Monday 18 February 2019

Ireland must start to shed their 'anxiety' and embrace place in the game's new world order

Tadhg Furlong of Ireland is tackled by Jonny Gray, left, and Stuart McInally of Scotland during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Scotland and Ireland at the BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong of Ireland is tackled by Jonny Gray, left, and Stuart McInally of Scotland during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Scotland and Ireland at the BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Two weeks is a long time for Joe Schmidt and his coaching staff to mull over the last couple of games, but the truth is that they will be glad to have the break as they regroup for Italy.

It's been a tough start to the Six Nations for Ireland in more ways than one, as they have looked like a team who is still coming to terms with their place in the world order.

Ireland haven't climbed to second in the rankings by fluke, yet over the last two weekends they have played as if the weight of the world is on their shoulders.

The defeat to England meant that a win in Murrayfield was non-negotiable and Ireland delivered without getting the bonus point that was on offer.

Despite the victory, there is something still not right in terms of cohesion and the next two weeks provides Schmidt and his brains trust with a chance to figure out why that is.

The Kiwi could not ask for a better game than Italy to fine-tune some of those issues, although he may be tempted to blood fringe players as well as other new combinations before the pressure is cranked up again for the final two games against France and Wales.

Chief among Schmidt's concerns will be Ireland's kicking game and why it has been nowhere near as effective as it normally is.

Conor Murray is still showing signs that he is working his way back to the peak of his powers after a neck injury, which isn't helping Ireland's cause.

So often the go-to exit strategy, Murray's radar has been off with his box-kicking, while some of his wayward passing has been uncharacteristic.

With Johnny Sexton being forced off early against Scotland, it was noticeable that the scrum-half took on much more of the kicking responsibility, rather than sharing the workload with Joey Carbery.

Whether that was a message that came from Schmidt is unclear, but the stats tell their own story, as Murray's 13 kicks in play were six more than any other player on the pitch and 11 more than Carbery, whose two kicks remarkably matched the tally of Peter O'Mahony.

We even had the rare sight of Murray getting blocked down from a box kick, which was indicative of how Scotland had prepared for Ireland's kicking.

For an area of Ireland's game-plan that so often separates them from everyone else, it has been concerning to see them struggle with it and not look to vary their approach.

"We've got to get better at that," Schmidt admitted

"I think our kicking game is a strength for us, as a rule, and we'll be looking to remedy a few of those things and get a bit more continuity.

"I think Conor started taking a bit more responsibility when Johnny was feeling a little bit sluggish, particularly because his ankle was very sore.

"Conor was trying to kick from positions he wouldn't normally kick from and when you're trying too hard to do something, it sometimes goes awry."

Ireland's accuracy under pressure will also be a huge focus for Schmidt. They will have breathed a collective sigh of relief that Scotland were not more clinical.

Gregor Townsend bemoaned his side's lack of execution off set-plays in the second-half, but when he and Schmidt pored over the first-half footage, both coaches will have identified two gilt-edged opportunities for Scotland to have exploited Ireland's narrow defence - see the examples after three minutes and 39 minutes. Better, more clinical teams will not pass up those kind of overlaps out wide.

This is not the first time that a narrow defence has been an issue and you can be sure Andy Farrell will be trying to rectify it.

Ultimately, it comes down to trusting those outside of you. Ireland were guilty of not doing so on a couple of occasions, both in defence and attack , particularly when Rob Kearney should have passed to Jacob Stockdale on his left shortly after the break.

That said, there is no need to panic because these are little tweaks that are very fixable.

Having admitted that his players were "anxious" at the weekend, Schmidt's job now is to ensure that Ireland rediscover their spark and embrace the fact that they remain one of the best teams in the world.

Breaking down the strike move that led to Jacob Stockdale's try

57Ireland1.jpg
Peter O’Mahony wins clean possession at the lineout on the left and plays the ball to Conor Murray, who in turn finds Sean O’Brien (yellow). Jacob Stockdale (red) holds his run and waits for the move to take shape around him.

57Ireland2.jpg
After a dummy run from Jack Conan, Chris Farrell (yellow) makes a strong carry in midfield, which is crucial as it takes two Scotland defenders to haul him down. Stockdale (red) continues to stay patient and doesn’t show much interest in getting involved in the play. Keith Earls adds width on the right.

57Ireland3.jpg
From here, the beauty of the power play really ignites. O’Mahony (yellow) hasn’t yet passed to Johnny Sexton and Stockdale (red) is already arching a powerful run (blue) between James Ryan and referee Romain Poite. The animation of the other Ireland players off the ball is also important. Note how Murray is eyeing the gap that Stockdale is about to run into, while Rory Best has set off in a support line.

57Ireland4.jpg
The move works to perfection as Ireland isolate Scotland’s three front-rowers (yellow) in midfield and O’Brien’s subtle tug on Simon Berghan’s No 3 jersey stops the tighthead closing the gap. Sexton literally takes one for the team, shipping a huge hit from Allan Dell, but still manages to get a sumptuous pass away to Stockdale (red) who has continued his searing line. Best is in support out of shot, but once Stockdale bursts through the hole, no one was going to stop the prolific 22-year old scoring his eighth try in seven Six Nations games.
 

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