In Cardiff's Millennium Stadium I watched Argentina tear Ireland's RWC 2015 dream apart. For most, the loss of celebrated and world-class players to horrible injuries was the cause of the defeat. Players like Paul O'Connell and Johnny Sexton; well, no team, not even the All Blacks, could cope with this arrangement. Although those injuries had a major influence, so too had the Irish playing system, which simply couldn't cope with Argentina.
The first part, key injuries, has been addressed through a deeper, battle-hardened squad, but what of the system?
Somehow, in the 2015 game, Los Pumas had massive numerical overlaps combined with the most precious of commodities: space. That day and several times in last season's Six Nations our defence was frequently caught wide. This season we witnessed the extraordinarily cerebral unlocking of Ireland's other key systems. Yes, England brought bulk a-plenty, but far too little has been made of their brains. Ireland's centre of gravity was attacked by the English, and the source of Irish rugby power, which provides emotional and physical strength and, crucially, freedom of action, was neutered.
Italy will not successfully attack our centre of gravity.
It doesn't matter what your game plan is, as long as it dominates the opposition
I read a headline this week that said "Henderson cleared but Parisse blow for Italy", which got me thinking about Sergio Parisse and that potential blow. He's been a top-class, world-class number eight for many, many years, and the first time this article mentioned him in a negative light was in relation to March 2014.
Not nitpicking, but in acknowledging his phenomenal going-forward ball skills it was equally important to nod to his going-back skills. And for most of his extraordinary Test career he has been going backwards as most opposition pile forward, where he is far from effective. Long gone are the days where number eights lock horns in one of those classic battles. Why? Because the individual is no longer as important as the team. Simon Zebo might argue that his individual skills were surplus to the Joe Schmidt requirements, hence his move. The entire functioning team is uppermost, which may be a window into Parisse, but more importantly into Sexton.
No longer crucial
Parisse’s presence is hugely important to Italy and in that sense his loss is substantial. But his functioning within that team is no longer crucial. He would not be a starter on a Joe Schmidt team, because Schmidt’s teams don’t require flamboyant, creative-styled players. He requires functionaries in a system that subdues the opposition.
It doesn’t matter what your game plan is, as long as it dominates the opposition. Ireland’s game plan has done so more often than not, but oppositions are learning fast how to unlock and block it where we are currently not dominating. Take our defence off first phase lineouts. It was no coincidence that Owen Farrell’s first instinct off a sloppy English lineout was to “fong” the ball over the lineout into empty green grass: an acknowledgement of Ireland’s defensive play off lineouts. That’s a systematic approach to Ireland’s style. Ditto Courtney Lawes smashing Garry Ringrose, earning a penalty. Ditto the escorting of Ireland’s box-kick strategy by flooding the space, preventing the contest.
Taking the box kick as an example – Conor Murray's are consistently the best in the world, yet England nullified them. In other words, Ireland are leading exponents of this skill so can't improve it, yet England negated it; so what are the options? Abandon this skill? No, because it remains a live option, but instead develop other choices. More anon.
Another option required from the team relates to Sexton’s gain-line play. Much of Ireland’s systematic play requires brilliant execution of the diamond formation, where the ball receiver, typically Tadhg Furlong, has the option to sell a carry, simply carry into the opposition, or execute a late pullback to a floating back, typically Sexton, who then has options. These options are only useful if all, including Sexton, are selling the carry. This creates defensive indecision.
In these moments of indecision Sexton is the best in the world at maximising the unfolding defensive mayhem, where he will continue to carry as the best Irish receiver is selected. When it works not even the All Blacks can cope; when it doesn’t, due to poor timing, the ball becomes sloppy. Either way, Sexton gets smashed, because his team’s functionality requires it.
Does this all mean a total reboot of systems? Not at all, but it does require a risk-heavy broadening of the system. It also requires certain players to be available for selection to aid in this: Seán O’Brien, Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson, among others. Our RWC opposition will plan to attack our centre of gravity, so what new centre can we create to aid when our freedom of action is blocked? Sunday’s game is almost irrelevant but for combinations and the motivational mental victory. Systematic style is though – what’s new?
Finally, I had the pleasure of two hours in Co Kerry this Tuesday for a session with Killarney RFC. While all are living it up in Rome this Sunday, 49-year-old Peter Kelly will be leading out his team against Killorglin in Musgrave Park for the final of the Martin O’Sullivan Cup. A wonderful rugby story is alive and well in Killarney, who are bridging the gap between the youth and senior set-up – with the 49-year-old Peter, that is some gap!