Saturday 21 July 2018

Battle to rule the air could decide winner of Test series

Rob Kearney (right) getting to grips with Israel Folau of Australia during Ireland’s first Test. Photo: Sportsfile
Rob Kearney (right) getting to grips with Israel Folau of Australia during Ireland’s first Test. Photo: Sportsfile

Ruaidhri O'Connor in Sydney

One issue has dominated the local media this week and it is Ireland's success in taking Israel Folau out of the equation for large parts of Saturday's win over Australia.

The full-back was one of the dominant figures of the first Test defeat in Brisbane, but Joe Schmidt and his brains trust worked hard with the players to limit his influence on events in Melbourne and they had some success.

In the series opener, Folau had 25 touches of the ball; running 64 metres in 15 carries while making two clean breaks. His catch over Jacob Stockdale was a crucial moment in the match, while many Irish fans were scratching their heads at the Irish strategy of kicking their restarts directly to the world's best fielder.

Fast forward seven days and the Wallaby No 15 was a peripheral figure, limited to nine possessions in which he made a healthy 45 metres from seven carries but couldn't have anywhere near the impact of a week ago.

If Ireland can keep him out of the game in Sydney on Saturday, they'll have gone a long way towards wrapping the series up and it's been no surprise to hear the Wallaby coaching staff whipping up a fuss about the Irish blocking lines designed to check Folau's runs on to cross-field kicks and up-and-unders.

Before the first Lions Test in Auckland last year, Warren Gatland made similar noises about the All Blacks' habit of getting conveniently in the way to prevent players contesting Conor Murray's box-kicks and the tactic backfired when his own players were penalised for doing the exact same thing.

That's the thing with 'escorting', everybody does it and the Wallabies would not be doing their job if they weren't at the same stuff, subtly changing direction just enough to put chasers off without being obvious enough to give away a penalty.

Local media have gotten on board with the outcry with one outlet describing the Irish tactics as 'shifty', but while Stephen Larkham put the issue in the public domain the player himself was not perturbed.

It's nothing he hasn't faced every time he's taken to the field.

"I never look for excuses, they escorted really well," he said.

"What I do think in terms of our team is that we can execute a lot better in terms of the kicks.

"I think on the weekend, we seemed to kick it a little bit further than what we wanted and probably a little bit more infield than what it usually is.

Numbers

"Hopefully the kicks on the weekend will be executed a lot better but on the weekend they did a great job of expecting that and they flood plenty of numbers into their left side, which is something for us as a team, we've got to realise that and understand and notice that.

"If Ireland are doing that, there's space elsewhere on the field, so I think that's something we took out of that game and hopefully we can execute on the run, going into the game."

Larkham promised to bring the issue to referee Pascal Gauzere's attention, but the Wallabies will be working on their own strategies to improve their kicking.

One area Ireland improved their game considerably was the amount of pressure they were able to put on kickers Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale, while they almost refused to kick the ball themselves as they held possession through long sets of phases.

While they kicked 22 of their 387 possessions in Brisbane, they only went to the boot 10 times in 367 possessions in Melbourne.

That was partly because they were winning collisions and getting quicker ball to their backs, but also because of a desire to keep the full-back out of the game.

With his superb skill-set and aerial ability, Folau is unlikely to be silent for another 80 minutes, but Ireland's back three are working hard to be ready for him while their front-line are working the angles to prevent accurate cross-kicks.

"Probably the biggest thing for my game is the aerial contest," Jordan Larmour said after coming on early in both games.

"Especially in that first Test, there were so many and Folau is so good; just trying to get up there, just trying to win the ball back off him. Probably the biggest thing I've taken away is the aerial battle and the aerial contest. That's probably my biggest work-on."

The battle of the airwaves is well under way and both head coaches will have their say this morning, but it is the actual battle for the air that could decide which way the pendulum swings in this finely balanced series at Allianz Park.

Ireland have always prided themselves on their work in the area, but they rarely come up against anyone as good as Folau.

Irish Independent

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