On October 6th last year I nominated Ross Byrne for man of the match; this was at odds with my instinct which screamed by far the best player on the pitch and most important element to Leinster’s win was James Lowe. He was superb; the tries he scored, well I’m not sure anyone else in the stadium could have done it. However, my selection was not based on the obvious, which was Lowe, but the tactically important; Lowe’s provider.
A few months prior Byrne was third-choice outhalf at Leinster behind Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery, not yet in Munster. The match I refer to was arguably the biggest of his career, at home, in front of a full Aviva Stadium against Munster and although nothing he did that day could remotely compare to Lowe’s impact he did more than accommodate Lowe and his team-mates; Ireland require his functionality tomorrow. But for some reason Byrne is not in Ireland’s sporting consciousness a la Sexton or swashbuckler Carbery. Byrne, against Munster, could’ve crumbled under the immense pressure that famed number 10 jersey places upon imposters. Clearly, he chose to impose himself on Leo Cullen’s game plan and did so with reasonable comfort.
It’s a monster match for him against England and considering the physical onslaught that’ll arrive it’s one that’ll require less swashbuckle and more functionality and a kicking game far cleverer than the wonderful ruse of Carbery’s exit strategy against Italy.
I’ve watched England these past weekends and one thing really worries me. Not the power, that’s always been there, nor the set piece but the role their fullback Elliot Daly plays with his pivots on the wing. Especially against Wales at Twickenham, Daly’s ambition was to utilise the back trio as an attacking pendulum off opposition kicks. Each time he fielded, glided into space with his monster wingers running hard off him. Loose kicks to these three will be punished by England’s growing subtle counterattack; hence Byrne’s selection?
How will Byrne unlock the aggressive dominant English defence? Last week, Wales elected to keep width on the pitch leaving fatties on the tram tracks exposing them to skilled plays not accustomed to Irish playbook. Ireland’s famed rucking game will suffer hugely against England’s Sam Underhill and Tom Curry so Ireland are unlikely to place forwards in no man’s land. In fact, Underhill and Curry could change everything. But what of Jack Conan and his creativity; in storage? Or is tomorrow a battering ram exercise with South Africa in mind?
The least relevant fixture thus far has been Ireland’s home win over Italy but there were big performers that day. Rhys Ruddock offered on countless times to carry into the trenches while his little pull back for a try was equally impressive. With one eye on South Africa he is a brute the Irish backrow will need at six or seven. Carbery was the biggest performer but Jean Kleyn as the tighthead secondrow scrummager is huge again tomorrow.
Against Italy he packed down behind tighthead John Ryan. When blood took him off, Ian Henderson slipped across and the scrum was under huge pressure. He returned so too did stability. But, tomorrow’s a much bigger challenge as he’ll be packing down behind Tadhg Furlong for the first time. Yes, they’ll have clocked up scrums in training but tomorrow the vastly improving English scrum (and bench) will want to put Furlong into difficult places. This will force Furlong to adjust on the hoof. Here is what makes scrummaging so fascinating. As Furlong tangles with Jamie George and Joe Marler (and Mako Vunipola) ebbing and flowing into pressure places and advantageous angles Kleyn will have to adjust also on the hoof. In these moments there’s no communication. Kleyn will simply need to unconsciously adjust to Furlong’s needs. Does he add angle or weight or does he ease weight etc? This relationship takes time, takes multiple scrums against quality opposition such as that faced tomorrow; not against Italy.
Regardless of the score, indeed the outcome of the match, the scrum relationship between Furlong and Kleyn is of huge importance for our quarter-final chances. Furlong typically spends too long on the pitch with an earlier entry for Andrew Porter tomorrow preferable to ease Furlong’s pitch time and test Porter against Vunipola.
Regardless of tactics the World Cup quarter-final will come down to closing scrums with both benches emptied
I’ll remind you of an English scrum on 65 minutes in Ireland’s loss during the Six Nations. There were only eight scrums that day, all important, but this one more so as despite all of England’s power and performance the score stood at 13 points to England’s 17. A four-point game with a generous 15 minutes to go. Long-limbed Courtney Lawes was in the secondrow tighthead slot alongside Nathan Hughes, the sub number eight, behind the exhausted Vunipola. Ireland with both fresh props on had an opportunity to disrupt, even destroy the English put in but alas didn’t/couldn’t and England went down the blindside through Ben Youngs, Henry Slade and Jonny May and scored in the corner. It was now a nine-point game and all England had required was their vulnerable scrum to function, two passes and a kick. Outside kickable penalties at scrum time, scrums can also disrupt/negate backline threats.
There’s been much talk of World Cup tactics this week and the variables on display in both hemispheres but regardless of tactics the quarter-final will come down to closing scrums with both benches emptied; that’s the test we must pass, and tomorrow will be telling.