Sunday 19 November 2017

Trevor Hogan: Mauling Aussie confidence will be difficult – but not impossible

Joe Schmidt has a lot to consider
Joe Schmidt has a lot to consider

Trevor Hogan

For all the anticipation about the dawn of the Joe Schmidt era, it was apt that the first try under his tenure, against Samoa, came from a maul.

Schmidt's game plan is not just about passing accuracy and patterns off the set-piece; it is about ruthlessly exploiting opposition weakness, wherever it is found.

And if a weakness can be detected in a team's maul, then that's something all coaches, especially one as pragmatic as Schmidt, will look to exploit.

There were many aspects of the performance against Samoa that the Irish management were not happy with, notably in terms of defence and kicking strategy in the first half.

However, the set-piece, especially the maul, would have been a source of huge satisfaction, particularly for forwards coach John Plumtree.

It is becoming increasingly difficult at the highest level to score from a maul, and even allowing for Samoa's disorganisation, Ireland's execution here was first class, highlighting what could prove to be a major weapon against Australia this weekend.

One of the rarest sights in international rugby is an Australian lacking in confidence. Regardless of what happens, their self-belief is consistently striking.

MANNER

Even playing against their 'A' side on a wet night in Thomond Park a few seasons back, when we were well on top, I sensed that they always felt they were better than us. They just had this look and manner of self-assurance.

The maul, however, can be a great way to sap some of that belief out of the Australian pack.

In rugby, the kick to the corner is essentially a throwing down of the gauntlet – a challenge that strikes to the core of the opposition pack. Often it is not just a tactical choice of needing five points – the maul can be about setting a tone and sending a message.

Paul O'Connell once produced a memorable line pre-match in the Munster dressing-room: "We'll know how much we are up for it from the first maul!"

It's a powerful reminder to not underestimate this battle. It can be easy to detect an opposition's weakness here while also providing an opportunity to indicate your own strength. The first Irish line-out drive against the Pacific islanders set the standard after 20 minutes. The Irish mindset was intense and precise in every aspect.

This was reflected in the multiple mini-roles that were executed accurately. If one individual had failed in his job, then the drive would have been sacked and momentum lost.

It is worth looking at some of these roles in a bit of detail. Firstly, the line-out that Devin Toner selected was ideal. He chose a 'six plus one' – whereby the scrum-half joins the backline to be replaced by one of the forwards, giving you six forwards in the line.

In this case, the 'plus one' was Chris Henry and with Henry at half-back, the advantage is that he was able to rip the ball from Toner as soon as he came to the ground, ensuring the transfer was instant.

As a result, even if Toner had been sacked, the maul could still form with Henry secure at the back.

Secondly, the speed with which Jack McGrath and Mike Ross got into their position, sealing the maul, was vital, allowing Henry to slip to the back, and give the maul important length and distance from the opposition. The lifters, Peter O'Mahony and and Mike McCarthy, stood firm in the face of a battering from Ofisa Treviranus and Filo Paulo.

Jamie Heaslip too had a vital role in supporting O'Mahony just prior to Toner landing – a job that often goes unnoticed. With all these roles in place, once Ireland showed the patience to keep their shape, Samoa were done for.

There are generally two options when it comes to defending a maul: whip the jumper to ground as soon as he lands, sacking the drive instantly; or smash the maul to try and disintegrate and split the opposition. Samoa did neither.

Their reaction was poor, lacking aggression and awareness, with Jack Lam not hitting the maul until it had rolled 15 metres. If the maul is not dealt with straight away, then it is very difficult to stop.

This contrasted sharply with how Ireland defended the exact same set-up in the second half.

O'Connell, McGrath and Heaslip absolutely blitzed through the Samoan line, breaking it up completely, with O'Connell ultimately flinging Lam on his back. From that point on, the Samoan pack knew they were beaten.

It won't be as straightforward this weekend against Australia. In Rome, however, Italy managed to expose a lack of communication and structure in the Wallabies' line-out.

The maul will be one way of letting them know we are up for the battle tomorrow.

Irish Independent

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