Sunday 20 October 2019

Alan Quinlan: 'Murray and Co must think outside the box-kick if Ireland are to give rivals the boot'

Ireland's Conor Murray. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Conor Murray. Photo: Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

"They kick 70pc of their ball away. If they want to do that, good luck to them. It has worked for them. It is not the way I think you should play rugby but it has been successful for them, so good luck."

Eddie Jones, February 2016

"We just think that's the way the game is going. If teams defend as they do now, there's space in the back-field. We have to get defenders back there and the only way we do that is to put the ball in that space."

Eddie Jones, February 2019

It is easy to forget that behind the screen of sound bites, pot-shots and bluster there is a calculating and astute rugby coach who is humble enough to adapt his tactics to suit the game's natural evolution.

Eddie Jones is a grand master of distraction.

You can see he gleans great satisfaction from throwing smoke bombs in every which direction, causing hysteria and distorting perceptions.

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This is the same Eddie Jones who scoffed at Ireland's 'kick and clap' style, someone who, if you believed everything he said in recent years, felt a sharp pain in his side every time someone put boot to ball.

Jones would happily have everyone believe that Ireland are one-dimensional and draining to watch while his carefree team only need vigour to win rugby matches.

Traditional southern hemisphere slights, particularly from Jones, are, thankfully, generally taken with the fistful of salt that they deserve.

Reality

The reality is that England kicking the ball more than Ireland is not a new thing.

Last season they put boot to ball 133 times in their five Six Nations outings, 23 times more than Joe Schmidt's side did.

In 2016, when Jones fired his public barb at Ireland's tactics, as his side went on to win the Grand Slam, England kicked the ball from hand 177 times in their five games, with Ireland choosing that option 43 times fewer.

England's kicking game in the first two rounds of the Six Nations has been well documented - 32 kicks from hand against Ireland, 47 against France - but there hasn't been some sort of seismic shift in their outlook.

They may be kicking a little bit more, but the real difference has been the quality of their kicking - and there are plenty of things they are doing well that Ireland can learn from.

The variety and accuracy of England's kicking game is keeping the opposition on edge, their kick chase has been excellent in its aggression and timing, and they have also been able to put two inexperienced international full-backs - Robbie Henshaw and Yoann Huget - under immense pressure.

Owen Farrell has been exceptional this spring, blossoming in his new role as captain, and to this point outshining the reigning World Player of the Year.

He has been ably assisted by a talented supporting cast - chiefly the impressive Ben Youngs - as the England backline have all kicked their fair share of ball, except for Manu Tuilagi who brings plenty of complementary weapons to the table.

England have rarely had to kick long to relieve pressure, which their forwards deserve great credit for.

They are mostly using the kick from hand as an attacking option, stabbing the ball through or going cross-field - mostly on the run - with a genuine belief that they will reclaim possession.

That takes incredibly detailed preparation, superb timing and absolute commitment to the game-plan from kickers and chasers.

It is remarkable, really, when you consider that England kicked the ball 47 times against France and it is not seen as a negative approach.

How can it be when seven of their 10 Six Nations tries have come from clever kicks?

Ireland's kicking game has been a real strength during Schmidt's tenure, so it is particularly disappointing to see it struggle so glaringly in the shadows of the rebooted chariot.

Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray have both looked a little bit off their peak.

The Irish decision-making and execution of tactics has not been where you would expect for such an experienced group.

And at this level, an inch out can look like a mile.

When you're getting slow ball, as our half-backs have been, your kicking accuracy is bound to suffer too.

Disrupted

The Irish kick chase, cleverly disrupted by England two weeks ago, needs to be more aggressive.

If your run under the high ball is being impeded, you need to make sure that the referee is made aware of it, by whatever means necessary.

I'd like to see Jacob Stockdale show a bit more desperation to compete in the air; when you have lightning speed and a 6ft 3in, 102kg frame you need to use it to full effect in those 50:50 situations.

Keith Earls doesn't have those same physical advantages but I would still like to see him attack the ball in the air a bit more.

Two of the best Irish kick chasers in recent years have been Andrew Trimble and Andrew Conway; like a dog in the park, they'd attack every aerial bomb with the same tenacity.

Trimble wasn't the most skilful winger in the world, and I hope he'll forgive me for saying that, but he was incredibly committed and tough, and he loved chasing box-kicks.

Even as a back-rower, if he was charging down the flank when you were hanging around for a high ball to drop, he'd put the fear of God into you.

Ireland also need to think outside the box-kick a little bit and learn from how effective England's variety has been.

Teams have a better understanding of Ireland's attacking strengths now, so the occasional grubber or dink in behind - particularly when facing a rush defence - can be a really effective change of tack as teams are so organised and difficult to break down these days.

Schmidt's side don't necessarily need to kick more, or reinvent the wheel, they just need to be more accurate and spread the workload across the backline - Rob Kearney, Earls, Stockdale, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are competent kickers, for example, while Chris Farrell has also shown some aptitude in that department.

Jones' side have set new kicking standards that Ireland now need to match and surpass, even if he tries to tell us otherwise.

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