“I’m just sorry…,” the email started, “that I was proved correct in the end.”
A semi-regular correspondent of mine had seen enough of Saturday’s performance to declare that Ireland’s “robotic attack” had “finally been cracked”. Sometimes we’re all capable of seeing what we want to see when it comes to this game. If you’re someone that likes a bit of maverick in your attacking play, then Schmidt’s attacking structure can seem like the anthesis to the idea of rugby as a series of spontaneous displays of creativity. There certainly is a place for spontaneity in the modern game but when you get to test match level in 2018 with the physicality, lack of time and space and intensity we have in this day and age, relying on someone to create a bit of magic isn’t the kind of thing that many Tier One coaches are going to build around.
What happens if the magic man has an off day, for example, as they very often do? It isn’t reliable and if it’s not reliable, Schmidt isn’t interested in it.
The point of Schmidt’s system is to provide structure in a game where modern defences actively seek to disrupt the concept of having anything reliable. For that system to work there have to be a few specific elements in place – ball security, multiple centre-field carrying threats, a few expandable set-piece strikes, intelligent option taking from halfback with a strong kick chase and all without coughing up too many transition events that the opposition can prosper off. When Ireland scored 20 tries (next highest was 14) in this year’s Six Nations, it was based off these core principles.
One of the biggest complaints I hear about Ireland’s style is that we “kick the leather off the ball” but on Saturday, Ireland kicked 22 times – that’s fewer kicks than Australia and the All Blacks. When you consider that only 9 of those kicks were “contestable” box kicks, you get a different picture of how Ireland approached this game and why our attack looked a little blunt.
Australia, on the other hand, kicked a lot. I spoke pre-game about their aerial threat across the pitch but I underestimated just how often they’d use this tactic and how effective it would actually be.
Kurtley Beale alone kicked the ball 14 times – he passed the ball 15 times and carried 14 times – and most of Australia’s kicks were aimed at getting Folau, Haylett-Petty and Koroibete into positions where they could contest in the air or pressure our receivers. It didn’t always work – as this GIF medley shows – but when it did Australia were rewarded with possession and/or field position.
Ireland, when compared to Australia in this regard, hardly kicked at all and looked blunter than we have in over a year. Are the two things linked?
I’ve written a few articles on kicking over the last few weeks – here and here – with the intention of illustrating why teams like Munster/Ireland would kick a lot in a game but I’d be hesitant to lay all the blame on that here.
Schmidt would have looked at Australia’s height in the backfield pre-game and reasoned that going too heavy on wing target box-kicks would be a risky play. Haylett-Petty is 6’3″, Folau is 6’4″, Koroibete is 6’0″ and all three are well capable of elite transition attack.
We did go after Folau on two restarts – with the idea of (a) roughing him up and (b) getting him out of position for a further kick attack straight after – but we dropped that tactic after conceding one penalty and losing possession.
Other than that, we didn’t really attack through the boot specifically until we were looking to make something happen at the end of a multiphase sequence that was running out of space with Stockdale often being forced into suboptimal kick throughs when they weren’t really on.
A lot of the time, we were faced with instances like this but we actively didn’t use a kick option.
This was a plausible option in this position with Australia leaving the centre of the backfield undefended and with slow-moving forwards defending the line.
Instead, we went through two carries;
We retained the ball, so it’s not the worst outcome by a long way, but it wasn’t the only time we left an option like that behind us. We’ll absolutely be trying kicks in scenarios this in the next test as a way to get around Australia’s 12/13 man front line and their heavy blitz.
So we didn’t kick as much as we could have. What did we do? Let’s have a look at some of our phase possessions to see where it went wrong.
Here’s some work off a lineout possession early in the first half.
Carbery’s initial drift line draws Pocock and Beale into Aki’s line and Ireland’s inside centre makes a strong carry into the middle of the pitch. So far, so good.
This is a classic 3/4 part Schmidt strike play off a lineout where the sting comes at the end, rather than one sequence of hands across the pitch as I’ll show later.
The next role in this play was to chop off the Australian cover on the left side of the pitch with a strong narrow carry and then spring Carbery, Kearney and Stockdale around the corner for the killer move on Phase 3.
The carry from Henderson was the key part of this move once Aki’s carry generated quick ball off the lineout because if we could get a good strike beyond the gain line here, we’d have Carbery sliding around the corner at Koroibete who had shot up next to Kurevi on the next phase.
We didn’t get it.
Coleman makes a superb tackle to stop Henderson dead in his tracks which allows Australia to move numbers into the space we wanted on the next phase. That stalled our strike move but the pieces are still in play – Joe Schmidt doesn’t really do one and done strike moves, and you can see the alternative pieces coming around the corner in the guise of John Ryan, James Ryan, Jack McGrath and CJ Stander.
For me, I think we hit the wrong option after Henderson and Ryan’s carry. James Ryan made good ground but was he the best option?
The space was still outside Koroibete and now Carbery had Stander to work with as a decoy screen and Kearney/Stockdale adding width.
By the next phase, the space was less sure on the side we’d just attacked and we went back on the reverse.
This is where Carbery’s attacking reset speed is so impressive – he’s already heading into the second layer to take a pullback from Herring, who executes it perfectly.
From there, I thought Carbery took the best option available to him on his line and took it right to the line with Pocock catching him for good measure.
The killer pass was this;
But the closer Carbery got to the gain line, the tougher that pass became with Kearney arcing off Aki’s decoy line and Earls waiting to finish on the outside. This time next year, I think Carbery makes that killer pass to Kearney in the same circumstance. Ideally, this is one of the perfect ways to get Carbery into the game – coming around the corner attacking the edge with a strike running fullback and winger outside him.
Once Aki recycled the ball, we went through two scrappy forward carries lost ground but, crucially, earned centre-field position that threw up another edge opportunity.
Ideally, Carbery gets on the run from Murray, the Ryans hold the last defender and then Carbery can hit Stockdale coming around the corner to attack that space with O’Mahony in support and only Folau to beat once the bust comes.
Let’s see how it rolls out;
Not bad but, again, not optimal. What spoils it? Beale’s shoot on Ryan’s outside shoulder probably sold Carbery on hitting James Ryan at the last minute but I think Schmidt will be looking at John Ryan’s positioning as the trap sets on this play.
He’s a little too compact on this screen so his support line blocks the pass out the back but also isn’t a sell for the defender inside Beale. That allows Beale to step up on Stockdale and leave James Ryan for the inside defender. A little more separation from John Ryan makes this an easier pass to thread through to Stockdale but Ryan’s support line for the offload after James Ryan’s carry was good too.
Once the ball was recycled, we’d burned through most of our top options and hit Stockdale on a low percentage ball that he ultimately turned over.
We were making decent ground in most of our carries but small errors in execution and physicality gave Australia the “out” they needed to get their excellent, mobile scramble defence into play. If we weren’t going to chip over the top we needed to be ultra sharp to get around the Wallaby defence.
Set Piece Running
Our strike moves off the lineout were crisp, but lacked a finishing edge. This was an excellent example;
McGrath and Murphy shift the ball wide to Murray and Carbery, who have shifted into the middle of the pitch and then use two decoy runners to get Stockdale around the corner for a perfectly designed two on one with Haylett-Petty.
Earls wasn’t able to get the finish he would have liked but, in fairness, he failed a HIA a few minutes later having taken a heavy knock on a kick chase.
We tried a nice reverse momentum play too;
That’s a smooth body shape and pass from Carbery but Aki will be cursing the referee for standing in his line back against the grain.
There was some nice work but, like much of the rest of the attack, it was a little down on its usual high standards.
The Trouble With Transition
Ireland will be a little disappointed with the work on kick transition. Kearney’s misread in the first half lead to a concession of field position that Australia would end up scoring from, and then we were unable to hurt the Wallabies on the 6/7 kick transition events they coughed up.
This was one they’ll want back;
After Kearney trucks the ball back after claiming the kick, he creates a disrupted ruck and offside line for the Australians to resource on the run. So far, so good.
What happens then?
We get turned over by Pocock after going back to the blindside. Technically, we have a one-man overlap on that side but look at the detail.
All of the Wallaby back row was stuck in a 10m box near the ruck. Murray looked wide but thought against it.
He saw Carbery, Ryan and O’Mahony and decided against using that side, even though Australia had a group of tight 5 forwards guarding the outside edge.
I’d have like to see Aki float over to the openside in the aftermath of the first ruck post-transition to give us that wide option to take advantage of Australia’s dodgy reset.
Usually, Ireland are quite good at this so they’ll be quite disappointed with their work here.
When Sexton and the rest of the cavalry came on, we stuck with the same attacking patterns. Here’s a tramline superload we tried almost as soon as Sexton came on the field.
We were looking to pin the majority of the Australian cover on one side of the pitch so we could stretch them out and cut them up on the other side of the field.
That’s why you saw Sexton repeatedly send big runners into the same narrow channel on one side of the field. Australia had close to 12 defenders in one half of the pitch before Sexton used Furlong to set the trap.
Once Australia had bit in on the Furlong hit, we looked to go wide with a move we’ve used a few times before but the timing was a little off and Aki got turned over.
Did you see where we were engineering the space? Henshaw’s block line on Hooper was meant to make the space for the inside ball to Stockdale.
Did Stockdale overrun the line? Did Aki mistime the pass and stall his own line? Perhaps. Either way, it lead to Australia turning us over and should have scored a try on breakdown transition.
Unlike earlier in the game, Australia got the ball to where our tight forwards were defending and Ireland got away with murder in having this one chalked off.
Australia were tight on their transition attacks, we weren’t. A small thing, but it adds up.
It wasn’t all bad by any means – we had a good break by Stander that didn’t quite get the finish and this good three-pronged strike late in the game that ended in a poor refereeing call.
Those little things will be the facets that Schmidt will take into test two – an improvement in our attacking kicking during phase play to put doubt in the Australian defensive set up, targeting Koroibete in the air over his shoulder at an angle and changing our carrying roster up.
We used Henderson, Stander and Ryan as our primary forward ball carriers but I felt that Henderson didn’t really have the kind of impact he normally does. He was stopped on a few handy ones and lost possession in contact on one occasion. Getting Leavy, Healy and Furlong back in the starting XV will definitely help split the carrying a little better and help stretch Australia a little more in the second test.