Paul O’Connell steels Irish for pilfering down the human tunnel
Assistant coach’s lineout expertise was evident from early on
Ireland winning one of their nine lineouts against Wales at Principality Stadium, Cardiff on Sunday. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire
Part of the pre-game preamble in interviews were devoted to the impact that Ireland’s new assistant coach Paul O’Connell would have on Ireland’s lineout, the maul and the breakdown. Johnny Sexton laughed that his former team-mate had mellowed but he was sure that the sulphur would surface if the occasion necessitated.
In the Autumn Nations Cup, leaving aside the game against Georgia, the Irish lineout had recorded a 78 per cent success rate against Wales in the first match, 76 per cent against England at Twickenham and 92 per cent when the Scots came to the Aviva Stadium in the final match.
Yesterday in the Principality Stadium, Ireland won seven of nine lineouts (78 per cent) on their throw but pilfered four, or over a quarter of the Welsh total throw-ins (15) and this against a backdrop of losing one of their primary lineout technicians, flanker Peter O’Mahony, to a red card on 14 minutes.
That deprived Ireland of a key operator, both as an option on the Irish throw and someone who would have been a huge nuisance to Welsh hooker Ken Owens when he was staring down the human tunnel.
O’Connell was noted for his expertise, his attention to detail when it came to running a lineout as a player; those looking for that same tactical acumen on the first day of coaching’s big school didn’t have long to wait. In the opening lineout of the match on the Welsh throw, James Ryan beat Justin Tipuric in the middle and that set an early tone to a point where Wales looked distinctly uncomfortable every time the ball went into touch.
To that end the home side’s preference to keep the ball on the pitch was both obvious and understandable especially when Ryan helped himself to another Welsh throw soon after. Sandwiched in between, the secondrow secured Rob Herring’s first missile as Ireland took the ball down and mauled.
Ryan’s departure on 24 minutes after failing a head injury assessment represented a considerable setback, threatening to destabilise the Irish lineout. It was certainly a litmus test for the new structures and calls because it’s doubtful whether any time on the training ground would have been devoted to running a lineout without Ryan and O’Mahony.
Even without the pair, Ireland continued to harass the Welsh throw with some success. Iain Henderson did a remarkable job to both last the pace physically and contribute handsomely on his return from injury, while CJ Stander took to the skies in replicating the O’Mahony role.
Owens was forced to throw to the front for the most part in the opening 30 minutes of the first half and when he strayed to the middle again, Stander picked off possession. The Welsh did manage to avenge that one soon after but the discomfort out of touch was reflected in having to employ trick plays, a quick throw to the front.
Half-time provided O’Connell with an opportunity to recalibrate and reorganise but he had to do so within the framework of the same personnel until Will Connors replaced Josh van der Flier.
Between them Herring, Tadhg Beirne, who was calling the lineouts, Henderson and Stander managed to preserve a resolute platform despite the fact that Wales decided to contest virtually every Irish throw. Some of the lineouts that Ireland won required a second touch to claim possession, while for the other one that the visitors coughed up came from a loose tap back that was snaffled by Welsh scrumhalf Tomos Williams.
At one point midway through the second half, Ireland contested and disrupted to some degree, spoiling slightly if not winning possession, and in doing so forced Wales to live off “two ball”, at the front. Ronan Kelleher nailed his throws when he arrived to replace Herring, the Ulster hooker having done a fine job under difficult circumstances.
The context in the way in which the game unfolded will inform O’Connell’s review; four steals is a lucrative enough return albeit acknowledging that the Welsh lineout has been ragged in recent times. Ireland mauled well and four steals at the breakdown is another facet of the game that will please the new assistant coach.
O’Connell won’t be satisfied because of the imperfections, rough edges to be smoothed and quickly, but overall there were far more positives to outweigh minor glitches. France will be an altogether tougher prospect but that’s a challenge he’ll relish and so he’ll ensure so too will the players come next Sunday afternoon.