Smal problem at the back of Irish line-out
SINCE AL Pacino's rousing speech in 'Any Given Sunday,' the phrase 'it's a game of inches' has become something of a sporting cliché.
Specifically, it refers to the margins between defeat and victory, but can also be applied to the line-out issue confronting Ireland and forwards coach Gert Smal as they navigate their path through the remainder of the Six Nations and on to the World Cup.
The Irish back-row of Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and David Wallace was the most effective unit of the team in the narrow loss to France. In terms of ball-carrying, tackling and sheer presence, they outplayed their lauded opponents.
Where they could not compete, however, was at the back of the line-out. Julien Bonnaire, Imanol Harinordoquy and Thierry Dusautoir are 6' 5", 6' 4" and 6' 2" respectively, which gave them a significant advantage over their Irish opponents.
It was not a decisive factor, but it was a significant one. Having that height in the back-row allowed France to challenge down the line, putting the likes of Heaslip under pressure when the ball was thrown to the back.
In the pre-lifting days, the back of the line-out was something of a luxury, the ball being lobbed to the back on a 'hope for the best' basis. There were Irish players such as Ken Goodall, the late Terry 'tap back' Moore, Mike Gibson, Brian Spillane and Noel Mannion who stood out in those days, but the majority of possession was thrown to two and four.
Lifting changed the landscape. The tail became a far more dependable option and backs coaches realised ball off the top from the back was the best possession to attack off. Ireland need a guaranteed option here, but, while the back-row all have the athleticism and handing skills to be effective, their lack of inches gives opponents a better chance of contesting while increasing the risk of overthrows.
One option is to move one of the primary jumpers, Paul O'Connell or Donncha O'Callaghan to the back, and Tomas O'Leary's try against France came off ball from O'Callaghan at the tail. But when one of the second-rows moves back, he will inevitably be marked and, when the opposition have extra height, probably double teamed.
Kevin McLaughlin is the best back-of-the-line-out option available to Ireland, but is not in the squad, Rhys Ruddock is, and has the height at 6' 3", but not the experience. In any case, given how they played against France, it would be extremely hard to leave out any of the back-row against Scotland, although there is a case for having a Plan B option, ie Ruddock, on the bench.
Smal, who masterminded one of the finest line-out operations in history when helping South Africa win the 2007 World Cup, is well aware of the issue, but believes Ireland can work around it.
"All the Six Nations teams have very tall loose-forwards, but we have magnificent loose-forwards and they have got other attributes," said the South African.
"I would like to see us challenge ourselves (throw to the back) at certain times, but it's just to get the balance right as well, especially in our own half.
"I think that's a problem we had in the Autumn Series -- we challenged ourselves too much in our own half, tried to push it too far to the back all the time. That's not saying we won't do it again, depending on how the opposition contest. I would like to see us challenging ourselves to get ball where want it at the right time and in the right areas.
"We can move the lock back also, just to make those things possible. It's just spending enough time on it and we are settling at it now, because there have been different combinations over the past year with all the injuries."
Scotland will put that assertion to the test on Sunday, particularly if they start Nathan Hines in the back-row to accommodate the return of Richie Gray. That would give them three options of Gray (6' 9"), Alastair Kellock (6' 8") and Hines (6' 7"). If they get one of those up in the air when Ireland throw to the back, the advantage is immediately with Scotland.
Against Wales, Scotland played atrociously, but their line-out functioned sweetly, robbing two Welsh throws and conceding none of their own. Smal was suitably impressed.
"Scotland's line-out is outstanding," he said. "You've got to be well organised to try and poach any of their balls."
Under Eddie O'Sullivan, this was not a live issue due to the presence of Simon Easterby, while the 6' 3" Stephen Ferris has proved effective under Smal and Kidney. The Ulsterman's return from injury would lessen the problem but, however it is effected, a solution needs to be found by the time the World Cup gets under way with the pivotal pool matches against Australia and Italy.
As they proved in Rome, one area where the Italians are particularly strong is at the tail of the line-out where they have excellent options of Sergio Parisse and Alessandro Zanni.
The Wallabies have a certain Rocky Elsom at the back, their 6' 5" captain, whose line-out prowess proved so critical in Leinster's 2009 Heineken Cup triumph, and if Ireland come up against South Africa in the quarter-finals, it is the 6' 4" pair of Juan Smith and Pierre Spies.
However, the immediate challenge is organising the best attacking ball from the back in Edinburgh and, given Scotland's expected height advantage, this is one game the Irish will be hoping does not come down to inches.