Thursday 19 September 2019

Cian Tracey: 'At times on Saturday, it looked as though Ireland’s back-line had never played together'

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt during the warm-up before the match against England. Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt during the warm-up before the match against England. Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Once was bad, twice was worse, three times was baffling.

That Ireland conceded three first-half tries would have been enough to send Joe Schmidt into overdrive, but watching his side getting torn asunder in an alarmingly similar fashion will have left him wondering how he can turn around this mess in such a short period of time.

A lot of that responsibly will fall on Andy Farrell, whose defensive structures, in which all of the players are familiar with, were ripped to shreds.

It’s easy to point the finger at Jacob Stockdale as he was badly exposed in the wider channel time and time again, but those around him didn't exactly make life easy for him.

For all of his undoubted attacking threat, which he demonstrated by creating Jordan Larmour’s try, there have been lingering question marks over Stockdale's defence.

Opposition teams are quite clearly targeting the 23-year-old and that in itself is a major concern for Schmidt.

Ireland were always going to miss a player of Johnny Sexton’s calibre, particularly in the amount of leadership he brings to the back-line, both in attack and defence, while Robbie Henshaw's absence was also sorely felt because as well as being an excellent defender, he is a good communicator too.

At times on Saturday, it looked as though Ireland’s back-line had never played together and were thrown together at random.

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That blame does not solely rest on Stockdale's shoulders and even though this morning's review session will make for particular horrific viewing for the winger, there will be a shared responsibility for what were really naive defensive errors.

Ireland’s 21 first-half missed tackles was four short of what England managed in the entire game, which is the kind of statistic you would expect from a tier-one nation playing a minnow, rather than two teams with great expectations for the World Cup.

Stockdale missed three of those tackles, while his back-three partners were worse in that regard as Larmour missed five, with Rob Kearney not faring much better on four.

For a triumvirate, which could easily end up starting a big game in Japan, to miss 12 tackles raises serious questions.

Whether that is down to a systemic failure or poor individual mistakes will be up to Farrell and Schmidt to decipher. Either way, the coaches will not hold back.

If we have a look at England’s three tries in the opening 40 minutes, it is easy to see how Eddie Jones designed a game-plan that, like in Dublin earlier this year, centred around dominating Ireland in the contact area and then quickly moving the ball wide.

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In Image (1), we can see how Conor Murray (blue) peels around the blindside of the scrum, presumably thinking that Ben Youngs is going to play off Billy Vunipola at the tail.

Instead, Youngs goes the opposite side, which leaves Ireland short a defender. From here, it is all about the animation of the England backs.

Owen Farrell (red arrow) runs a hard decoy line at Ross Byrne, while outside of him, Manu Tuilagi (yellow) is doing the same.

Youngs plays a lovely screen pass behind Farrell for George Ford to set the wheels in motion.

Ireland’s defensive line gets caught far too narrow because of the decoy lines, and Stockdale (pink) shoots up off the line as he attempts to make a big man-and-ball tackle on Jonny May.

Kearney is left with too much space (black) to cover and Joe Cokanasiga runs clear to score the kind of set-piece try that Schmidt would have been proud of.

Fifteen minutes later, England repeated the trick with a slight variation in that it didn't come from a set-piece. The fundamentals are essentially the same, however.

Ireland are not helped by having Murray down receiving attention as England’s relentless power game again pays dividends.

Tuilagi make a huge carry in midfield. It takes two defenders to take him down while a couple of others have also been sucked in.

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That presents the scenario in Image (2) as Stockdale (yellow) once again bolts off the line and fails to make the big intervention he was seeking.

Kearney (black) has too much ground to make up as Elliot Daly capitalises on Ireland’s narrow defence.

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And as if that wasn't bad enough, England ruthlessly exposed Ireland’s frailties for a third time in Image (3) a few minutes later to sum up their muddled thinking. Clearly worried about Vunipola carrying off the base of the scrum, Ireland set up with Bundee Aki defending in the 10 channel with Byrne (red) outside of him.

England would have looked at that defensive set-up and felt they could exploit it as Aki and Byrne are taken out of the equation by Youngs, who puts Tuilagi over with Cokanasiga (yellow) providing another option  outside him.

With the lineout faltering badly and the defence creaking, a sense of panic ran through the Ireland team.

Schmidt and his brains-trust must now figure out why that happened, and ensure it doesn't happen again when it matters most over the coming weeks.

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