Ireland’s breakdown strategy faces ultimate stress test
Joe Schmidt game demands quick ruck ball but his key operatives have been ruled out
Ireland flanker Sean O’Brien arrived at 44 breakdowns against France. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
A slap, or a stupid assault. As the clock ticked from 29 to 30 seconds in the Millennium Stadium, was Seán O’Brien deliberately provoked into swinging an arm into a French man’s midriff? When viewing the tape, did you have sympathy for the Irishman or his opponent?
This column could offer a view on the subject but it would doubtless be biased. The 1954 paper ‘They Saw A Game’ examined the perceptions of what people see when viewing a sporting event. The game in question was a college football meeting of Princeton and Dartmouth in 1951. At this point in American football’s history, the first Super Bowl had not yet taken place and wouldn’t until 1967 – although at the time it would be dubbed the ‘First World Championship Game’. In the early 50s, college ball was all.
It was a particularly violent game with stars injured. And, of course, the various scribes and witnesses from both sides had their own views on what they had seen. Nothing new there, one might think.
But the reports were in such opposition that Albert H Hastorf and Hadley Cantril wrote a paper on the differing perceptions of Princeton and Dartmouth supporters of the event based on student answers to questionnaires. The conclusion was that even after being shown the same tape of the match each student saw their own, entirely different game.
We perceive through our own lens, filtering things in a certain way based on what is important to us. A citing commissioner’s warning for O’Brien might have seemed quite appropriate to some Irish eyes. Only a slap, after all. To other eyes, it was an obvious ban given that it was a flagrant assault on an opponent.
No matter what one’s perception might have been, the sight of Jonathan Sexton shipping two hits in quick succession leaving him unable to continue could only have been judged a major blow. He’s a fine kicker, but that’s not what makes him a world-class outhalf.
On the whole, Irish kickers performed just as ably in the pool stage, trotting along at a little below the average for tier-one sides. Ian Madigan would jog on, all bounce and barnet. Given the angle and distance, his immediate penalty attempt was no gimme. Tougher still when coming in cold. To the relief of that green army in the stands, he struck it true.
Kicking from angle and distance is not straightfoward. But in the central parts of the field from relatively close range (under 30m) the top kickers are very accurate.
While there are many factors contributing to the gap between the tier-one and tier-two nations, kicking quality remains firmly on the list. No tier-one side place-kicked at a success rate lower than Australia’s 71 per cent, while among tier twos only Japan (74 per cent), Georgia (79 per cent) and Namibia (86 per cent) bettered that mark.
While conversions taken from under the sticks can skew such figures, even when you look at penalties alone there’s still a difference. And while a few extra kicks won’t make up the significant difference in tries scored, so often the ability to kick points reliably can be the difference between keeping a game tight and falling out of touch.
Paul O’Connell’s Ireland career did not go quietly into the night. To arrive at 26 breakdowns in that 40 minutes in Cardiff was a phenomenal rate during an appropriately ferocious performance. For context, Peter O’Mahony hit 28 in his 56 minutes before departing and Seán O’Brien’s 44 were second only to Devin Toner’s 45.
Ireland’s rucking was terrific. Swathes of Irish phases were facilitated by accurate clearouts and speedy recycling.
According to Prozone Ireland recycled ball at 2.8 seconds per breakdown, while for France it was 3.6 seconds (the average during the pool stage was 3.1). This isn’t as important to all teams but the Irish gameplan is utterly dependent on it.
In losing players that contribute so much to that part to the execution of the Schmidt doctrine, Ireland will need others to step up. And with the knockouts here, it has to be now.