Sunday 19 November 2017

Analysis: Allowing Aki to offload can open Ireland's attack up

Set-piece dominance and half-back accuracy are key to unlocking strength of midfield star

Joe Schmidt was in relaxed mood under the winter sun at Carton House yesterday ahead of tomorrow’s Test with South Africa. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt was in relaxed mood under the winter sun at Carton House yesterday ahead of tomorrow’s Test with South Africa. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Coming up with a plan before playing the Springboks is the easy part, executing it in the face of their raw power and furious intensity is a tad more difficult.

Allister Coetzee has intimated that last month's epic defeat to New Zealand is the template for his team as they enter a tricky November window under pressure to get results after a disappointing Rugby Championship.

That Newlands clash did not get the reward on the scoreboard, but it served as a reminder of just how effective South Africa can be.

If they can match it at the Aviva Stadium, we are in for a treat tomorrow.

Of course, that game cannot be taken in isolation and one must also consider the five other Rugby Championship matches as a body of work. It is clearly less impressive.

So, Ireland must prepare for the best of the 'Boks but hope to exploit the errors that undermine a team who managed just two wins and shipped 57 points on their visit to New Zealand.

Joe Schmidt's focus has been fully on this game for some time, so he'll have picked apart the footage and identified the areas in which his team can thrive.

Scrum dominance

Although Jack McGrath is a loss, Schmidt is lucky to be able to call on two players whose provincial form is excellent on the loosehead side of the scrum.

The Irish scrum has been a source of pride during the New Zealander's time in charge and while Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira and Coenee Oosthuizen have strengthened the Springboks' set-piece, the home side will have noted that their visitors were heavily penalised during the Rugby Championship when they conceded 11 scrum penalties.

Although Ireland like to play off good, clean scrum ball - they'll exact as much influence over Kiwi referee Ben O'Keeffe as they can and will happily earn field position from difficult situations.

If conditions are difficult, then the handling will be tested and the number of scrums will go up.

That could play into Ireland's hands as they possess a pack well capable of dominating.

"It's the foundation of all teams," forwards coach Simon Easterby said.

"We're no different and we know how important our technical ability and our ability to be smart about what we do is going to be at the weekend matched up against the physical challenge that they will bring."

Lineout accuracy

It may seem like basic stuff to start off with the scrum and lineout, but if you don't have your fundamentals lined up against the Springboks then there's no point in showing up.

Across the provinces there have been issues out of touch this season and with Coetzee fielding three giant jumpers in Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit, this is an area of risk for Ireland.

During Schmidt's tenure, the majority of tries have come from lineout ball but last season that element was undermined at vital stages.

Peter O'Mahony's inclusion is key. It's no coincidence that his presence coincided with the best lineout display of the Six Nations.

Ireland must be quick with their thinking and mobile on their feet to get the better of a pack that will make life difficult for Rory Best. If they can't provide good ball for Conor Murray, they will be on the back foot.

The Farrell effect

Ireland's defence coach excelled last June but being the driving force behind a drawn series with New Zealand makes him a marked man.

Coetzee explicitly mentioned Andy Farrell's influence in terms of his aggressive rush defence that so unsettled the All Blacks, but having faced it three times in 2016, the 'Boks will have an idea of what's coming.

Farrell has a new face to integrate and Bundee Aki's discipline and decision-making on 'D' will be a key factor in his ability to integrate into the national team.

Opposition coaches often feel they can force him into bad reads and find gaps in his vicinity, but his partnership with Robbie Henshaw should be solid.

South Africa's plan against the All Blacks wasn't complicated but it was still difficult to defend against. They regularly used Jan Serfontein off first phase to generate go-forward and Damian de Allende will slip into that role comfortably.

The 'Boks have a tendency to make errors under pressure, they can force off-loads and spill in contact. Ireland will hope to make them make mistakes and make the most of the counter.

Using Aki's strengths

It would be foolish to pick Aki and ask him to play like someone else.

If the Kiwi centre wins collisions off front-foot ball, he should be encouraged to free his hands and get off-loads away in the manner that has so excited the crowd in Galway in recent seasons.

Schmidt referred to the "instinctive" way that Aki and Jacob Stockdale have played for their provinces and said there is room for that in his system. That should make Ireland harder to defend, particularly in the 22 where they've struggled at times.

Kick and clap

Eddie Jones's derisive description of Ireland's play should be taken as a compliment. Kick and clap can be devastatingly effective.

Rob Kearney aside, both teams are lacking experience in the back-three but with the accuracy of Ireland's world-class half-backs to lean on it would be remiss of Ireland not to kick to contest and to play in the right areas.

As well as the breakdown, the aerial battle will go a long way to deciding this one.

 

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