Thursday 25 April 2019

Ireland plan to put Russell on the back foot - Easterby

Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

'Team targets out-half' is an age-old Six Nations trope, but like all well-worn story-lines there is plenty of reality behind it.

Johnny Sexton's name is regularly taken in vain by opposition coaches in the build-up to games against Ireland, but this week the focus is on the Dubliner's opposite number - the mercurial Finn Russell. The Warriors out-half is a compelling figure, capable of winning and losing a game at a moment's notice.

Against England, he delivered one of the moments of the Six Nations to date with his delicious, risky, floated pass to unleash Huw Jones. Having endured criticism for his performance against Wales and being hauled ashore early against France, it was a brave option to take and if it had not come off it would have led to vilification.

There is a sense with Russell that while he has the capacity for the audacious game-breaking moments for his team, he can also afford opportunities to his opponents if put under pressure.


And Ireland plan on doing just that, disrupting his supply of ball at set-piece and the breakdown where possible to put the out-half on the back foot.

"That would be the case every week," forwards coach Simon Easterby said. "We would pressurise those guys in the key positions, the decision-making positions, Finn Russell would be no different to a Joey Carbery or a Johnny Sexton.

"Looking at the flip-side they will be looking to put pressure onto our key players and we need to make sure that we don't allow that to happen but we have the ability to deal with their key playmakers.

"It goes back to the set-piece, we'll start by pressurising that and then everything has a knock-on effect.

"Hopefully it's a positive effect for us and a negative for them. Don't get me wrong, the contact area and how we enter the tackle situation, how smart we are there - all of those things will have an impact on the quality and delivery of the ball for any team. We know how important that is for the likes of Finn Russell, (Peter) Horne outside him and Huw Jones - all guys who, when they are given time and space, are capable of opening a team up."

Last season Ireland gave Russell the freedom of Murrayfield. Rob Kearney said they allowed him "play in a dinner-jacket" and as a result the visiting side were badly damaged in the outside channels.

Quick ball is key to their game and Ireland will look to deny the supply as much as possible. They will have watched the fine work the Scots did against England at the ruck, penalising Eddie Jones' strategy of committing small numbers to the breakdown and turning over copious amounts of ball.

And, unsurprisingly, Easterby sees it as a key battleground. "They've shown how positive they've been with ball in hand, they're prepared to keep width in their game, they were very effective at either stopping England's momentum or turning the ball over and were pretty destructive in the contact areas," the former flanker said.

"You've got a couple of areas there that you know are going to be direct to us, so it's about us being really clinical when we've got the ball, making sure that we don't allow those threats to get in over the ball.

"Players like (John) Barclay, Hamish Watson, (Stuart) McInally... all guys that are real threats if we allow our ball-carriers to get isolated.

"The flip-side of that is making sure that when we don't have the ball that we deal with the situations in front of us. At times in this campaign we've defended really well, but there's been times when guys have gone and done things out of the system and that's created some opportunities for the opposition.


"So, it's about staying connected on both sides of the ball and making sure we don't give them those little windows to get into the game. They've got a lot of good players over the ball, we know how important it is to be able to look after - not just the ball - but also make sure that we don't leave him (the ball-carrier) isolated.

"You see the number of opportunities and chances that they had to steal the ball against England and they were able to do that, because they got isolated and they had players who were prepared to put themselves in a compromised position but they won the ball back."

If Ireland can get the upper hand at the ruck, it will limit Russell's time and space and force him into making decisions under pressure.

The rewards could be rich.

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