Matt O’Connor likes to design his attack around the ball carrier getting emptied a split second after he releases the ball.
It’s one of the ways he wanted Leinster to create space. It was the ACT Brumbies’ way of opening teams up when Stephen Larkham, Stirling Mortlock and Joe Roff were kings.
The Leicester Tigers embraced this approach with Geordan Murphy at the vanguard and there’s a nice continuation with him as coach.
This was page one of O’Connor’s playbook. Especially off five-metre scrums; create the space by getting smashed. Bank the try every time.
Matty was unable to get the concept to to seep into Leinster’s psyche during those difficult two seasons in Dublin. Nobody’s fault, not the coach nor the players, just a constant battle, as the villagers would say, to change the way we were used to.
It takes time. We see it now with Ireland and Chris Farrell’s quick release leading up to Jacob Stockdale’s first try on Saturday.
The previous Ireland centre to do this was Brian O’Driscoll. There is a difference. It’s subtle but important in showing the evolvement of Ireland from then to now. Brian could do it without being touched. When miniature centres temporarily ruled the earth, our mechanism for getting that pass away was predicated upon keeping defenders honest with pinpoint angles of running and slick delivery.
Farrell, being part of the new breed of Irish centre, was big enough to convince the Argentinians that two men are needed to halt him.
The bait was already in the water. Off the previous scrum Johnny Sexton looped Bundee Aki but Ireland’s new number 12 – and it’s his jersey for now – feinted to pass before torpedoing over the gainline. Aki breaks the first tackle so the Pumas defence is already ragged. Stockdale knows precisely what to do; he’s already trailing off the blind wing and initially acts as a decoy. He tracks around the corner as Conor Murray feeds Farrell at first receiver.
The no-look O’Driscoll pass was timed perfectly to commit both defenders and give Sexton enough time to loop. The outside loop is the hardest pass to make, think about what’s going through Chris’s head. He can’t see Johnny, probably can’t hear him, his eyes are on Murray to catch the ball with a tiny window to get the pass away to someone you hope is there on time. Mix in the pressure of a Test match.
The pay off is another 50 metres away but it’s a certain try.
Farrell’s desire to take ball to the gainline, get the pass away and accept the hammering makes him a valued member of any rugby squad. Munster and Johann van Graan have lost him at the worst possible moment.
If I was still playing two things would be going through my mind watching this try: I need to show Joe that I can carry like Bundee. I need to prove I can get smashed like Chris, get the pass away and hop to my feet to congratulate Jacob in the in-goal area.
It is not the physicality of Aki or Farrell that will be motivating Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Stuart McCloskey or Jared Payne. It’s their skill set.
Bundee Aki already looks like a veteran international. I’m more impressed by his distribution than the 31 tackles he made against South Africa and Argentina. It ain’t pretty but there’s an instinctiveness – knowing when to carry, when to pass – that brings a new dimension to Ireland’s attack.
Sledgehammer centres are ten a penny. Farrell’s distribution also makes him a major new asset. It also makes him a contender for the Six Nations, providing he gets back on the pitch in six rather than eight weeks.
There are other examples of this. The pass he got away in his own 22, to give Adam Byrne an early run, showed spatial awareness. Instead of running onto the ball, he waited patiently, got the ball away in two strides and committed the defender.
All done under pressure.
Against Fiji Farrell couldn’t get into his stride, 13 changes made that game a curse as much as a benefit for most, but I noted how I’d like to see him surrounded by the full Irish team, particularly Johnny Sexton. Henshaw went down, the chance arrived and he delivered. It’s a familiar path, walked by players who thrive under Joe.
Schmidt, after eight seasons coaching on this island, in season five with Ireland, is unfurling what looks very like the New Zealand way of piecing a squad together.
We are not there yet, but we are close. Take Aaron Smith as a proxy for Conor Murray. If Murray has a few bad games in succession he still gets picked for Munster and Ireland. The players behind him are not of the standard to drop him so he’s able to work through a slump. Smith, when he had off field problems last year, was replaced by TJ Perenara with Tawera Kerr Barlow on the bench. The next few scrumhalves sensed their opportunity. Everyone upped their performance.
We are seeing this happen at loosehead prop. Jack McGrath can hardly be criticised for not hitting his straps four months after peaking for the Lions tour. Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne are benefiting from a full pre-season in the Irish system and plenty of game time.
It’s ruthless, really tough on Jack but good for Ireland as Schmidt is presumably backing Jack’s character long-term. If McGrath regains last season’s form he returns to the team. Just like Aaron Smith did. Perenara keeps the pressure on. There is a constant debate about who should start, who should finish. Same now for Healy, Kilcoyne and Jack.
McGrath has to force the issue, but in his own way, by leaning on what got him on a Lions tour in the first place. Sounds so simple. Yet it has taken a very long time for Schmidt to mould Ireland into such competitive shape.
But genuine pressure on selection has started to spread to the Irish midfield. Ten months ago it was Henshaw and Payne until Ringrose forced his way in, followed by Aki and now Farrell.
If I was a hamstrung 27year-old, rather than a retired 37-year-old, I’d be nervous and determined in equal measure. For Ringrose and Henshaw it is crucial they cleanly rehab their injuries to avoid any recurrence because to under perform now would do a disservice to the competition for places that Joe has wanted to create for so long.
In 2012 Luke Marshall replaced me in Murrayfield when I was injured. He played well. Brought something different. It was nothing new to me. I didn’t focus on Luke. I went back to my self-analytical process, honed in on my tackle technique, distribution, entering contact.
During the Six Nations Schmidt’s starting XV will be altered by form and injury.
For Ringrose and Henshaw it has suddenly become about putting the incumbents under pressure to perform. That could make Aki go to such a level that Henshaw, Ringrose, Farrell and Payne (presuming the latter two recover) are scrapping over the 13 jersey or for other jerseys just to get on the field.
It’s no surprise to hear Joe mention Niyi Adeolokun and Barry Daly when asked about Jacob Stockdale. Bring everyone along, spread the hope around. Farrell is proof the Ireland coach is willing to dig deep into the talent pool.
The problem for Farrell in the next two months was going to be his return to a Munster squad that has yet to figure out its starting outhalf. This has been a problem since Ronan O’Gara retired and he’s already heading towards his third coaching gig. Instead the problem is he isn’t playing. At least the last image he left was positive.
The contrast for Henshaw and Ringrose is they head into the Exeter games alongside Sexton. Even Aki returns to the familiarity of Connacht.
A strength of Joe Schmidt is he knows players. He knows who to motivate by playing or by dropping them. After this November window, only really Murray and Sexton are safe. Everyone else is expendable or know that maintaining form is paramount.
Years of meticulous training ground work is evident in games now. The past month was very formulaic. McGrath’s exclusion and Kilcoyne’s promotion seemed preordained, and an easy victory for team culture. Adam Byrne’s opportunity on the wing and James Ryan in the second row last Saturday had to be pre-planned. Same goes for playing Joey Carbery at 10 against Fiji and keeping Andrew Porter close to the group.
This can be tilted into a positive. I don’t remember a time when Ireland have laid out selection calls, so clearly in advance, primarily geared towards developing young talent, before three Test matches that all end in victory. I’ve seen that idea backfire spectacularly before.
The Ireland coach is planning ahead as he demands the players perfect each moment in front of them. This is similar to Hansen blooding new All Blacks on tour in Europe.
Next November will be entirely different. Far higher stakes. But there’s no better way to motivate established internationals than threaten their existence with young talent. If I was still playing, and thankfully in this case I am not, I’d be doing extra training with someone cutting me in two a fraction before I get the pass away.