Liam Toland: Developing problem-solvers pays dividends for Irish rugby
Impressive Ryan’s rugby intelligence proved a key factor in the victory over Saracens
Leinster's James Ryan is tackled by Maro Itoje and Jamie George of Saracens. Photograph: Inpho
Continuing the theme of recent weeks, regarding professional structures being introduced too early in youth and schools development, I was struck by two actions last weekend in the Leinster v Saracens Champions Cup game.
On 57:14 James Ryan spotted the blindside and headed there rapidly. Not happy just to get the ball from his scrumhalf Luke McGrath, he first wanted to get into the best position for receiving. For many that is far from the gainline but, although making receiving easier, it is of precious little value to the subsequent carry.
McGrath’s previous three breakdowns were quick and crisp warranting a lung-bursting sprint from Ryan to not just get into a receiving position, but sufficiently around the corner to the optimum position to execute a gainline carry. So Ryan, true to form, read the scenario and hunted into the best position to add value.
Ryan however doesn’t stop there as he rarely runs “athletically” into traffic. He’s big, but not that big. So he uses the deftest of nuances, slight shift of his hips or subtle transfer of the ball into two hands full of suggestion. Maybe a slight shift of the eyes, just enough to get a second defender thinking. Maybe even a slight drop of the shoulders to imply a big, brutish ball carry was on the way and that second defender would have to prepare by planting his feet.
But brutish is not Ryan, because this time, like so many other times, he sold a play before targeting the sweet spot between defenders; inside Marcelo Bosch and ever so slightly outside Richard Wigglesworth. In this sweet spot Ryan robbed way more than his fair share of yardage like he did off the stolen lineout against Scotland.
Wigglesworth eventually brought him down but the damage was done and Jordi Murphy was live to the quality platform Ryan created. The next receiver, be it outhalf or Murphy, needed to understand pace and recycle.
When slow the options are to sit deeper, possibly kick or select a restarter play. But Ryan presented so well and quickly that the best option was to hit the ball as flat as possible on the gainline; beating any recycling defenders. Murphy knows this and hit perfectly at pace from McGrath’s flat pass (he too knows and passed accordingly).
Murphy had travelled five metres across the gainline untouched and had, well, the two best men available; Johnny Sexton on his inside and Garry Ringrose on his outside; all three travelling. For Murphy the task was selecting the best option, where a few phases later James Lowe was to score through the heaviest of traffic. Ryan carried a second time in that flow. All of which came from a missed Saracens touch; Leinster knowledge.
The contrast; two minutes later. On 59:54 Saracens had an attacking scrum. It bobbled out uncontrolled and sub scrumhalf Ben Spencer reacted well going with the flow. Spencer found Owen Farrell racing down the left putting his sub centre Alex Lozowski into space. From the resultant speedy recycle, Spencer stepped open and hit an absolutely flying Maro Itoje applying the same principles Jordi Murphy employed above, but with a significant difference.
Yes Itoje took it flat and took it flying, carrying at a million miles an hour and maybe this is where the sides differ. Because unlike Ryan, Itoje carried into three blue shirts; Jordi Murphy taking the hit, ably supported by Sexton on his inside and Ryan on his outside. For all Itoje’s power and athleticism the three ‘smaller’ boys tied him up in a maul; turnover scrum and massive boost for Leinster.
My point is based on the subtlety of thought, understanding and ultimately problem-solving. English teams have for generations solved their problems on the pitch by brute force allied to a speedy recycle and athletic backs. When this all works they are a match for anyone, especially if they have a group of leaders as in the 2003 World Cup.
But when it doesn’t work, what then? Itoje, a quality player, a Lion, knows his way and solves problems presented through athleticism. His line, his run and his carry were textbook but he either didn’t notice or chose not to notice that Leinster were well-stacked in the exact place he chose to run. In certain jurisdictions that may work, but in the Aviva Stadium it didn’t.
As Itoje went through a preordained power play process, where was the space?
Ryan approaches problems in an entirely different way. He looks like a player who soaks up all the information and converts it into rugby intelligence. He does this very quickly and hence can steal a march on possibly more ‘athletic’ players. Remember Itoje is only two years older than Ryan, who is an inch taller but half a stone lighter. One chooses power, the other panache.
Saracens do many things brilliantly but real-time problem-solving, less so. Is this a result of England’s youth system? Ireland, Leinster and Munster are currently adept at solving problems on the pitch; ask Andrew Conway.
Conversely, take Saracens’ gilt-edged opportunity on half-time to covert wonderful play into points from a lineout penalty. Did Saracens actually realise that on all their previous lineouts Devin Toner blocked the tail with Ryan blocking the middle? So why throw it into Ryan’s space? Scott Fardy and Cian Healy were brilliant in their lift but how smart was the call?
My point? – we in Ireland must continue to encourage the development of problem-solvers long before they become powerful professionals.
PS. A massive shout out to all the boys and the girl, Bronagh, of the Wexford Wanderers U11s who are travelling to Garryowen’s festival of rugby tomorrow in honour of the late Neville Furlong; the Wexford youth who played for Garryowen and Ireland.