Ireland’s low penalty count will worry Six Nations coaches

Joe Schmidt will be very pleased at discipline showed by players in autumn Tests

Ireland's discipline in the two Tests against New Zealand and one against Australia was remarkable by any yardstick. They conceded just 11 penalties over the course of those three matches and 240 minutes of rugby against the number one and three sides in the world.

In contrast Joe Schmidt’s side forced New Zealand to cough up 12 penalties in Chicago, 14 in the second match at the Aviva Stadium a fortnight later and then squeezed 13 straight-arm transgressions from the Wallabies last Saturday at the same venue. That’s a 39-11 total in the profit-and-loss account, a lucrative dividend .

The unadulterated figures are impressive but when delving beneath the veneer, they are even more striking in some respects. In the aforementioned matches Ireland gave away just two penalties that cost them points. New Zealand outhalf Beauden Barrett kicked one after 20 minutes of the game in Chicago, while his Australian counterpart Bernard Foley landed a similar strike 60 minutes into the game last Saturday. That's a paltry six points.

Without dealing in conjecture, specifically in regards to the complaints of New Zealand coach Steve Hansen and Australia's Michael Cheika that Ireland should have been penalised more, Schmidt and his coaching team will have reviewed the penalties that Ireland conceded and noted that there were four in the opposing 22.


Jack McGrath was pinged for getting in front of Seán O’Brien (blocking), as they broke away from a lineout maul close to the New Zealand line in the game at the Aviva. The Irish loosehead was also penalised by Jérôme Garcès for not releasing in the same quadrant of the pitch, albeit he hadn’t much choice as the clearout wasn’t as vigorous as it might have been.


Jared Payne


Simon Zebo

were both penalised for the same offence. In an ideal, blemish-free world – which is where coaches and players look to operate – the review will look at the four offences in the green zone, to use rugby parlance, where Ireland had been building pressure and how they might have avoided releasing the safety valve.

This might be considered pernickety when you consider the nature of the sport and the number of potential interpretations a referee can make at any breakdown and also in the context of the overall figure.

The majority of the 11 transgressions were for not releasing after the tackle so the obvious focus is to examine if the player lost his support or whether the clearout wasn’t as accurate as it might have been.

What must also be factored into any discussion is the calibre of the players Ireland were up against. Kieran Read, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Michael Hooper and David Pocock, to highlight just five, are formidable operators in poaching terms at rucks, so to limit them to less than a handful of chances to steal successfully was a tremendous achievement.

Offside rulings

Rob Kearney

was penalised for a high tackle (softish), while Garry Ringrose and

Jonathan Sexton

were pulled up for offside rulings. What Ireland did relentlessly, at least to the satisfaction of the three referees in those matches,

Mathieu Raynal


Jaco Peyper

and Garcès, was to present a good picture in terms of their accuracy and discipline in contact: the breakdown, tackle, clearing out, setpiece and aerial game.

Ireland's rivals in the Six Nations Championship will examine the November Test series footage minutely but in general terms, Vern Cotter (Scotland), Eddie Jones (England), Rob Howley (Wales), Conor O'Shea (Italy) and Guy Novès must have been impressed. They will also have compiled a list of reference points for pre-match chats with the respective referees in the tournament.

Many things are aspirational in sport but over those three games in the November series Schmidt got perhaps as close to perfection infringement-wise as is practicable. The bar has been set ridiculously high.