Jesus, I’m wrecked after that.” I told him to imagine how they must feel.
When you’re putting in tackle after tackle, your body takes a battering. Your shoulders hurt, your arms hurt, your legs start to feel less powerful. And through it all, you know you have to keep getting up, getting in line and getting ready to make the next one. If you don’t, you’ll have your defence coach waving the tackle-count stats at you on Monday morning.
Those stats make you accountable. They give an idea of how hard you were working and they give you no room to hide. They tell you whether you’ve been getting into the right areas and doing what’s required of you. They don’t tell the whole story but they definitely tell some of it.
Sometimes they do give the wrong impression. For someone like John Hayes, his tackle count would depend on what sort of game plan the other team had chosen. There would be games where he’d have a huge amount of tackles – that would be because the opposition was attacking around the fringes of rucks, which is where John would be a lot of the time.
But when a team looked to go wide a lot, John would end the game with maybe only three or four tackles. We used slag him that he wasn’t doing a whole pile in those games. Hayes just said they were afraid to run at him.
For a loose forward like I was though, if I came out of a game with a low tackle count, it would give the coaches something to point to. It would be evidence that you weren’t putting yourself about, that you weren’t getting involved as much as they expected you to.
And I’d have been conscious of that even while games were going on. I’d be looking around at David Wallace or Denis Leamy or Anthony Foley and seeing the tackles they were making and going, ‘Right, I have to get into this here’. A low tackle count doesn’t always mean a back-row player had a bad game but at the very least it’s something you’ll have to answer for afterwards.
Because that’s your job and the numbers in most cases will back it up. Watch out for the tackle stats against Australia on Saturday – the leading tacklers on both sides will almost certainly come from the back row. Your job in that position is to be where the collisions are, to break up the opposition play, to force turnovers. You’ve got to get in there and get on top of your primary job.
There have been times over the years though when guys have padded out their stats just for the sake of having good stats. You sometimes saw stats for numbers of carries and wondered why this guy or that guy was up near the top. Then you remembered the three or four pick-and-gos he threw in near the end of the game.
Coaches worked that one out fairly quickly. Stats are only a guide and when coaches and payers watch a game back, they know who was working hard and who wasn’t. If you thought a player was padding out his stats, he got slagged about it. So they’re not the be all and end all. But they do tell you something about how a game went and they give you some pointers for the next day.
What Joe Schmidt and his team will take from last Saturday is that they were too loose in possession and there’s a very high likelihood that a similar tackle count against Australia will end in defeat.
The couple of line breaks Samoa made were individual efforts but if Australia made those same ones there would have been support players on their shoulder. Ireland have to take care of the ball that bit better, they can’t keep giving the ball back through loose kicking because they will be punished.
The positive for Ireland was that any kinks in the defensive system were down to small communication problems and rust rather than people missing one-on-one tackles. If it was about missing tackles it would be a bit more worrying because your whole system would come under a lot of pressure. But this was just the inevitable sign of a squad coming together under a new manager. It should be easy enough to iron out.