Saturday 23 March 2019

Cian Tracey: 'Joe Schmidt, the stats and Ireland's Six Nations secrets'

The availability of detailed statistics to those outside professional rugby teams is now allowing games, teams and individual players to be viewed in a more analytical manner. Using these stats, Cian Tracey examines Ireland’s performances in the first two Six Nations matches and gets a coaching and player perspective on the key numbers

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Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

The use of detailed statistics in professional rugby is nothing new, but the landscape is slowly changing in terms of what is being made available to those looking in from the outside.

This season's Six Nations has seen the introduction of far more technical information courtesy of Amazon Web Services (AWS), which in turn is allowing games and individual player performances to be analysed in a more accurate manner.

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Stats will of course only tell some of the story because there are plenty of other elements that must also be considered.

"I think for a lot of coaches, stats are a guide but you can't hang your hat on them," Paul O'Connell, who is now coaching at Stade Francais, insists.

"For me anyway, you get a gut feeling about the game and you can check that gut feeling with the stats.

"Or else, sometimes you may not see a player in a game, you may not notice him and you look at the stats and you see that he has put in a big shift. But everyone is looking at different things.

"For example, the number of rucks you go to, it's a definite indicator of the work load that people are doing but it doesn't indicate if they are the right rucks, it doesn't indicate what they are doing at the rucks.

"You have to combine it with what you think you see and what you want to see."

Joe Schmidt has a team in place who will crunch the numbers for him before, during and after games, which allows the Ireland head coach to make decisions based on the gut feeling that O'Connell refers to.

From a player's perspective, there will always a big onus on their individual numbers in their differing responsibilities.

"It varies really, depending on the type of game it was," Garry Ringrose explains.

"What were the areas we gave teams access to? Or what were the areas that they denied us access where we would usually or where we had planned to target?

"It's never one specific thing. Sometimes it falls down to the rucks, sometimes it's the tackle. You would look at percentages and it would be said (by coaches): 'Look if you want to be successful in games where you had over 95pc ruck success rate, this was the result of games under 90pc.'

"You see the impact and it stresses the importance of certain aspects of the game."

Reflecting on Ireland's opening two Six Nations games, there is plenty to analyse with the availability of the kind of stats that Schmidt has been using with his players.

Kicking

So often an area of strength, Ireland's kicking game will have been a major source of frustration for Schmidt.

They never got it going against England and while there were some signs of improvement in the win over Scotland, it was still nowhere near the standards that we have come to expect.

Conor Murray's radar has been slightly off and when Johnny Sexton was replaced in the first half at Murrayfield, it was clear that the scrum-half took on far greater responsibility in terms of Ireland's exiting strategy from their own 22.

Ordinarily, that would make sense, but when Murray is not kicking well, it was somewhat puzzling that he didn't share the workload with Joey Carbery.

Instead, the scrum-half kicked the ball 13 times in open play (six more than any other player on the pitch) with Carbery only kicking twice.

Looking back on those two kicks, one was to put the ball out for half-time and another was a kick through on penalty advantage - in other words, neither were all that meaningful.

When you consider that Carbery kicked the ball the same number of times in play as Peter O'Mahony, you begin to get a sense of just how much pressure Murray took upon himself.

Ireland exited their 22 by kicking with a 60pc success rate, which was 18pc more than they managed against England.

Opposition teams are fully aware of the threat that Ireland pose with their kicking game but that equally means that they are better equipped to combat it.

It will remain a potent weapon as soon as the little wrinkles are ironed out, although there is no doubt that they need to vary their approach a bit more when doing so.

Rucking

Given how Ireland lost the breakdown battle in the defeat to England, it was no surprise to see Schmidt put a big focus on that area against Scotland.

Schmidt got the response he wanted in a much-improved, more physically imposing performance, but he will have been annoyed that the Scots got three breakdown steals while Ireland didn't get any.

The officiating of the breakdown by French referees in both games has been a bit of a lottery and the fact that Ireland have only had one steal and five against them typifies their frustrations.

Clearing out the rucks is essential for generating quick ball, which every team thrives on and Quinn Roux really came to the fore in this regard.

Some people often question what certain players bring to the party with Roux being a typical lightning-rod, and he silenced those critics with the kind of display that summed up exactly why Schmidt often picks the powerful Connacht lock when so many others seemingly wouldn't.

Against England, it was James Ryan who led the way with 46 own ruck arrivals, he was one of the first three players to arrive 38 times, while the Leinster man had 15 effective clean-outs.

A week later in Edinburgh, Schmidt tasked Roux with taking on the same role, which in turn freed up Ryan in the loose.

Roux was hugely efficient at the breakdown and his numbers were higher than what Ryan had managed at the Aviva Stadium - 54 own ruck arrivals, 46 own ruck first three and 25 clean-outs. Like Ryan, those numbers were more than any other player on the pitch managed.

From a coach's point of view, O'Connell explains how he would look into those impressive figures from any of his players.

"You're thinking, 'Should he have been at that ruck in the first place? Did he do the right thing at the ruck? Did he go off his feet when he didn't need to?'

"Because once you go off your feet at a ruck, it's harder to get back into position.

"Did he take anyone from their team out of the game at the ruck? Because if you go to a ruck and they still have 15 people on their feet, it's not doing a lot for you.

"But if you have a chance, get one of them on the ground, so going to rucks is a very vague stat that only tells a very small amount of the story."

Attack

You don't need to delve too deep into the stats to see that Ireland's attack hasn't quite fired on all cylinders yet.

Jacob Stockdale's stunning try was the stand-out moment thus far and while Joey Carbery's classy pass for Keith Earls also caught the eye, by and large, Ireland have been a bit off in terms of their execution at Murrayfield. They powered over the gain-line 38pc of the time with ball in hand, which was actually seven percentage points down on what it was against England.

Rob Kearney's return to full-back added an extra dynamic and he comfortably made the most metres of any Irish player with an impressive 102 for 11 carries.

Comparing those numbers with Robbie Henshaw, the Athlone native made 78 metres in his 12 carries the previous week.

After conjuring up six line-breaks (three from Kearney) last weekend, Schmidt will have expected his players to convert more of their chances.

Defence

The newest craze here are 'dominant tackles', which is essentially a huge hit that stops an opposition player on the gain-line.

After England clocked up a staggering 46 compared to Ireland's nine, Schmidt's side were still some way behind Scotland in this regard as Gregor Townsend's men made 34 to Ireland's 19.

While many are puzzled by what this means in the bigger picture, Ringrose offers a fascinating insight into how players actually look at this particular statistic.

"There are dominant tackles, then there are completed tackles, missed tackles," the outside centre, who has quickly become an outstanding defender, says.

"I have been involved in games where you have loads of dominant tackles but all it takes then is a couple of missed tackles.

"So it might look great that you are smashing them but then if you are missing them at the same time, it's a balancing act really. Ideally, it's 100pc dominant, 100pc completed, but it's never the case.

"Those stats are available and have been mentioned to us before."

Andy Farrell will be drilling his defence all next week ahead of the Italy game and he will know that had Scotland been more clinical, Ireland may have been in trouble.

Set-piece

The foundation on which every one of Schmidt's game-plans are masterminded, Ireland can be hugely satisfied with their work at both the lineout and the scrum.

Twenty-two of their 23 own lineouts have been won in the first two games as they have favoured the five-man set-up. They also stole two of Scotland's throws, while Ireland are 100pc from their own scrum (13/13). Greg Feek, who will leave his role as scrum coach after the World Cup, continues to do a remarkable job.

The value of good, clean ball from the set-piece can be seen by how Ireland launch their attack and set-piece moves.

You only have to look back at Stockdale's sensational try and see how that intricate power play was generated from Peter O'Mahony winning the lineout.

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