Sunday 15 September 2019

Cian Tracey: 'Ireland must be willing to go wide and limit phases'

Testing conditions in Japan mean small tweaks to game-plan can make a big difference

Room to improve: Jack Carty struggled to get up to the pace of the game against Italy, according to Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Room to improve: Jack Carty struggled to get up to the pace of the game against Italy, according to Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Ireland's game-plan came under the microscope during the Six Nations earlier this year as it was widely criticised for being too predictable.

World-class players often appeared to be gripped by fear of going off script, which led to a stifling of creativity in the red zone.

That won't have sat well with a head coach as intelligent as Joe Schmidt, yet there is a growing sense that the Kiwi must make tweaks before Ireland arrive in Japan.

Schmidt is always likely to have an intricate set-piece move up his sleeve, and while the expectation is that we will see more of those at the World Cup, Ireland's phase play must also be looked at.

Generally speaking, Ireland are happy to grind their way through a multitude of phases until the opposition defence eventually creaks under the pressure.

That is all well and good against lesser teams, but by the time they expect to arrive at a quarter-final against the All Blacks or the Springboks, that sort of one-out rugby is unlikely to be enough.

This is not about reinventing the wheel, but rather making those subtle changes in order to allow players to play heads-up rugby as opposed to trucking it up into contact every time.

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While it was unfair to expect much from an experimental team against Italy earlier this month, there were some concerning signs that pointed to the flaws which were evident throughout the Six Nations.

Schmidt has selected a much stronger side to play England on Saturday and Irish supporters will be hoping to see a bit more variety in the attacking game-plan. Doing so without revealing your full hand however, is a tough balancing act.

Five minutes before half-time of the win over Italy, we saw a snapshot of how Ireland are often guilty of making life difficult for themselves by overcomplicating things.

Image (1) shows Ireland with an attacking five-metre scrum. This is their third consecutive scrum in this position, with Joey Carbery (blue) positioned on the blindside and Dave Kearney (black) outside of him.

This set-up forces the Italian defence to fold inwards (red), which leaves Andrew Conway (yellow), who has held his width on the far touchline, in plenty of space.

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Had Ireland looked to quickly move the ball from the base of the scrum and get it wide to Conway, they would have backed themselves to score, but instead, it takes 12 phases for it to reach the winger, who does eventually score in the corner.

Schmidt may argue that the end justifies the means, yet some of those phases could have been avoided.

The warm-weather training camp in Portugal this week will have given the players a good idea of what to expect from the conditions in Japan, and one would assume it will serve as a warning sign that hammering away through a plethora of phases will sap energy levels, very quickly.

Early in the second half of the same game, we can see (image 2) how Ireland again get themselves into a great scoring position deep inside the 22 by holding their width, but the reluctance to throw the pass means that the chance goes abegging.

This time, Rhys Ruddock and Kearney (yellow) offer the options out wide, with the Italian defence all at sea as they attempt to somehow shut down the overlap.

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But a split second of doubt, firstly from Joey Carbery and then Jordan Larmour, allows Italy to survive.

It would have been interesting to know what Jack Carty's brief was when he replaced the injured Carbery, because afterwards Schmidt admitted that he felt the Connacht out-half struggled to get up to the pace of the game.

It seemed a bit harsh as Carty put in a couple of lovely raking kicks behind the defence, but there was one instance where Schmidt might have expected him to scan his options out the back.

Image (3) shows Carty putting in one of those kicks (red), but it is worth highlighting Chris Farrell's (yellow) reaction as he is quite animated in calling for the ball.

Farrell would have seen that the Italian defence was again all over the place and caught too narrow, which admittedly wasn't helped by having a player down injured.

Like Farrell, Garry Ringrose (blue) and Kearney (black) are also expecting Carty to go wide as they set off in anticipation, only for the ball to find touch as another potential try-scoring chance was wasted.

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With Ireland beginning their World Cup campaign against Scotland a month from today, Schmidt will be demanding improvements from his side in Twickenham this weekend.

Having picked such a fresh team, the hope across the board, is that some fresh ideas in attack will follow.

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