Austin Healey: 'England must be wary of Ireland's blocking dark arts'
It is easy to understand why Ireland start as odds-on favourites for the Six Nations.
They have a pair of exceptional half-backs, a ferocious pack, a solid set-piece, finishers throughout their backline and the best kicking game in the world.
Yet one of the most important weapons in their armoury is their mastery of the subtle dark arts of blocking and obstruction.
Now, let me make it clear this is an observation rather than a criticism. Every professional team does this game within the game, Ireland just happen to do it better than anyone, bar maybe New Zealand.
As in every facet of play under Joe Schmidt, they are so precise in their positioning to cause the maximum inconvenience without it being an obvious penalty offence. Leinster and Munster are expert practitioners.
Is it cynical? Undoubtedly. Is it illegal? Technically, but when everyone is doing it, it becomes one of those laws, like crooked feeds, that referees have just learned to turn a blind eye to - unless it is blatant.
This is not a new phenomenon. Disguising a block as decoy runners or stationing a dawdling forward in front of a high-ball recipient have been going on since the dawn of time.
What has changed is the shrinking of space available to attacking teams when 15 defensive players are strung across the field.
With fewer available holes for the attack to penetrate, the emphasis to manipulate more of your own has never been greater.
The most obvious example comes when a team are fielding a high ball, particularly around the halfway line, when the attacking team will be less inclined to kick it back.
In that case, all eyes will be on the full-back and the defender leading the kick-chase.
Instead, pay attention to how other attacking players subtly move into position to inhibit the defender. They will not look at the defender, instead adopting the air of an absent-minded jogger in Hyde Park, who at the last moment steps bang in front of the full-back.
That forces the defender to change his running line, and rather than moving straight on to the full-back he is now forced into a side-on tackle, which is far easier to break.
Frequently, the blocker will put his hands up, feigning innocence at the very moment they are breaking the law.
That type of blocking is also prevalent in midfield plays, particularly with cut-back moves, where the fly-half will pass the ball behind an oncoming blocking runner.
Of course, running a well-executed decoy run is a perfectly legitimate way of disrupting the defensive line.
The difference between a blocker and a decoy is that the blocker will keep running his line so he deliberately body-checks one of the inside defenders.
Again, this is a subtle act. The blocker is not taking out a defender, just stalling him. That means the inside defender is momentarily out of position, creating the hole the attack needs. It makes defending the inside-centre channel fiendishly difficult.
It has often been said that outside centre is the most difficult position to defend. I believe 12 now is, but it is not impossible. Brad Barritt is the best defender I have seen in this regard.
At the weekend, for Saracens against Glasgow, there was one instance where he had three players running into his channel at the same time, but he picked the right tackle.
What he is looking for is the eyeballs and hand placement more than anything. He is looking to see where the eyes are focusing. If the eyes are focusing on the ball then they will be receiving it. If they are focusing on the inside shoulder of the defender then they are a decoy.
Heading to Dublin next week, England should actually be encouraged, because this form of midfield blocking is particularly effective against teams who have excellent line-speed, such as Ireland.
Because they are pushing up so quickly, if you can just check the inside defender then it makes it much harder for the guys either side of him to drift across.
Ultimately, it is a case of if you can't beat them, join them. (© The Daily Telegraph, London)