Rugby Stats: Decision on Ireland’s 13 jersey could be pivotal

More ball-in-hand width at higher tempo needed or identity of centres won’t matter

Andy Farrell will need to select a new centre partnership following the injury to Garry Ringrose. File photograph: Inpho

Andy Farrell will need to select a new centre partnership following the injury to Garry Ringrose. File photograph: Inpho

 

The ankle injury sustained by Garry Ringrose in the victory over Scotland will necessitate a change to Ireland’s midfield for Saturday’s final Six Nations Championship match at the Aviva stadium (4.45).

Robbie Henshaw had started alongside his Leinster teammate in all four games in the tournament to date. Head coach Andy Farrell must not only find a new partner for the Athlone man, arguably Ireland’s standout performer in the Six Nations, but in potentially shifting the 27-year-old to the 13 jersey, hand him a different role; or at least it should be rather than just an extension of playing inside centre.

In Farrell’s 13 matches as Ireland head coach, Henshaw and Ringrose have been paired on four occasions, the same number as Bundee Aki and Henshaw, so the presumption is that latter partnership - renewing an alliance that began at Connacht - will be restored for the England match.

In the evolution of Farrell’s choice of centres, his original preference was for Aki and Ringrose but injuries to the Leinster player and then to Henshaw informed the coach’s subsequent selection options to some degree. In the current Six Nations he’s had all three available, until now.

Pool of centres

As the graphic demonstrates the Irish coach has operated with a pool of five centres in his 13-game tenure with Chris Farrell and Stuart McCloskey making up the quintet alongside Aki, Henshaw and Ringrose. Ireland have lost their last four games against Eddie Jones’ teams since the Grand Slam defining performance at Twickenham in 2018.

Aki has played all four, twice partnering Ringrose (2019 Six Nations and the World Cup warm-up match the same year) in tandem with Henshaw in the 2020 Six Nations and Farrell for the Autumn Nations Cup defeat; three of the four games took place in London.

As a brief aside, since the 2013 November series, 28 different centre combinations have worn the Irish jersey in Test matches. The partnership with the best percentage win rate having played five games or more together is that of Aki and Farrell (84 percent, six matches), followed by Aki and Ringrose (75 percent, 12 matches) and Aki and Henshaw (70 percent, 11 matches).

In the four matches when Aki and Henshaw have formed the midfield alliance, Ireland have won two and lost two games, including last season’s 24-12 Six Nations defeat to England at Twickenham. Henshaw was a try scorer that day, Aki a significant physical presence on both sides of the ball. The fault lines in the collective performance lay elsewhere.

The priority for Farrell and his coaching team in relation to Saturday’s game is to identify the specific responsibilities of the player in the 13 jersey in attack and defence to determine who is best suited to the role. A primary aspect of the deliberations has to be how and where Ireland are going to attack England assuming a reasonable platform.

Repetition

The hope is for more subtlety to the patterns than breaking against the white wall or kicking it into the clouds and hoping for a favourable ricochet. There has been a little too much repetition tactically in those defeats to invest in similar gambits and expect a different outcome.

Johnny Sexton, captain, place-kicker and playmaker is a key figure but as Ireland demonstrated in the game against Italy there’s no harm in using him as a decoy now and again. Henshaw possesses the passing skills and vision to act as a distributor or facilitator to get the back three into the game in a meaningful way other than simply chasing kicks, supplemented by his power and footwork as a runner.

French inside centre Gael Fickou caused England several problems and not just in the build-up to Damian Penaud’s try, particularly when cutting back against the grain and bullocking into the English 10-12 channel. One key element was his desire to keep the ball alive through contact, something that Aki might pick up on if he gets the 12 jersey.

The quality and speed of possession determines what’s feasible behind the scrum but it’s got to be done with more ball-in-hand width at a higher tempo to supplement a kicking game. Otherwise it won’t matter the identity of the centres or wings.

Farrell’s side won’t win with an orthodox playbook and the team will struggle to win if every scintilla of creativity has to come from Sexton, no matter how broad his shoulders. The Irish players need to de-clutter, play the game with their eyes, recognise opportunity and have the courage to pursue it.

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