Gerry Thornley: Ireland know how to get the ball - just not how best to use it

Imagine what France or the All Blacks would do with all those turnover gifts

Tadhg Beirne has had seven turnovers so far in this year’s Six Nations. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Tadhg Beirne has had seven turnovers so far in this year’s Six Nations. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Of all the Six Nations statistics which are dominated by Ireland, both collectively and individually, be it carries, metres or passes, perhaps none stands out more than turnovers won. Helped by the brilliance of their defensive lineout, choke tackles and abilities in the jackal, Ireland reign supreme. The Turnover Kings.

In four matches Ireland have engineered 29 turnovers. This is more than twice the number achieved by any other team, with Scotland and England on 13 and France and Wales on 12. Tadhg Beirne leads the way on seven, with Iain Henderson on six and CJ Stander five, ensuring an all-Irish 1-2-3 in this category heading into Cheltenham.

What a bountiful source of unplanned possession. Imagine, for a second, what the French (or the All Blacks) would do with 29 turnovers in four matches. They’d have run amok. But while transitioning from defence to attack has been a strength of Leinster sides particularly, and Irish ones too in the past, not lately it hasn’t.

Rewind to the title coronation at the Stade de France in 2014 and Ireland regained the lead for the last time with their critical third try early in the second half. Rob Kearney ran back a fumble by Yoann Huget and two phases later the backs were perfectly aligned to go wide for Andrew Trimble’s searing break.

Some blokes called O’Driscoll and O’Connell were each tackled short of the line before Johnny Sexton sauntered over untouched for his second try of the night. In barely 30 seconds Ireland had gone 80 metres to score at the other end of the pitch. Without that alertness, preparedness and skill set to transition, Ireland don’t win the 2014 Six Nations.

Alas and alack, for some reason this seems to be beyond the current team, and it’s clearly driving Sexton, for one, beyond exasperation. He’s rarely less than honest and revealing, all the more so in the immediate moments after a game.

Hence, despite his elation with nailing the clutch kick to win the match, one of his first laments on TV was Ireland’s inability to make much of turnover ball despite, he stressed, this being something they had worked on in training.

Sexton possibly had that break-out in the first half in mind off yet another pilfered Scottish lineout when Tadhg Furlong did his impersonation of Phil Bennett, circa ‘that’ try by the Barbarians against the All Blacks.

When Stander then took Furlong’s pass, Ireland had numbers galore to his left. He could have attacked the space in front of him, better still passed short to Sexton for him to do so, or skip passed to Garry Ringrose. Given three choices, as Eddie O’Sullivan would put it, he chose the fourth! The skip pass missed Sexton, Jamison Gibson-Park and Ringrose to find grass, and James Lowe had no option but to hoof the ball downfield.

James Lowe and Scotland’s Sean Maitland compete for a loose ball during the Six Nations match at Murrayfield. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
James Lowe and Scotland’s Sean Maitland compete for a loose ball during the Six Nations match at Murrayfield. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

For all the work on transitioning in the High Performance Centre, there seems to be an excitability or uncertainty in what to do, resulting in an inability to execute when the opportunity presents itself.

Indeed, after another tree-felling tackle by Will Connors, Stander wrestled a clean turnover in the jackal and Keith Earls popped it to Ringrose on the blindside. He had Sexton outside and two men in front, and hoofed the ball into Stuart Hogg’s gut, resulting in that slightly comical Finn Russell try, although it didn’t seem too amusing at the time.

Living off scraps, the Scots had shown how to transition, firstly when working the ball to Russell for his huge punt downfield and secondly when Hogg fired a 30-metre pass infield to Russell which could have resulted in greater damage but for Lowe dislodging the ball from the outhalf’s hands.

However, as has been the case for years, when Ireland controlled field position and were direct, they enjoyed a handsome reward. Three times, also in time-honoured fashion, they turned down shots at goal to go to the corner, leading eventually to the tries by Robbie Henshaw and Beirne.

It should have been three from three as well.

As Martin Johnson noted at half-time on BBC, Gibson-Park and Ireland also “missed a trick” off a lineout maul in the 20th minute after Sexton turned down three points at 8-3 ahead when Hamish Watson vacated his position as the first pillar on the openside.

There was an inviting gap to attack with Russell as an isolated defender but by the time Gibson-Park did dart infield off the side, Jamie Ritchie was in place to make the tackle and Watson was back in situ to claim the turnover penalty in the jackal.

Yet otherwise, also in keeping with a more balanced approach since the defeat in Paris last October, Sexton and Ireland mixed this tactic by keeping the scoreboard ticking with four penalties before the fateful fifth in the 77th minute. The ensuing, box kicking endgame has to be taken in the context of Romain Poite heavily favouring the man in the jackal, so it wasn’t worth the risk of running the ball inside halfway.

Stander has most carries (64), with Robbie Henshaw second (53) and Garry Ringrose fifth (44). As for metres made, Hugo Keenan is fifth on 355 metres, and Ringrose fourth (358 metres), although it would be nice to see the centres pass more, especially Ringrose.

Lowe has carried for the most metres by any player in the tournament (433), and by a distance too. Unfortunately, of course, two misreads against Wales have been compounded by missed tackles against Brice Dulin and latterly Huw Jones, making him culpable for four of the eight tries Ireland have conceded.

This is overlooking the unlucky ricochet off his hand for the try by Russell. One accepts Ronan O’Gara’s point about New Zealand wingers being more attack than defence minded but one doubts the All Blacks would make such allowances.

Lowe is a top bloke, provides plenty of positive energy in the environment, but for all the power, X-factor and offloading that he provides going forward and with that left boot, Andy Farrell and Simon Easterby now have to weigh this up against the certainty that England would target him mercilessly.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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