Trevor Hogan: Irish must go low to chop down mighty Samoans
Switching tackle technique only way to halt islanders' powerful running game
Published 08/11/2013 | 02:00
When Welsh flanker Dan Lydiate saw the opposition his country faced in the pool stages of the 2011 World Cup, he decided something would have to change.
Samoa, especially, required a different approach. The size and power of their runners, like Alesana Tuilagi and Maurie Fa'asavalu, meant that the conventional tackle – targeting the rib and chest area – would not be sufficient.
Too often, this attempt would see players bounced, ending up on their backs, looking up at the clouds. Lydiate, instead, opted for a major departure, altering one of the most fundamental aspects to a rugby player's game: their tackle technique.
Almost overnight, Lydiate transformed his style in the collision, now aiming to hack players, much lower, around the shins and ankles.
This approach, performed with a new level of speed and aggression, proved to be a hugely effective way of bringing down bigger ball-carriers.
Within months Lydiate would become arguably the world leader, along with Thierry Dusautoir, of what is widely known as the 'chop' tackle.
While the big emphasis for Ireland this weekend will be on attack, and Joe Schmidt's patterns off set-piece, the way the team defend and tackle will also be crucial.
Physically confronting Samoa – renowned for their strength and power in contact – will give Ireland the opportunity to dictate Schmidt's desired tempo.
It would be very dangerous to underestimate the Pacific islanders, who, while they have only had a week to prepare for this game, will be driven by determination and a sense of injustice that this is their only fixture against a major Test-playing nation – their other games being against the French Barbarians and Georgia.
Though the Samoans no longer have the massive physical presence of Tuilagi, the chop tackle will still be a vital weapon in preventing the unstructured, loose game they thrive on. They also have numerous other explosive and powerful runners, such as Logovi'i Mulipola, Taiasina Tuifua and Jack Lam – whose hand-off alone is enough reason to emphasise the ability to go low.
The chop tackle itself has already been an increasing feature of the four provinces in the last couple of seasons. This year, Shane Jennings, Kevin McLaughlin, Peter O'Mahony, Rory Best and Paul O'Connell have all noticeably increased their tendency to target lower leg areas in bringing down attackers. It is a very clinical and specific skill that does not simply require diving hopefully at the feet of the opposition, as may have been the case in past generations.
Now tacklers, while using a huge line speed and aggression, are more proficient at staying on their feet as long possible, looking to get their inside foot planted reasonably close to the attacker, before, at the last moment, dipping quickly to cut down the ball carrier.
This tackle has the added benefit, due to the speed with which the ball carrier is taken to ground, of allowing the next defender more time to either go for the steal or barge through the ruck.
It also gives the tackler himself the option of using his momentum on the ground to swivel and get back to his feet to counter ruck.
Leinster, in particular, have used the chop tackle effectively in past seasons, and it has been especially useful when employed on specific players.
One example was when the massive former Clermont No 8, Sione Lauaki, was repeatedly chopped during their recent clashes with Leinster, rarely giving him or his side any momentum.
In the pre-game analysis, Lauaki had been consistently identified as someone who needed to be taken down low. The message clearly stuck, to the extent that the chop tackle was christened 'the Lauaki' for a few months afterwards among the squad.
Having specific players highlighted in this way can be helpful in focusing players' minds. Targets like this bring clarity in the anxious moments before kick off in the changing room – a clarity that avoids unnecessary head-banging and roaring.
There is less vague talk of, "Let's f***ing kill them!" and more reasoned and specific chat, like, "F***ing chop Lam!" or, "don't let Alapati Leiua get the offload."
But the chop tackle won't be the only way Ireland will be looking to shut down Samoa's threats.
Irish defenders will also, when the Samoans are more exposed or upright, look to target them higher, aiming for the ball in contact, looking to squeeze the carrier's elbows and prevent him releasing the ball.
This option has the immediate benefit of stopping the offload, and if the collision can be dominated, allowing room for the 'choke'.
Central to this approach is doing what Les Kiss calls "a job and a half". The demand is that players should never be just content with just doing 'one job', instead always being hungry for more work.
This means that after the man you are marking has passed, or if you are on the ground, that you work to get involved again and add that extra 'half-job' to help your team mate.
If the tackle has been initiated, supporting defenders can block the offloading channel, squeeze the attacker further in contact, or just simply plug a hole in the line that Samoa can be so quick to exploit.
This intensity in work rate and the contact will be crucial in both preventing the Pacific islanders from playing their trademark offloading game, while also giving Ireland the platform to dictate the tempo in the attack.