Ireland’s work-ons: Four things Andy Farrell needs to address
Gerry Thornley looks at four key areas in need of improvement ahead of the Six Nations
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell speaks to his players at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Ireland’s James Ryan and England’s Maro Itoje contest a lineout during the Autumn Nations Cup match at Twickenham. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images
French referee Pascal Gaüzère awards a penalty at the scrum during the Autumn Nations Cup at Twickenham. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images
Billy Burns kicks the ball during the Autumn Nations Cup game against England at Twickenham. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Conor Murray gets ready to pass from a ruck as Andrew Porter and Rob Herring protect the ball. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Lineout and maul
Once an almost guaranteed source of possession and launch plays, and even – if not directly – of tries, Ireland’s lineout and catch-and-drive are not where they used to be, which in turn has meant less reward when turning down three-pointers by opting for an attacking lineout.
Backed into the corner by their 18-0 deficit, Ireland kicked to the corner or went up the line on six occasions in the final quarter at Twickenham. Only once did it yield a try, and that was after 11 phases.
The bigger damage had been done in the first half, when Ireland went up the line and to the corner from 40 and 20 metres out. The first was widely placed in the category of overthrow, leading to a try at the other end, and the second was pilfered by Maro Itoje. Two other Irish throws were also lost and others were not effected as ordained.
Nor was this a one-off, for the timing between throwers, lifters and catchers also malfunctioned in the Stade de France, as did one close-range maul set-up which the French drove backwards and sideways.
“He’s going to be a big player for us and that’s just a snapshot. It might look like an overthrow to everybody else but unless you’re in here you’ll know that that throw is actually perfect and that we’ve got the movement slightly wrong. It’s about two feet further up the line than it should be.
“That’s just an example of it being a unit skill, a collective thing, as opposed to any one person because he [Kelleher] is another guy I thought played really well and really fronted up and it’s definitely certainly not on him. It’s on all of us to get the lineout right and to get the set-piece right.”
Ryan also has no major regrets over the 26th-minute penalty to the corner at 12-0 down, revealing: “I spoke to Ross [Byrne] before the game and said, ‘look, if you want to take the points, have a go when we get a penalty, let me know’. I looked at him and he said ‘let’s go for the corner’. If that’s how he feels then we’ve got to have enough belief in and confidence in us as a pack to have a crack. It’s not something I massively regret. If we feel that’s the option then we go with it.”
There’s no doubting the culture being harnessed by Andy Farrell, as evidenced by the team’s effort and togetherness in difficult circumstances, but invariably when the little details at ruck or lineout time go awry, it is compared to the exacting environment under Joe Schmidt.
“I don’t think things have slipped,” said Ryan. “It’s kind of a combination of things – whether we need to simplify the [lineout] menu at times or whether we need a bit more variety – but certainly in terms of the detail – that was spot on all week and it’s not something that we would say is wrong.”
Scrummaging in Ireland has never really been the badge of honour traditionally associated with, say, France, Argentina or even Georgia for that matter. There’s certainly never been a bottomless well of props.
The Irish scrum survived for much of the last two decades thanks to the longevity and durability, even indestructibility, of three tightheads, namely John Hayes, Mike Ross and Tadhg Furlong. As The Bull’s career neared an end, Ross had relocated from Munster via Harlequins to establish his scrum expertise at Leinster. Six years on and Furlong had been fast-tracked by Greg Feek and Joe Schmidt into the Irish set-up to emerge in the nick of time to succeed Ross, the baton being passed on from one to the other.
For 20 years the trio hardly missed a game, so much so that from Hayes’s debut against Scotland in 2000 to his final game against the same opponents a decade later, he started 54 Six Nations games in a row. Then Ross started 28 of Ireland’s next 30 Six Nations games from 2011 to 2016 before Furlong took over, wearing the No 3 jersey in 17 out of 18 Six Nations games.
In other words, from 2000 to 2020 and the post-lockdown games against Italy and France, Hayes, Ross and Furlong started 99 out of Ireland’s 102 Six Nations games.
In the two games Ross missed, Ireland drew 16-all at home to Wales and lost 10-9 away to France at the start of the 2016 Six Nations. The two costly tries which were conceded both came off opposition scrum pressure close to the Irish line. On another occasion when Ross suffered a calf injury in the early stages of the concluding 2012 Six Nations at Twickenham, to be replaced by loosehead Tom Court in the days when only one prop was permitted on the bench, Ireland lost 30-9, and 27 of those points conceded emanated from the English pack marmalising Ireland’s scrum.
Feek did a notably good job in his time as first Leinster scrum coach and then Irish scrum coach cum overall IRFU scrum doctor. By the time he moved on to the All Blacks job after the World Cup, Leinster and Ireland could field both a strong starting frontrow and back-up frontrow, which was unprecedented.
Spooked by the memory of what the Saracens pack did to Leinster at scrum time, and struck by the strong scummaging performance against Wales, when Porter destroyed the 22-year-old Rhys Carre, Farrell, John Fogarty and co opted to have Quinn Roux again pack down behind Porter.
But the pivotal moment of the first half last Saturday was when England’s pack, though arguably scrummaging at an angle, piled the pressure on Ireland’s tighthead side for a penalty inside halfway, eventually leading to their opening try. On an ensuing, backpedalling Irish put-in, Caelan Doris had to perform a loaves-and-fishes job at the base.
Actually, when Iain Henderson replaced Roux and Ryan shifted to the tighthead side, the Irish scrum seemed to improve and was never in such severe bother again.
In the medium to longer-term, the Irish management have been considering reconverting, as it were, Porter back to loosehead, where he cut his teeth as a stand-out under-20 international. But that would still leave the tighthead cupboard a little bare until Tom O’Toole emerges, unless the management opt for a specialist scrummager such as John Ryan or Marty Moore.
Most of all then need Furlong back, and Kilcoyne too.
Ireland’s kicking game
Prior to facing Ireland, England kicked a high percentage of possession against Italy and Georgia. Needing to achieve a handsome bonus-point win in Rome so as to set Ireland and France more difficult targets subsequently at the Stade de France, England repeatedly kicked in behind the Italians.
The perceived wisdom in how to run up big scores against weaker opponents is to retain possession, take them through phases, run them ragged and tire them out. England did no such thing. They kicked the ball out of hand 44 times, equivalent to 18.5 per cent of their possession, as opposed to 31 times by Italy. Very often they did so soon after securing possession through their lineout and scrum, and on the front foot, rather than go through phases.
Many were puzzled by what seemed a tactically restrictive approach but, eventually, they scored five tries and set a sufficient target to regain the Six Nations title.
Similarly against Georgia, admittedly on a rain-sodden day in London, England kicked out of hand on 34 occasions (or 32 per cent of the time). Five of their six tries originated in five different backs kicking in behind the Georgian defence to force attacking set-pieces.
Just like World Cup winners South Africa, who beat England in last year’s final, Jones is building a team based on the foundation stones of a strong set-piece, front-foot kicking game and front-foot defence.
“Most games of rugby are won by the teams who kick the most,” said Jones after the win over Georgia. “Now that’s the reality of the stats. It’s like in cricket, if you score the most runs, you win the game. In rugby, you kick more than the opposition and you win. And you kick better than the opposition and you win by more. So I thought our kicking today was excellent.”
More likely, as he intimated this week, England are keeping their powder dry. But even against beaten opponents, they used the two games to perfect their game before Ireland came to Twickenham.
Meanwhile, Ireland had scored seven tries in beating Italy more convincingly, but kicked 26 times out of hand, which was 9 per cent of their overall possession. Similarly, in the Stade de France, Ireland had 24 kicks from hand, or 8 per cent (whereas the comparative French figures were 35 or 17 per cent). In beating Wales, Ireland had 25 kicks out of hand, equal to 10 per cent (the Welsh kicked 27 times, or 14 per cent) as they against placed a much higher emphasis on their passing, running and recycling game.
When the teams met at Twickenham last Saturday, it did seem that, initially at any rate, the Irish halfbacks Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne were quicker to look for grass with kicks from hand, but as the game progressed, and under scoreboard pressure, became less inclined to take that option.
Instead, clearly playing to a pre-ordained strategy, the emphasis was on forward carriers trying to come onto the ball flatter or Byrne taking the ball deeper than he usually does and shipping often static ball on to his midfielders. Regularly, space in behind was not explored.
While Ireland covered the backfield and actually dealt well with England’s kicking game out of hand, tellingly one of the two occasions they came close to scoring a try was when Byrne grubbered in behind for Chris Farrell before Jacob Stockdale latched on to Billy Burns chip on the full to score.
Of course England generally kick on their terms, ie on the front foot, but in addition to playing flatter and winning the collisions, there may be a lesson in there.
If Ireland’s kicking game evolves it will also ease the workload on all that carrying and recycling. Garry Ringrose was missed as well as Johnny Sexton, and it would help if Ireland had a second playmaker and more kicking options in their backline, but that’s another day’s work.
As Stephen Ferris reminded us on RTÉ’s coverage, the breakdown is king. “Paul O’Connell used to say it every single time before walking out of the changing room, ‘you win the breakdown and generally you win the match’. Today England suffocated them.”
This, of course, is inextricably linked with the speed at which the previous ruck was recycled and/or the timing and position of the carrier onto the ball. For, as Eddie O’Sullivan also noted in following up Ferris’s point, it’s fairly difficult to recycle quick ruck ball if a team is consistently being tackled behind the gainline.
Time was under you-know-who when Ireland’s breakdown work, founded on a famed attention to detail, was what set them consistently apart. The flip side of not having an offloading game was that the carrier usually had the ball safely tucked under his arm and had his head down as he went into contact, and the first two in, the barrels, also knew their job in effecting a ruthlessly efficient clearout, unencumbered as they were by the possibility of an offload.
Significant alterations to the laws at the breakdown in favour of poachers have made it more difficult to recycle over multiple phases and Ireland won’t come up against many opponents with two flankers as proficient in the jackal as Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, nor such a ubiquitous nuisance as Itoje.
What’s more, as Owen Doyle pointed out in these pages, Pascal Gaüzère persistently allowed English players to slow down Irish possession at the breakdown.
“It’s something we’re putting an emphasis on, especially around the ruck – an area that’s been traditionally a very strong aspect of our game,” admitted Ryan.
While strong against Wales he conceded: “It probably wasn’t where it needed to be against England. So when we looked at that one thing is being urgent, getting there early and seeing threats. Another thing is dropping our height in the carry at times, especially when we get close to their line. It makes the barrels’ job much easier,”
However there have still been too many instances in the games against France, and even Wales, as well as England, of the barrels not removing opponents over the ball, even though they arrived in time to do so.
Starting on Sunday, Ireland need to start improving these areas, and have them nigh on perfect come England’s visit in round five of the 2021 Six Nations next March.