Rugby Statistics: Dominance at the breakdown key for Ireland
Repetition of impressive figures to date will go a long way to securing ultimate prize
England’s Sam Simmonds has emphasised the importance of the breakdown battle. “It’s frustrating, but it can only be improved by us. We know we have to be better at it.” Photograph: Thomas Samson/AFP/getty
Possession is nine-tenths of the law is an aphorism that translates to rugby with an appreciable resonance.
Ireland will chase a third Grand Slam in their history against England at Twickenham on Saturday and a central tenet of an unbeaten run to this stage in the 2018 Six Nations Championship has been the ability of Joe Schmidt’s side to dominate territory and possession in the team’s four victories to date. They are statistical benchmarks that the Irish team will hope to replicate against England.
Success in the set piece of scrum and lineout are hugely important platforms as starter-plays for teams but it is the breakdown that will have a pivotal impact on being able to manage the game both from an attacking perspective where quick ball is king and in terms of slowing opposition possession when defending.
Saturday’s game at Twickenham pits the team that has won more rucks than any other in the tournament, Ireland (557) against the side who have lost more, England (25). Eddie Jones’s English team have struggled appreciably in this area in their last two matches, both of which they lost.
The Scots wreaked havoc at the breakdown in beating England at Murrayfield, forcing turnovers and penalties, with equal facility and against the French, England’s discipline in general and also specifically at rucks caused them huge problems. The English have lost 18 rucks in their last two matches, Ireland have lost just 12 in the entire tournament.
What’s also germane in assessing the information displayed in the graphic is Ireland’s accuracy at the breakdown, running at 97.8 per cent average for the tournament compared to Saturday’s hosts (94.6). The visitors would dearly love to continue that precision through the 80-minutes on St Patrick’s Day.
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Joe Schmidt’s Ireland average roughly 142.5 rucks per match (139.5 success rate) compared to England’s numbers, 116 and 109.7, respectively. The Irish team has lost exactly half the number of rucks (nine) – these numbers include penalties conceded at the breakdown – that the English side coughed up (18) in drawing a parallel from matches against Scotland and France.
It’s reasonable to assume that England have made the breakdown a priority in training this week and to that end injuries to blindside flanker Courtney Lawes and number eight Nathan Hughes could nudge Jones in a direction that will make England more competitive in that facet of the game.
The 23-year-old Sam Simmonds – he has yet to miss a tackle (41) in the tournament – is likely to take over at number eight and he’s not a typical of the position in that he’s 6ft but he’s an athletic mobile figure. He could be joined in the backrow by his Exeter Chiefs team-mate the Zimbabwe-born Don Armand, who won his only cap against Argentina during a summer tour last year.
Armand is also an excellent lineout forward and a focal point for Exeter in that respect; the cohesion that comes from having club-mates in a backrow has an obvious attraction. The two Exeter men were interviewed during the week, usually a reasonable barometer of at least being included in the match-day squad.
They independently emphasised the importance of the battle at the breakdown. Simmonds said: “It’s frustrating, but it can only be improved by us. We know we have to be better at it and that comes with your speed into the breakdown.
“We have talked about pushing more players towards it, but it’s also an individual thing with your mindset and physicality about how fast you get to those areas to remove and almost stop the threat.” Armand observed: “If you can’t hit a breakdown, the fundamentals of rugby are things that you’ll struggle with. Being in rugby it has to be one of your strengths.”
Another key figure at the breakdown is the 33-year-old Australian referee Angus Gardner. One of the sport’s best young officials he likes to let the game flow and as a result is pretty strict about the breakdown, particularly for sluggish tacklers not rolling away or delayed ball release.
He’s refereed Ireland once before in the Six Nations, a victory over Italy, and also presided over their second Test match against the Springboks, a game Ireland lost 32-26, during a 2016 summer tour.
Ireland’s accuracy at the breakdown has been superb – they are tournament category leaders in tries (17), carries (699), defenders beaten (85), metres gained (2017) and lineouts (53) – and if they can maintain that excellence through one final 80-minutes then the likelihood is that the ultimate Six Nations prize beckons.