Monday 18 December 2017

Sexton the decoy? Beasting the breakdown: Five areas where Ireland can unlock Wales

Schmidt has his men braced for breakdown impact in order to gain advantage in Cardiff

Sexton and (inset) Murray and Zebo
Sexton and (inset) Murray and Zebo
Sean O’Brien and Sam Warburton will go head to head in the crucial back-row battle at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It is a given at this level that the breakdown will set the tone, but when asked about what is coming at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow night Joe Schmidt was unequivocal about where the battle-lines will be drawn.

Describing Wales as a "dogmatic" team, he said Ireland's mission is to keep Rob Howley's men under pressure.

"How do you do that?" he asked, before answering his own question.

"You do that by trying to deny them the quick ball, deny them the easy access points, that they can launch themselves into."

So, tomorrow's game will be about possession; who dominates it and who makes the most of it.

Neither side is lacking in motivation with Welsh backs against the wall and Ireland knowing defeat would end their title chances, while cohesion shouldn't be a problem with both coaches deploying unchanged teams.

Read more: The Left Wing: 'Wales can be torn apart in the wide channels' - Luke Fitzgerald

The calibre of back-row players on display should ensure high-quality work at the most important interchange on the field and he who carries the ruck will carry the game.

Beasting the breakdown

In order to play, Ireland rely on quick, clean ball for Conor Murray.

Quality possession is the life-blood of Schmidt's attacking game and the coach demands high-accuracy clear-outs from players who are fully aware of their roles as they approach attacking rucks.

Against France, the breakdown work was sloppy early on and a similar start could prove ruinous against a Wales team who were uncharacteristically second-best in the key area against Scotland.

Rob Howley (below) has opted to once again deploy a twin-openside strategy in an attempt to win the battle with Ross Moriarty taking up the ball-carrying slack.

RUGBYU Wa (95).png
Wales interim head coach Rob Howley. Photo: PA

The hard-working Jake Ball will be asked to hit as many rucks as possible, while captain Alun Wyn Jones is not afraid of work in the area.

Ireland will look to take the Welsh poachers out of the equation by carrying the ball low and hard, busting the gain-line and making it more difficult for the opensides to get through the gate from an onside position.

Schmidt will ask his support players, or barrels, to clean the ball out with precision and ensure that the defensive player can't get over the ball.

On Wales' ball, Ireland will look to disrupt and will be heartened by their hosts' poor ruck retention stats; but their focus will be on winning and retaining their own possession.

Ruling the skies

Two years ago, Wales depowered Ireland by going after their strengths.

Schmidt's side have rarely been bettered in the aerial stakes, but the sight of Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar claiming high balls and the Irish lineout being picked off by Sam Warburton unnerved them.

Tomorrow, they will bank on being better in the air.

It took 40 minutes of graft with little reward against France before Murray and Johnny Sexton turned to the boot, but it would be no surprise to see the half-backs take the opportunity to test out George North and Leigh Halfpenny's brittle confidence by sending some high balls their way and encouraging the chasers to put pressure on.

Although he was effusive in his praise of North yesterday, the Northampton behemoth's poor form won't have escaped Schmidt's forensic analysis.

The focus has been on his poor defensive work, but his all-round confidence can't have been helped by Shaun Edwards' comments earlier this week.

If Sexton senses weakness, he'll be ruthless in exploiting it.

Out of touch, Ireland know they'll be under pressure but they will bank on securing their own ball and using their maul in the way Scotland did two weeks ago.

On Wales' ball, they will look to continue to disrupt successfully. According to Accenture, they have denied their opponents clean ball on a third of their defensive lineouts so far in this campaign and similar success would help deny Wales entry into the game.

Sexton the decoy?

During his RTé analysis of Wales' defeat to Scotland, Ronan O'Gara pointed out that Edwards had put a 'rabbit' on Finn Russell, sending a defender rushing out of the line to close down the out-half's space and to force him into a rushed decision.

Given Sexton's influence against France, there is little doubt that they will focus on trying to throw the Ireland No 10 off his game.

Ireland use Sexton in attack far more than any of their opponents and his trademark loop play was very much in evidence at the Aviva Stadium.

Perhaps the smart play would be to dummy on the loop, drawing Wales into defending Sexton and unleashing another receiver into space or back inside to a drifting defence.

With the home side expecting the out-half to run the show, using him as a decoy at times may open a door.

Shut down the set-piece chance

Wales have been most effective when attacking from set-piece platform, with Howley coming up with some set-plays that Schmidt would approve of.

With the pack locked into the scrum or the lineout, the space is there to attack but Ireland have the stronger pack and will look to ensure that Rhys Webb is getting dirty ball on the back foot.

Schmidt has been preaching about the merits of playing off scrum ball, but he will be more than happy if Jack McGrath can attack the suspect Tomas Francis in order to cause maximum disruption to the attacking supply.

Take your points

A bonus point might help in the final reckoning, but really Ireland's main job is to win in Cardiff. With Halfpenny's radar off and the all-round mood low coming into the game, scoreboard pressure will be key.

So far, Ireland have gone to the corner, but it would be no surprise to see them take every goal going.

Irish Independent

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