Liam Toland: Irish lag in counter-attack play

If we want to compete with All Blacks we need to practise attacking off turnover ball

John Hayes and Paul O’Connell were formidable attacking the opposition’s lineout ball, which created counter-attacking opportunities.  Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

John Hayes and Paul O’Connell were formidable attacking the opposition’s lineout ball, which created counter-attacking opportunities. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

There’s no doubt in my mind that up and down the country blindside flankers in schools and underage clubs are growling with a mad head at everything and everyone whilst practicing their lineout steals! But I urge them – there are equally important areas to practise. If we, and England for that matter, are to consistently test New Zealand then we need to improve outcomes from those tiny windows of opportunities that open for split seconds from turnovers, loose opposition kicks, line breaks etc.

Was Ireland’s Six Nations Championship a success? Yes, as our attack (points scored) was second only to England but our defence was the meanest – top of the table – which is a phenomenal success for defence coach Andy Farrell and almost as importantly, video analyst Mervyn Murphy.

But with three super wins and two most frustrating losses the issue for me will never be trophies but value to the ball. Did we gain sufficient value on the ball (one more try against Scotland would have won us the championship)? This is worth examining by taking lineouts and counter-attacks as the key pillars.

Launch pad

When I arrived at Leinster some years back the hooker was the traditional caller of the lineouts which is immaterial until you examine value to the ball. We happened, as it turned out, to have a world class backline from which the lineout was a key launch pad. To that backline we’d add the outrageous ball carrier Victor Costello.

The lineout became crucial to the attack, at which point I took the lineout calls from the hooker as my focus always centred on value to ball – 100 per cent success at source doesn’t automatically mean 100 per cent value to the bal, especially if Brian O’Driscoll et al didn’t get clean, quick go forward ball. Lineouts are required to provide, under severe pressure, the ideal ball.

Once hookers made the calls, now it’s lineout managers. We see Jack McGrath bridging the gap between the manager and the hooker as he sidles up to Rory Best with instructions.

The man I’d watch intensely on their own ball and more importantly the opposition’s ball was John Hayes. A tall scrummager at 6’4” but his lineout work was phenomenal.

Allied to him, Paul O’Connell had the almost unique ability to be both a super target his own ball but equally devastating on the opposition’s. Together they had the knowledge, dexterity of feet and symbiotic relationship to get into the air as the opposition’s ball arrived. Thousands of training hours were committed to those steals.

Mental blow

The best value we ever gleaned was from lineout steals inside the opposition’s half. It was firstly a devastating mental blow to the opposition’s lineout but secondly there was no better backline in Europe to convert that ball into seven points. Steal that ball and either Denis Hickie or Gordon D’Arcy would score. Present that ball to the Leinster midfield with the opposition realigning and their magic – allied to their speed – was unstoppable. It took knowledge and practise. That logic is as sound today as it ever was. Irish counter attack from poorly kicked ball or turnovers is lagging behind.

Jared Payne looks like a man keen to attack the opposition’s weakness. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Jared Payne looks like a man keen to attack the opposition’s weakness. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

The window of opportunity may open for the briefest of moments, which is often easier to see from the stands than pitch level. Our brave forwards often carry into traffic when a window is open elsewhere, especially against England as their defence narrowed – where is the space? It never ceases to amaze me the countless hours are committed in training to the lineout and lineout steals yet how little time schools and clubs invest in team counter-attacks off opposition errors. Oppositions are as vulnerable off a turnover as they are off a lineout steal.

Now certain teams (New Zealand) and certain players are more comfortable in igniting the outcome. Tiernan O’Halloran is both comfortable and conditioned from his time in Connacht in this approach. Jared Payne looks like a man keen to attack the opposition’s weakness – carrying in both hands and looking to release support runners into space. This was particularly evident when he sucked both Mike Brown and Ben Youngs in on 8:55 before getting his hands free to find Keith Earls who was unfortunate to have the ball dislodged when being double-teamed (by Brown again!).

Turnover ball

Should Ireland steal the opposition’s lineout ball they’ll know from practising how to maximise the advantage. But they don’t look anyway as comfortable maximising turnover ball to expose windows of opportunity that exist away from the ball. But we firstly need to address this value-add around the country in clubs and schools in order to prepare our future elites.

Finally, in all the deserved accolades to the Irish management and the ever expanding Ireland squad there was one name omitted. From the emerging policy to promote from within Niall Scannell became a vital Six Nations cog. Tough strategic and unpopular decisions to clear that pathway (Stephen Moore’s potential arrival) are crucial to Scannell’s true worth; ditto Andrew Conway, Luke McGrath and others. Yes, Joe Schmidt deserves credit but David Nucifora, IRFU High Performance Director, is a key ingredient to the pathways from which Schmidt and Ireland can prosper.

Build it and they will come, and counter-attack!

liamtoland@yahoo.com

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