Wednesday 16 October 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Ruthless Irish back at peak 2018 levels but can do better'

Ireland's haul from visits to 22 against Scots above their best as they ram home advantage

Locked and loaded: Iain Henderson breaks through the Scottish defensive line to set up field position for James Ryan’s try. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Locked and loaded: Iain Henderson breaks through the Scottish defensive line to set up field position for James Ryan’s try. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

During their epic 13-month spell between the beginning of November 2017 and the start of December 2018 Ireland became one of the most efficient teams in the world when it came to taking their chances.

Getting into the opposition 22 is a tough thing, the ability to score once you're there has become one of the most important metrics by which you can judge a team.

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Over the course of that run, Joe Schmidt's team beat all of their rivals at this World Cup and they did it in style, only losing once to Australia before recovering to beat them twice to secure a historic 2-1 away series win.

Over the course of that time, they averaged 2.99 points per entry into the opposition 22.

In this year's Six Nations, teams actively worked to prevent Ireland getting into their territory; denying them lineouts and hogging the ball. When they did get down into the 22, Schmidt's side were less effective.

Scope

On Sunday, they returned three points per visit to the Scottish red-zone and when Schmidt reviews the footage he'll see there was scope for so much more.

It would be unrealistic to expect Ireland to score every time they put an opponent under pressure, rugby doesn't work like that.

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But what Ireland are capable of doing when they are in tune and on song is stubbornly staying until their opponents give them something.

Schmidt's wide array of set-piece plays helps engineer the territory from which to squeeze opponents, while Ireland's resurgent kick-chase game pins them back and forces them to defend.

At their 2018 height, they'd go through 20-plus phases and keep going until the defence coughed up a penalty or a try. If they were feeling particularly good, they'd kick to the corner or take the scrum and go again.

On Sunday, they visited the Scottish 22 nine times, scoring tries the first three times they got a sniff of the line. It was mightily impressive.

To beat the best teams, Ireland need to keep improving. The higher the standard, the harder it is to get into those positions and then the ability to take the chance is at a premium.

Reviewing all nine entries reveals the high level of Ireland's play, but also shows there's room to improve even more . . .

5 minutes - Iain Henderson breaks Stuart McInally's tackle and surges into opposition territory. The second-row is stopped, but Ireland get quick ball and when Conor Murray looks up he gives the ball to James Ryan.

If they'd paused for a split second they'd have seen a huge overlap out left, but they're determined to bully the Scots and Ryan's carry is followed by a CJ Stander dig and a Tadhg Furlong pick-and-go.

They try an inside ball to Jordan Larmour off Johnny Sexton for a bit of variation, but the forwards went again and after Stander went close Ryan made sure.

Result: Converted try


11 minutes - Bundee Aki wins a breakdown penalty and Rory Best suggests Ireland go to touch. Their lineout maul wins a penalty, so he tells Sexton to kick to the corner and, when the pack drive over the line, the captain does well to touch down.

Result: Try


24 minutes - The luckiest bounce of the day sees Stuart Hogg forced to collect the ball under his own sticks as Andrew Conway drags him over the line. That gives Ireland a five-metre scrum, from which Stander carries brilliantly off the base, Murray pops to Peter O'Mahony for a strong carry and Tadhg Furlong powers over with help from Best.

Result: Converted try


30 minutes - The first unsuccessful visit from Ireland comes after Larmour wins a brilliant breakdown penalty. Stander surges into the Scotland 22, Best finds Garry Ringrose who reverses the play to Jack Conan but after eight phases Stander flops on to a ruck and concedes a penalty in a rare mistake on the day.

Result: Penalty Scotland


36 minutes - A clever short-side scrum move sees Jacob Stockdale race clear of the defence and into the 22. He's halted, but Sexton is too high as a first-arriver at the ruck and allows Scotland to drive him off the ball and avert the danger. A lower body position would have allowed time for the support and the Scots were in trouble.

Result: Scotland clear


40 minutes - On scrum penalty advantage, Ireland release Conway up the right and he makes big gains. However, Henderson knocks on the pass and the danger is gone.

Result: Ireland miss penalty


56 minutes - After three visits with no return, Ireland get their fourth try as Conway forces Ryan Wilson into a mistake and, when Larmour tidies up the loose ball, bounces out to the right wing where Murray finds him and the winger beats two men to score.

Result: Converted try


60 minutes - Stockdale knocks on a try-scoring pass from Luke McGrath, but the Ireland scrum eviscerates the Scots and wins one against the head. Stander carries into the 22, but eight phases later the ball ricochets off Jack Carty's boot in a ruck and is cleared.

Result: Scotland clear


66 minutes - From a neat scrum move, Chris Farrell scythes through and finds Stockdale. Two passes find Stander who carries hard, Farrell carries and McGrath does well to interest defenders and free Ryan and Stander. Dave Kilcoyne is forced back, so Wayne Barnes goes back for the penalty and Carty scores Ireland's final points.

Result: Successful penalty kick


Schmidt has picked each and every one of these moments apart and while there was much to admire about Ireland's play, he'll find room for improvement in all of them.

Points went a-begging through poor technique and decisions, but equally their level of play in getting in to that position was excellent.

To win the World Cup, they'll need to get better everywhere. Converting even more when they have the chances will be high on the list.

But the fact they're already operating at 2018 levels is a real sign that they mean business in Japan.

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