Tackling a difficult problem
Law changes in the tackle zone have left Declan Kidney's men playing catch-up, says Brendan Fanning
R ory Best is an impressive sort of character. Physically he's not hugely imposing, and neither has he an aura about him that silences a room, but there is a solidness to him that is immediately appealing. You imagine if any coach asked him to go the extra mile he wouldn't question it; that if a player needed a dig out against superior odds, he would be at his side in an instant.
Moreover, if there was a problem to be solved Best's contribution would be sound and sensible and backed by experience that stretches back to 2004 with Ulster and 2005 with Ireland.
He said something the other day however that made you worry about where this Ireland team are going, or at least how quickly they are getting there. The scene was Carton House, not a bad spot for your mid-Championship retreat, and Best was explaining his part in Ireland's penalty problems. Specifically, the one he was blown for in the 32nd minute (see panel).
"Hopefully -- touch wood -- if I get into that position again next week or the week after I won't do what I did," he said. "I'll either get into the space (beyond the tackled player) or release him and go back for the ball. Unfortunately, we're sort of learning these, the things that were drilled into us for so long -- get your head over the ball, go for the poach -- that you can no longer really do in the modern game.
"It's not an excuse and I don't want it to sound like an excuse but that unfortunately, the silly penalties that we're giving away, it's that split second where your instinct tells you to go for that ball. And now you can't."
We like it when players are frank and articulate like this. The problem however is that his comments would have been more appropriate had they been made after last season's Six Nations, or even after the summer tour. Why has it taken us so long to adapt to what has been a fundamental shift in the way rugby is played?
This is not easy to understand. You will recall that last season the IRB changed the way poachers approached the tackle, that they would first have to release the victim before relieving him of his personal belongings. The IRB line is that the change was communicated clearly to all coaches before last season's Six Nations. Ireland's position is that the tournament was up and running -- that they were two games in and preparing to play England -- when they were told that the goalposts were shifting.
So for the sake of argument let's accept that the Irish position is closer to the truth. That left three games in last year's Championship, plus three in New Zealand and Australia in June, followed by four in November and three so far in this Championship campaign. And that's before you count up all the Magners and Heineken games, remembering that the post-Eddie O'Sullivan era is one of Glasnost where doors are open and information flows freely from Team Ireland down and back up again. In other words, we have had plenty of time to come up with an alternative tactic, and road-test it. Yet we're still in the garage.
Back in the day you couldn't start a car on a cold day without resorting to the choke. For those too young to remember, it was a stick on the dash which, when pulled out, injected an extra bit of fuel to the ignition process. And bingo, off you'd go.
Ireland's use of the choke was more designed to stop rather than start and, at the risk of repeating ourselves, in the Grand Slam campaign of 2009 it was critical in slowing attackers long enough for the Ireland defensive line to regroup.
The shift in law last season has since rendered it obsolete. In trying to compensate for its loss, Kidney and co have tried to repackage the technique. So instead of putting defenders to ground and strangling them, now they try and keep them up. And when another defender joins the conclave, hey presto you have a maul, not a tackle. The important point here is that when a maul becomes unplayable the scrum goes to the defending team -- ie the men in green. So that's what this Ireland team are about: using the maul as a defensive mechanism.
Kidney has worked hard to get referees tuned in to the right wavelength here. They have not been used to being forced to scrunch up their eyes and count fast to see if they have a maul or a tackle on their hands. We suspect they think they have enough on their plates without having to adjudicate on new cases. The Ireland coach had limited success on this front last weekend.
"There was one instance soon in the second half where we got the put-in when the tackle became a maul," he says. "I think there were several other ones but I think the referees are under such pressure in a tackle situation to release the ball that the eye has been taken off when a tackle becomes a maul, but a note went out last week (from the IRB) about that. There was one instance last weekend -- let's see what happens the next weekend. But then Wales play such a different type of game anyway. Wales go in much lower and there won't be many mauls against Wales."
If indeed Kidney is right and it's redundant against Wales, then it's a lot of effort to be investing in a technique that is usable only when the opposition play a certain way. And, as it happens, already we have seen in November how easily the technique can be bypassed. It was significant back then how quickly the All Blacks reacted to this alarm bell.
If they thought for a moment that one of their ball carriers was going to be held up and turned over via an unplayable maul, immediately they flooded the scene with a few bodies who drove the whole thing very hard and got it to ground fast, and got the ball out faster still.
Ireland weren't sure quite how to defend this: throw a few more bodies in themselves and risk being numbers-down if it goes wrong, or abandon immediately in favour of setting up defensive pillars? They tended more towards the latter, conceding possession and ground. Other teams will adopt the same policy against us. In other words, we need to have alternatives.
It has long seemed obvious that the most effective means of slowing the other team down at the tackle, and giving your defence those precious few seconds to reset, is to drive over the top of the ball and into the space which the opposing scrumhalf wants kept free. It's not always possible -- and certainly not when referees are allowing the attacking team to seal the ball off -- but it has two obvious benefits: you mess up your opponents; and you create the impression in the mind of the referee that you are trying to stay legal and play the game on your feet. Rory Best says Ireland are all over this like a rash.
"That's exactly what we're repeating over and over in training and that's where we're looking to get to -- we can make a tackle, we can take it in the air, we can slow it down, but once it gets down our mentality is 'it's a ruck so make it a contest by both teams trying to ruck over'. And we want to get better at that."
It is not encouraging that 13 Tests after the tackle zone took on a different complexion Ireland are still looking to catch up to the demands of the new order.
As an example of this, consider Paul O'Connell's successful invasion of Scottish tackle space late in the day in Murrayfield, by the relatively simple expedient of driving through the open gate. It was notable because, unlike in Twickenham the previous day where England were more adept at it, for Ireland this was a rarity.
Yes, this is technical, but you can't play winning rugby without getting a handle on the technical stuff. There is another element to this as well. You sense Rory Best is a bit weary now of the Grand Slam in the rear-view mirror, and the price of winning it -- repeating something similar is the starting point -- is expensive.
But while Ireland played low-risk rugby in getting there, they earned for themselves the reputation of being clever in how they kept those risks low. "We're certainly, definitely not at the Grand Slam level," he says. "A bit like the scrum, we're getting better as we go along but we're not happy. We have yet to piece together the perfect lineout display. Some lineouts work well for us. Then the deliveries are not great. The movement is perfect and the throw is not where it should be. We've yet to put everything in place and to be fair a lot of it is concentration. I'll always maintain that the scrum in the past was a lot of concentration. We showed we could do it in bits and pieces, why can't we do it all the time?"
We don't know Rory. And Declan Kidney is not about to declare an answer is around the next corner. "I think it would be a ring around our neck to try and put anything in to say we're one game off," he says. "I think that would only be rubbish talk . . . If there are three or four things we get right then we'll be in a good place."
In the context of Ireland's game that's a lot. At least Wales are in the same boat. They outscored us on the penalty count last weekend -- bizarrely Italy have been the most disciplined side in two of the three rounds so far -- and are using all the same language to describe why they are not where they want to be. But are getting there.
"Five or six months ago it is a game we wouldn't have won," Ryan Jones said of their battle in Rome last weekend. "We ground it out and, let's face it, Championship rugby is all about getting results. We are in a pretty good place at the moment, although it's going to be a hell of a game against the Irish because we know each other so well. We need a big start against them -- that's the key."
As it happens, Rory Best has featured in one of those himself. In 2007, he was in the right place at the right time to get Ireland off to a flyer at the Millennium, a day which ended with his team 10 points clear and having scored three tries to nil. They have some fixing to do to get to that point.
Sunday Indo Sport