Thursday 22 February 2018

Trying times for men in green

Whether it’s a conservative game-plan or an inability to take chances, Ireland have been struggling to score tries all season

Ireland's Johnny Sexton. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA
Ireland's Johnny Sexton. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA
Ireland's Andrew Trimble. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Ireland's Conor Murray. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland's Rob Kearney. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Think back to Ireland's wins over England down the years and it is the tries that stand out.

Whether it's Gerry 'Ginger' McLoughlin's charge, Simon Geoghegan going on the outside, Keith Wood flying over the line, Brian O'Driscoll tip-toeing down the wing, Shane Horgan's arm extension or Robbie Henshaw's aerial majesty, everyone has a favourite.

Today, the big question for Ireland fans heading to Twickenham is where the next try is going to come from. The schedule has not been kind and the conditions in Paris were awful, but the fact remains that Joe Schmidt's side have not crossed the whitewash for more than two hours of rugby since Conor Murray's try against Wales, their only touchdown of the campaign.

The three seasons of the New Zealander's time in charge have seen a decline in Ireland's try scoring. In 2013-14, Ireland averaged 2.7 tries a match against Tier One opponents, while last season they got over 1.7 times a game. This year, including their World Cup games against equivalent teams, they have managed just 1.2 tries a game.

Between years one and two, Ireland lost their greatest attacker when O'Driscoll retired, and the team's ability to take risks seems to have gone with him.

Certainly, England coach Eddie Jones reckons he has Ireland figured out ahead of today's game.

"They have a clear way of winning games," the Australian said. "They go out early in the game and try to accumulate goals and pick up the try, they get 15 points and then they try to strangle you. Then they strangle you through their kicking."

The problem with that pressure game comes, however, when you make a sluggish start, like Ireland did against Argentina, or fail to take your chances when they present themselves as against Wales and France. It is, according to Ronan O'Gara, a strategy that can only get Ireland so far.

"It reminds me of going back 10-15 years ago, starting out with Munster, it was always 3, 6, 9, 12, but that's an awful slog for a team," he said. "You cannot win Test games by just the boot. That is the difference between the hemispheres at the moment, the ability to score from anywhere."

O'Gara's north versus south observation appears to be on the money.

After the World Cup, governing body World Rugby released a lengthy and highly informative statistical analysis that pointed out that, while the six finals since 1987 had produced a total of six tries and 37 penalties between them, the 2015 final between New Zealand and Australia marked a change in tack.

"RWC 2015 was different," the report explained. "There were five tries scored in the final and five penalty goals were kicked, a ratio of one to one. This scoring profile was also a reflection of the performances of both teams. The ability of New Zealand and Australia to score tries made them exceptional among the 10 Tier One teams."

On their way to the final, New Zealand and Australia scored 25 tries in their seven matches against other Tier One teams, while the remaining eight sides managed 26 tries in 21 games. All of the other teams kicked far more penalties than they scored tries.

Under Schmidt, Ireland have scored 42 tries in 21 games against Tier One opponents. Almost half of those have come from lineout ball, with Ireland's dominant set-piece a strong foundation to score from.

Unless his side can kick to the corner with a penalty to secure the necessary field position, the New Zealander generally uses pre-planned set plays or clever kicking to engineer scoring positions for his team, but rarely do the power plays lead directly to scores.

Instead, they get Ireland into the '22' where they then attempt to batter down the opposition's door through one-out carries.

Offloads are kept to a minimum - Ireland have made far fewer than any other team in all three Six Nations under Schmidt - while turnovers are largely seen as a chance to kick when other teams would attack.

At the World Cup, Ireland made more passes than any other team, but 61pc of those were part of one-pass moves. It is no surprise to learn that no team entered more rucks or mauls. It is exhausting work.

While those within the game are reluctant to dissect Ireland's attack, outside it there are others who will assess the issues at play.

Nick Bishop analysed Schmidt's Ireland during his time on the England staff and this week he published an in-depth look at the Six Nations champions' issues on Australian website Green and Gold Rugby.

Bishop puts Ireland's inability to scores tries down to three factors: 1. A heavy dependence on Johnny Sexton; 2. Schmidt's midfield selection of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne; and 3. Ireland's "overuse" of the kicking game.

"Their try average of 1.4 is one of the lowest among top tier nations, while their average number of kicks per game is one of the highest," he wrote.

"In the one game they really tried to keep the ball, kicking only 11 times while making 254 passes and building 175 rucks against Wales in 2015, they only generated one penalty try from a collapsed driving maul."

Bishop believes that opponents now know that if you target Sexton, you stop Ireland; he says that the kicking game has "maxed out" and reckons they need to reconstruct their backline.

That's one theory, but Shane Horgan argues that the system is working and it is up to the players carrying out the plan to challenge themselves

"There's a reticence with some players to take the most challenging option," he said. "Joe will always want you to take the right option, not the conservative option. There's a latent pressure from Joe which is informing some decisions. It's a subconscious inhibition.

"There's a lot of nonsense being spoken about a restrictive game-plan. Joe's keen to retain possession, but when he's analysing a game, a player will be asked why they didn't make the right decision, not necessarily be commended for merely holding on to the ball.

"We play a lot of one-out rugby and it's not a brilliant tactic. I know the philosophy is try to beat opponents around the corner with numbers, but we're taking it quite stationary so defences can spread and not put bodies in rucks.

"So we need to look at tactics in the 22. It's hugely attritional and the opposition know what we're doing.

"I know what the plan is; faster ruck ball, get them on numbers.

"We need what Eddie O'Sullivan called a little wrinkle to make defences think more. Waiting for a mistake is less likely to happen at the highest level."

Ireland's new faces will add different strengths. Stuart McCloskey is big enough to win collisions and offload, while Ultan Dillane is a second-row who can pass the ball comfortably. Josh van der Flier is the kind of mobile back-row who can link the play.

The head coach is convinced that if his players can stay composed and make the right decisions they'll score, but he will also scrutinise his own methods, and the addition of Andy Farrell will bring new ideas to the table.

The World Cup showed that success in the modern game is predicated on scoring tries. Ireland aren't coming close to the attacking standards they set in their first two seasons under Schmidt.

The Six Nations is beyond his team and the pressure is off. That allows him some breathing space to go and attack and start scoring the tries that have proven so elusive.

Irish Independent

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