So the million dollar question: should Ireland coach an offloading policy at this World Cup? I don’t think you can. You are either intuitively good at it or not. I never was, so I didn’t do it. You can see the guys who are: they see the gap, take the tackle on their own terms knowing exactly what they are doing before contact happens. Then they free their hands.
England made 14 successful offloads at Twickenham, their visitors just three. This could be the stick to beat Ireland if things go wrong over the coming weeks.
We don’t offload but a crucial point needs to be made: it’s not a case of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland don’t offload, Irish teams going back to the dawn of time haven’t done it.
The head coach merely identified this when moulding a game plan these past two years. Common sense prevails. There’s no point conceding a try by risking a skill set that feels unnatural to our best players (Brian O’Driscoll was a rare exception and Jared Payne).
Offloading has only recently become evident in our rugby players’ DNA.
Really we are three generations behind other nations but you can see it happening. Take Stuart McCloskey for Ulster at the weekend against the Scarlets: big, young inside centre pushing through tackles and leaving the ball up there for a support runner.
I have also seen Ed and Bryan Byrne coming into the Leinster Academy from Clongowes. Prop and hooker twin brothers who were already offloading close to perfection as schoolboys, I would have killed for their ability.
It just shows how much the game has changed in the past 15 years. You instantly saw the rapid evolvement and usage of the offload by Irish teenagers when Sonny Bill Williams arrived from rugby league. I was his opposite number for the 2012 Test series in New Zealand that confirmed Sonny Bill as a rugby union superstar. Even when the chop tackle worked, he was still releasing a 'no look' flip pass from another planet.
But that’s the point: it’s a different world down there. Different terrain, vastly different conditions.
If you play professional rugby in Ireland you end up doing a fair bit of coaching. It’s part of being a Leinster player. You go out into the province. You give back.
You do this giving back in some atrocious conditions. Never mind offloading, it’s hard to get under-12s to pass the ball at all when it’s hammering down in November. And anyway the receiver is probably going to drop it. That’s why we have so many evasive ball-carriers.
So we literally hold what we have. We teach boys how to clean a ruck quickly and efficiently. Play rugby the Irish way. That still leaves an underage culture of individual runners. It’s evolving after 20 years of professionalism but in some ways will always be the same.
Quick ball is the historical option for successful Irish teams as opposed to the unnecessary offload. That and running into touch are not tolerated in the Ireland camp. You get off your outside foot every time. It’s a logical approach by a team that is smaller than most of its rivals. We must take contact on our terms to be truly competitive.
We must be smarter than those in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa who are raised on a catch-and-pass philosophy.
It’s far easier to embrace that way when playing on a dust bowl in the middle of summer. They are just out throwing the ball around like we would puck about with a hurley and sliotar. That’s what I grew up doing in Wexford. All I knew was hurling until secondary school. When I got to Clongowes, I became one of those runners in the rain.
That leads to another obvious point: all the players who came into the academy system during my generation were big fish coming from small ponds, be it from the school or youth system. They never needed to pass the ball (except to whoever was taking the conversion).
That was me in a nutshell. I knew I could run, that I could beat players, so that’s what I did for many years. Eventually that changed.
Matty Williams helped, Gary Ella too, while Joe Schmidt took my game to another level again.
Foreign players down through the years have brought genuine offloading weapons to the provinces. Lifeimi Mafi was effective in Munster, Ollie le Roux and Owen Finegan at Leinster. And, of course, Felipe Contepomi.
Ben Te’o has it. I’d love to be five years younger playing centre with Ben because I’d get a load of tries from his inside pass. He possesses freakish footwork with one of the best step-and-accelerates I’ve ever seen. Leinster are only starting to reap the true benefit of his conversion from league.
Noel Reid is a smart enough to constantly bring him into the game and profit from trailing his carries.
Most nations seek to offload at every opportunity but that means everyone bar New Zealand are taking a serious risk. The All Blacks do it so effectively because they are such powerful units, it’s tough to put them down or stop them freeing their hands.
The New Zealand approach also works because there’s a diamond behind the ball carrier with three receivers available to catch the offload.
Watch it when they face Argentina this Sunday at Wembley. It looks like a low percentage play but it’s not.
That said, every time we play them we seek to turn their offloading strength into a weakness. It very nearly worked in November 2013. If the tackler makes an effective chop and the second shoots in to close the offload space, a real opportunity for turnover presents itself. If you miss that window it’s probably a try, certainly a clean line break. The key is to defend in threes, with a player on either side of the tackler to cover an inside or outside offload.
Denying the offload allows the supporting defender to get over the ball and at least slow down their possession.
Two years ago we filled the All Blacks offloading space all day (they eventually broke us out wide with their oldest skill set: catch and pass). Rob Kearney's try wasn't from an offload, rather quick hands by Aaron Cruden to where New Zealand had a three-on-two scenario but Dave Kearney read the pass and nailed Israel Dagg. The ball popped loose and Rob, as second defender, gobbled it up and was home free from 80 metres because the surrounding black jerseys had overrun the ball.
We believed in ourselves that day, which was more important than other people believing in us. It’s a performance, an experience that steeled Ireland for the road ahead. And for the coming weeks.
Power and pace
Still, New Zealand remain the best equipped team at this tournament. Why? They've a very intelligent tight five, dynamic backrow, their nine and ten (Aaron Smith and Dan Carter) are excellent decision-makers and they have power and pace in the back five. It's very hard to find a weakness but they are beatable. Ireland players know this now. You'd just prefer to be going after them in a final at Twickenham rather than a quarter-final in Cardiff.
Ireland won’t be playing 50-50 risk-reward percentages. Ireland are back-to-back Six Nations champions because they only played that game when Murrayfield demanded it. Even then we created most tries with rapid clean-outs and heads-up rugby.
Joe’s playbook is not rocket science. A lot of what was done in the warm-up matches was to re-establish basic patterns. Get them nailed on so they become second nature so when a play is called everyone automatically knows what to do. That’s 60, 70 per cent of the playbook.
Such structures allow Joe to introduce new attacking elements at short notice. Jared is hugely important as a creative force. Even against England his excellent catch and passing ability was clear to see. He just does the right thing at the right time. There was one instant in the second half when he sent Robbie Henshaw up the left touchline. The execution of the pass under pressure was spot-on and it made Jonny May rush off his wing. It led to Paul O'Connell's try.
Don’t expect any miracle plays either but there will be some subtle variations.
You may remember O'Driscoll's try against Cardiff in the 2012 Heineken Cup quarter-final. Richardt Strauss to Leo [Cullen] off the top lineout ball for Eoin Reddan to Jamie [Heaslip] who carried to the gainline, with Seanie O'Brien as a decoy on his shoulder, only to stall and pass to Johnny [Sexton] coming at a diagonal angle. Johnny flipped the ball inside to Luke Fitzgerald coming off his wing who broke the line before feeding Brian. Try under the posts and not a finger laid on a Leinster player.
We had been using a variation of that move all season so it was the ultimate double bluff. Johnny usually passed to Brian with Luke holding the inside defenders or Jamie popped up to Seanie.
Expect more of that. The French will analyse our bread-and-butter moves so Joe and Johnny will try to use that against them.
The expectation of the coaches is that players can learn each new move within a week. That has to be the case as there are no second chances at a World Cup.
Everyone knows something different is needed to beat France. We might see traces of it against Canada or Romania and then Johnny could do the opposite to catch the French defence cold.
It’s all in Joe’s head and will be transported to the training ground in due course. They might only run a new move 10 times under pressure but it has to be at least 80 per cent successful. By then the players will be self-policing and the ire of your peers is always worse than that of the coaches. Nobody wants to make the post-training highlights reel. And there’s one every evening.
Joe has said it a few times: we are not a big enough team to be successful without a collective performance. We are going against the grain again by not embracing an offloading game but when Joe puts down a play the players know it will create a line break if executed correctly. We will get three maybe four opportunities in major games.
Then it’s about accuracy. The way the game has gone, creating penalties is key to any victory.
Crucially, Johnny instinctively understands why Joe does things. There are not many players like him. He just has an aptitude for rugby, like other people have for machines or mathematics. Some people get things, some don’t. They both see rugby through simple, clear eyes.
So offloading is not the be all and end all. It’s also a confidence thing. When a team has all the momentum, the players sense the opportunity to let go.
Again, I go back to that agonising defeat to New Zealand. Ireland have rarely been as good as that day. For the third try Cian Healy offloaded to Rory Best and two phases later Seanie to Conor Murray who went head down for the line, correctly not offloading, but two phases later Rory ducked and battered over the line.
So we can do it. If we need to. To reach the World Cup final, we’ll probably need to.