Thursday 21 September 2017

Brent Pope: Ireland are still guilty of becoming too tight in attack but expect a serious backlash

Robbie Henshaw of Ireland is tackled by Alex Dunbar, left, and Huw Jones of Scotland during the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Scotland and Ireland at BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Robbie Henshaw of Ireland is tackled by Alex Dunbar, left, and Huw Jones of Scotland during the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Scotland and Ireland at BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Brent Pope

Former English rugby league and union hard man and Irish defence coach Andy Farrell looked to be a man with a lot on his mind when he sat in at the Irish press conference at Carton House this week.

And while he did not lay blame or go into analytical detail about Ireland’s defensive lapses in last week’s opening half against Scotland, he did say that his team need to be more ruthless in defence.

He urged his players “to get back to enjoy defending again”. While Ireland have leaked plenty of tries under Farrell’s watch, 23 in eight games to be exact, they have also scored more than the opposition in winning, which is the way that the All Blacks always look at things.

But by his own admittance, Ireland’s defensive system in Murrayfield was far too passive and tight last week. Ireland will surely not make the same mistakes tomorrow.

The secret to winning in any sport is to learn as much in defeat as in victory. Ireland’s head coach Joe Schmidt was never going to make wholesale changes for this week’s game against Italy, it is not in his nature. This was more about small incisions rather than  full surgery, especially after an excellent second half from Ireland showed that they are not too far away from getting it right.

The fact that Ireland chased down such a deficit and managed to get their noses in front with 10 minutes to play will hearten Schmidt, who knows that if they can just be more consistent, clinical and ruthless they will come good.

It doesn’t entirely paper over some of the cracks. Ireland should have pushed on when they were in the ascendancy, but that is a mental toughness issue rather than patterns of play.

So what would the Irish team have been working on this week? The forwards would have been analysing why their lineout, most obviously for Alex Dunbar’s soft try, has taken a step back. Ireland’s lineout and maul, such a weapon in the autumn series, failed at critical times last week, and there can be many reasons for this.

Inaccurate throwing, a lack of communication and the fact that Ireland are without the extra height of Peter O’Mahony and therefore restricted to three recognisable jumpers. The forwards would also have looked at what they must do when their main ball-carriers, again easily enough recognised, get tackled out of the game.

Last week the difference between the types of ball Ireland got in the first half to the quick ruck ball they got in the second was due to the fact that they cleaned out a lot better at ruck time and put more width on the ball. Suddenly double-tackling the likes of Seán O’Brien and CJ Stander which the Scots had done so well in the first half faded.

That released O’Brien and showed what he and others can do with time on the ball.

Scotland won a lot of Ireland's first phase breakdown ball in the first half but they never repeated it after the break. Ireland, for some reason, could not find the hammer blow midway through the second spell that would have prevented Scotland even thinking that they might win.

Ireland can still be guilty of becoming too tight on attack in the opposition 22, with an over reliance on using one-off runners and crash ball.

It will work against teams like Scotland and presumably against Italy, but Ireland will need to create more width and space when they take on the likes of France and England, who physically will have the match of the Irish eight.

The backs will have gone away with Andy Farrell and questioned why they were too slow off the line at the start of the match and why they were repeatedly drawn to the player rather than the ball, against a team that were always going to spread the ball wide.

The all-important 10, 12, 13 axis is still relatively inexperienced at this level, and they too will learn from their mistakes.  I know it’s grabbing at excuses but players arriving late to a match can affect your preparation and focus.

It has happened to me on a number of occasions both as a coach and a player. Suddenly even a coach as cool as Joe Schmidt can have to rearrange his allocated time for warm up, team talk, analysis etc. Players have routine marked to the second, with limbs to be strapped, pre-game rubdown and matchday superstitions.

I am not suggesting that was the major reason for Ireland’s poor start but it can make a difference.

After Italy’s win against South Africa I felt that Italy, under Conor O’Shea, may have posed a real threat at home, but unfortunately for Conor last week’s showing against Wales seemed to indicate that their problems still exist.

O’Shea does not have the resources to mount a title challenge. The problem for Italy is that international rugby is at least 10 per cent faster than provincial rugby, and the bulk of Italy’s players are still coming from a low provincial fitness base. Italy will always struggle after 50 minutes, because they are not used to playing at this level for the full match.

No 8 and captain Sergio Parisse remains O’Shea’s ace and was excellent for 40 minutes last week. Parisse is still the player that Schmidt will insist is shut down at source.

Ireland will not start as poorly as last week, and will get a chance to reconstruct their lineout against a team that does not possess too much tall timber. Then with superior field position and possession they can move the ball wider and register a five-point win.

Already we have seen that bonus points will come into play. Wales should have left the Eternal City with a full haul.

Ireland have already had their season’s share of regret and Schmidt, Farrell and a rugby nation will expect a serious backlash.

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