Liam Toland: Ireland must get Stander and O’Brien into outside lanes
Joe Schmidt’s side must play smart to disrupt England’s impressive recycle speed
Jared Payne could prove a wonderful foil to Sexton by running rewind lines in a second playmaker role. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
With Conor Murray out, I wonder what impact Johnny Sexton’s injured season is having on the team. He is crucial, and clearly the best outhalf, but I’ve always wondered: when is the best player no longer the best player in terms of team performance?
Is it when he’s fatigued, injured, loses form or when the next man’s performance is unquestionably better?
But there’s another factor, the bits we don’t see. The many hours during a Six Nations camp when key generals make their presence felt. Through no fault of his own, that process has to have been impacted by Sexton’s injury. He is such a quality player that we know he can perform in difficult circumstances, but has that affected the overall systems and plays of the team and their confidence?
What is confidence? What is English confidence? Or better still, what is Ireland’s perception of England’s confidence? Jonathan Joseph won man-of-the-match against Scotland in Twickenham, but he’s not my main concern.
Maro Itoje wears No5 but he could be wearing a jersey bearing 5.5 or 6. He scrummages behind the tighthead and competes at the lineout; but what’s more, he’s an arguer, a breakdown specialist, a ball-carrier, a monster defender and a wide-channel roamer. He is off the charts in his uniqueness to play those positions all in the same match.
That said, belief in what has been achieved can be England’s Achilles’ heel, such as when secondrow Courtney Lawes rotates with Itoje in packing down at wing forward. Ireland need to be alert.
Scotland had a midfield scrum late in the second half on their 10-metre line. Remarkably, they went away from Lawes and made good ground but the Scottish leadership were totally unaware that a 6’7” secondrow was vulnerable, in unknown territory in the backrow defence. This must be exposed.
Challenge in the air
England will have huge confidence from scoring a totally unreal ratio of tries from nine lineouts against Scotland. Pity Peter O’Mahony isn’t starting. Ireland will challenge in the air but it’s better to limit English lineouts. So, stay out of touch, particularly in the midfield strike zone. Keep the ball in the tram tracks and trust the defence.
Our defence will not malfunction as Scotland’s did in Twickenham. Against Wales we struggled (lineout especially) but we were still 6-5 ahead. We did not succumb to Welsh pressure. For large tracts of the game Ireland without the ball managed to contain Wales and even outscore them: our defence works.
As always, England’s recycle speed is the key to their potency. Clean first-phase ball with no recycle needed makes life very difficult, as Scotland observed, but England will hit the deck and Ireland need to sparingly use the ‘fox’, as it’s too risky as a primary strategy; better a chop tackle and create a five-second (or more) recycle.
Iain Henderson has not yet regained his best form but Ireland need him and Donnacha Ryan to lead the tackle count and help ensure Sexton is tackling only backs. Kieran Marmion mimicking Murray’s ‘new’ defensive role will be fascinating.
So is our problem the ball? I’ve noted ad nauseum the Irish attacking template is exciting, wide and varied out the field, but narrows as we approach the try line.
Simple physics are at play as Ireland exit their 22 with confidence in the knowledge that the opposition have at least three players in the back field (number eight often resides there too), which makes it 15 players against 11.
Secondly, Ireland have proven their ability to maintain possession. In Chicago against the All Blacks, there was no panic in the Irish 22. The plays are not wild, hopeful, globetrotting passes. Moreover the Irish rucking system is phenomenal.
Now as we exit against England and create our line breaks further upfield, the very strength we have in our 22 – holding possession and clearing rucks – becomes a weakness (as we lose outside backs). So subtle changes could impact England’s defence.
Jared Payne could prove a wonderful foil to Sexton by running rewind lines in a second playmaker role.
How about Seán O’Brien and CJ Stander running, not at narrow targets into a wall of white shirts, but wider out where they’ll have no choice but to take the ball at full pace? It has added value because George Ford can only do so much hiding off first-phase play, so as the phases mount up it would be great to get them running off backs in midfield with Ford’s outside shoulder the target, forcing Owen Farrell et al into defensive decisions (and mistakes).
This is why a pure openside married with ball-carriers would make O’Brien and CJ Stander much more dangerous; there’s no reason these two couldn’t play the last 20 minutes in the 7 and 8 slots when O’Mahony arrives at 6.
The Irish lineout has struggled when under immense pressure but the scrum has been underutilised as a bullying tool and should be employed to slow the English tempo, expose Lawes, create Payne rewinds, gain penalties, all to ultimately stunt England’s confidence. Where Joseph is box office, Itoje is raw value, but stop Billy Vunipola, stop England.
‘Comhghairdeas’ Andrew Conway – I’m delighted.
Finally: See you in the RDS at 6pm tonight in memory of the special one. #PlayingForAxel