Wednesday 23 May 2018

Alan Quinlan: Communication issues could derail our Grand plans

Josh Navidi of Wales beats the cover of Rob Kearney to pass the ball to team-mate Steff Evans who went on to score Wales’ third try against Ireland last weekend. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Josh Navidi of Wales beats the cover of Rob Kearney to pass the ball to team-mate Steff Evans who went on to score Wales’ third try against Ireland last weekend. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

"What the f*** were you doing shooting out of the line? I told you to sit tight. You left me f**king caught two-on-one and it has given them a f**cking lifeline."

It takes a lot to rattle the cage of mellow Kiwi Doug Howlett, but such is the scarring nature of the experience you're unlikely to risk appearing in his crosshairs for a second time.

It was October 2008, our first night at a revamped Thomond Park, and I could have spoiled the party after my bad defensive read gave Glasgow space to engineer a 75th-minute try in a game where we always had them at arm's length.

Dougie was in my ear, telling me where I needed to be, but in a moment of indecision, not taking in what he was saying to me, I shot out of the line in a bid to claim man and ball, only to be outdone by a sleight of hand.

Beaten by the pass, I had left New Zealand's record try-scorer attempting, ultimately unsuccessfully, to defy the odds in a two-on-one situation.

Luckily, my faux pas didn't prove costly, but when we made our way to the dressing-room five minutes later, having recorded an eight-point win, my ears were still stinging from Dougie's criticism.

Like any great defender, Howlett demanded that the men outside and inside made the right decisions so that he didn't end up hanging out to dry.

Howlett, just like his fellow New Zealander Rua Tipoki at Munster, and Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy in the green of Ireland, was never afraid to berate his team-mates when it came to protecting his defensive line.

Incredible

What made Howlett and the aforementioned trio such incredible defenders was not some kind of superior technique. They weren't the standard-bearers in executing tackle drills down narrow corridors.

It was quite the opposite in fact; they could all see the bigger picture - like a quality snooker player, they were always thinking three moves ahead.

Great defenders need to be clever communicators, and they must be able to see things on the move; something that sounds a lot easier than it is.

They also need to be able to implement defensive game-plans without having the luxury of being able to see how things are panning out from up in the stands.

It is with this in mind that I raise my concerns about Ireland's current defensive frailties, particularly around Wales' second and third tries in Dublin last weekend.

The first was a sublime bit of opportunism from Gareth Davies, but the latter two scores highlighted an Irish rearguard that is inclined to sit too tight, something that precedes Andy Farrell's tenure as defence coach, with the most obvious example being the haunting day Argentina ended our World Cup march in Cardiff in 2015.

Andy Farrell was probably tearing his hair out last weekend - he possibly still is. His system isn't foolproof but if implemented correctly it will certainly not be unlocked by a simple move solely containing three or four decent wide passes, something Wales managed to do with relative ease once they got their hands on the ball last week.

There appears to be a communication issue in the Irish defence, and that's a lot more difficult to sort than something more systematic.

The work-rate in defence has been excellent; it's just a matter of making sure you are working in the right areas.

Howlett, Drico and D'Arcy were always in your ear, and for good reason. Tipoki never shut up either when the opposition had the ball, he'd be pointing at your channel and everything; making sure you were tuned in and intimidating the opposition in one calculating swoop.

Communication is key, yet it can often be sacrificed when you're 70 minutes into battle and your lungs are screaming for air.

When Mike Ford came in as defence coach with Ireland in 2002, from a rugby league background too, he brought in some simple terms for our defensive strategy.

We started raising our hands at the edge of the ruck to indicate we were the 'pillar'.

Raising

The defence would then build itself off that point and the 'pillar' would stay put, covering a potential break from the scrum-half, while everyone else got organised in the wider channels. Even when you were struggling for breath you were able to reassure your team-mates.

It's no coincidence that three of the four players I have already mentioned are centres - they are often the chief defensive organisers because they have a great view of the bigger picture and it's so important that they detail what they see to those around them.

We have made defensive errors all over the pitch in our opening three games, which is bound to happen, but the chopping and changing in midfield, which is of course injury-enforced, has made things even more difficult for Farrell and Joe Schmidt.

They would have been so pleased to see Chris Farrell fit in so seamlessly, in attack and defence, against Wales and would have been equally devastated to see the burly Munster centre suffer a season-ending knee injury earlier this week,

It's been a long time since we had such depth in the centre, and the timing of Garry Ringrose's return couldn't have been any better.

Even if tonight's scheduled game against Scarlets hadn't fallen foul of the weather, I would have been wrapping him up in cotton wool.

Ringrose may only have played 12 Tests but he has learned his trade with Leinster at altitude and is more than capable of being the midfield leader that Ireland desperately need in the next fortnight.

The 23-year-old may not command the same authority that came with Dougie's CV in 2008 but he is more than capable of solidifying Ireland's defence for a Grand Slam bid.

Let's just hope he doesn't end up isolated after being let down by one of his team-mates!

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