Sunday 21 July 2019

Ireland must fix lineout in face of Itoje threat to have a chance

England's Maro Itoje during squad training. Photo: REUTERS
England's Maro Itoje during squad training. Photo: REUTERS
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Watching England rip Scotland apart repeatedly last weekend, it was clear that Andy Farrell would have his work cut out this week.

Eddie Jones has already stated that he sees similarities in the way the Scots and Ireland defend, signalling an intent to go after Joe Schmidt's men with a similar intent and pledging to be even better than they were at Twickenham.

Ireland must also be better than they were a week ago. They didn't play badly in Cardiff, which makes their heavy defeat all the more galling.

The loss of Conor Murray makes life all the more difficult for Ireland.

As the visitors attempt a world record 19th win to claim a second Grand Slam in a row, the question for Ireland is: just how do you stop this England team?

Ramp up line-speed

Farrell can't be having a normal week. Detailing a set of back-rows to hunt your son down is just not an ordinary thing to do.

Ireland's rearguard creaked in Cardiff, particularly when Johnny Sexton was off the pitch, and Farrell will have watched the blistering English attack led by his son closely.

Having been carved open from clean, off-the-top lineout ball for Wales' first try, Farrell has been forewarned. England's set-piece moves were carried out with precision and the Scots could barely lay a glove on the men in white.

Farrell's approach will be to ramp up the Irish line-speed to get in George Ford and his son Owen's faces. Against Wales, Ireland got off the line brilliantly in the opening 20 minutes - often led by Sexton. Some of the impacts were colossal and they looked the better team in that phase.

If they can sustain that level of intensity without the ball, Ben Youngs, Ford and Farrell won't have the space to create openings for those outside.

Ireland have struggled with width, however, and England's inclusion of the pacey Anthony Watson is a worry.

Together with the sublime Billy Vunipola - who combines the attributes of a tank and a Rolls Royce, offering enough threat himself to suck in defenders but also the ability to release those outside him on a wrapping second wave - the Bath winger has terrorised Irish defences in the past.

Ireland's mission is to get off the line early and abruptly meet the ball-carrier before he knows what he's doing. Any sluggishness will be exploited.

Fix the lineout maul

Given the amount of analysis that goes on before internationals, it's no surprise that teams have figured out that if you stop Ireland getting clean lineout ball and disrupt their maul, you're half-way there.

Certainly, Wales did just that but Ireland didn't help themselves last Friday night.

More than half of Ireland's tries under Schmidt come from lineout ball and their maul is central to their control of matches. Against France, it got them back into a game they were losing control of, and in Cardiff it almost gave them the lead until Robbie Henshaw's untimely intervention.

Throughout the tournament, they have turned to their maul but gotten less change than the leading lights in this area. Before last weekend, England were averaging 5m for every maul to Ireland's 2.2m.

Things won't get any easier now as Maro Itoje brings his bag of tricks to the party. The prodigious England second-row, who wears No 6 but scrummages in the engine room, is a master of disruption, and he did a number on Ireland's lineout last season.

The first mission is to secure possession. Rory Best's throw is under pressure and the decision not to pick Peter O'Mahony and to drop caller Devin Toner heap more responsibility onto the hooker's shoulders.

With Itoje, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes offering height throughout the English line, it will be a difficult evening for Best.

New caller Donnacha Ryan has his work cut out to secure the precious ball, and his lineout will need to be innovative.

Kick and clap

Jones continued his trolling of Schmidt with his "kick and clap" comments about Ireland's approach, but Ireland will get a standing ovation if they get their boot strategy correct on Saturday.

Elliott Daly's head issues have limited his involvement in training this week and the talented back is playing out of position on the right wing, something Sexton and Kieran Marmion will look to exploit.

Given England's proficiency off lineout ball, the half-backs will be wary of attempting to exit into touch from their own '22' given the ball rarely makes it past half-way and invites pressure from the set-piece.

Instead, Ireland may look to Mike Brown for solace. The full-back is a tidy player, but he rarely passes the ball and will carry the ball directly into traffic, where Ireland will hope to turn him over.

Jared Payne is a different type of full-back but still does well in the air, while Keith Earls will back himself against Daly. Watson, however, is a different proposition and should probably be avoided.

Bring the Payne

Rob Kearney was excellent in Cardiff, but Payne's inclusion adds a distributor to the Irish backline and although he's short on game-time, the New Zealander has the capacity to find holes and bring others into the game.

Sexton has taken a lot on his own shoulders but the presence of Payne adds another play-making option and it would be no surprise to see him pop up at out-half frequently.

However, his inclusion came late in the week, meaning his time in team runs have been limited. He showed his class in South Africa; Ireland need more of the same tomorrow.

Increase the pace

Given Toner's absence and Ireland's lineout woes, it would be no surprise to see Sexton and Marmion tap and go with penalties to try and keep the giant England pack moving.

It worked a treat in 2011 when Declan Kidney's side stopped Martin Johnson's men winning a Grand Slam and, while this is a much better English side, the theory behind increasing the tempo and moving the ball quickly remains sound.

Irish Independent

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