Staying grounded key to Irish success in more ways than one
This is a low-risk efficient Irish team based on fantastic kicking and excellent rucking
Paul O’Connell led the championship in being one of the first three arrivals to an attacking ruck 144 times; his partner Devin Toner was just behind with 140. Photograph: Billy Stickland
Twice every week the yellow pages of Midi Olympique appear on French newsagents’ shelves. A journal dedicated solely to rugby, it last week dedicated a full page to a specific piece of technique to improve breakdown speed. Midol journalist Nicolas Zanardi used Joe Schmidt’s Ireland as an example, a team that makes up for its offloading “deficiency” by its mastery of “le jeu au sol”. The ground game.
But first, to defence. Championship-winning defence. In a Six Nations tournament that will rightly be remembered for the try-scoring fireworks of the final day (27 tries in all) Ireland won that title through its protection of the tryline, most memorably characterised by Jamie Heaslip’s remarkable tackle on Stuart Hogg. Fifty-six points conceded, 37 fewer than Wales and 44 fewer than England. That’s the largest difference between the best and second-best defence since the Six Nations began in 2000.
It’s no five-game fluke. Ireland conceded seven points fewer in 2014. Over a two-championship stretch only the World Cup-winning English team of 2002 and 2003 conceded fewer points than in Joe Schmidt’s first ten Six Nations games. Only the Welsh side of 2012 and 2013 (World Cup semi-finalists in 2011) conceded fewer tries.
England scored 18 tries but conceding eight tries to the fourth- and fifth-placed Six Nations teams does not a champion make. 2015 marks the sixth successive championship won by the team with the sternest (or equal sternest) defence.
It might seem odd that green jerseys are in scarce supply on Accenture’s official stats leaderboards. Yes, Rob Kearney is vaguely near the top in carries and metres made, stats usually amply padded by full backs given the amount of ball they take from kicks in open space. And Robbie Henshaw’s 16 defenders beaten is joint second. Line breaks? Not an Irishman to be seen. The only stats led by Irishmen would seem to be bad ones: penalties conceded (Jack McGrath) and tackles missed (Robbie Henshaw).
Oh, and Conor Murray’s 476 passes. It’s that passing figure that finally gets us moving in the right direction. It tells us little more than Murray played a lot and passed a lot. But where do those passes come from?
Ireland had the most attacking rucks by a big margin. Not just because of that match in Cardiff; only Ireland’s home match against France ranked outside the top five ruck totals in the championship. According to Opta, Schmidt’s side were best at retaining ruck ball while figures supplied by Prozone show Ireland were also quickest at recycling it. That’s a powerful combination.
At an average of 2.9 seconds per ruck that recycling speed was just under the important three second mark generally accepted in the game as signifying “quick ball”. Per Prozone, Ireland also enjoyed the highest ratio of activity per ruck arrival; a useful measure of picking out ruck inspectors. And Ireland had the fewest offloads, of course. Joe doesn’t do offloads.
Top fiveLe jeu au sol
What were they doing at those rucks? Toner set the pace with 84 ruck cleanouts, well ahead of Yohann Maestri’s 72. In the backs Ireland filled the top four cleanout totals: Jared Payne (42), Simon Zebo (41), Henshaw (35) and Tommy Bowe (32).
This is a low-risk, efficient Irish team. A fantastic kicking game to gain territory supported by a well-executed rucking game to hold ground they have.
Some more tries wouldn’t go amiss, and the knowledge that Jonathan Sexton has kicked just two drop goals in his entire 51-cap Ireland career can grate.
But Ireland have just brought home two championships in two seasons and equalled their all-time winning streak while doing so. These are grand and exciting times. Ahead of this autumn’s World Cup Joe Schmidt’s jeu au sol is doing very nicely indeed.