Do Ireland Have A Defensive Problem?

Ireland have conceded more tries to date in Six Nations 2018 (7) than they conceded at the same point in last season’s Championship (4). It’s been mentioned quite a lot since the Italian and Welsh games about Ireland’s tendency to concede a concerning amount of tries so I decided to have a bit of a deep dive on our defensive patterns this year and try to work out if, indeed, we actually do have a problem on the other side of the ball.

On the one hand, you could say that the numbers don’t lie; 7 tries and 59 points conceded this year compared to 4 tries and 46 points conceded over the same period last year shows a fairly steep decline. But are the numbers lying? Let’s get into it.

Preferred Shape

Much has been made about the narrow alignment that Ireland have used on phase play but if we’re to understand the problems Ireland have had, we need to look at what we’re actually trying to do. TV3 comms have made reference to Ireland “getting very narrow” on certain rucks as if it were an error but Ireland’s alignment on these phases is completely deliberate.

If I was to break it down, I’d say that Ireland have two main defensive alignments on regular phase play.

On Managed Kick Turnover, Ireland set up in a wide alignment.

I say “managed kick turnover” in this instance because it refers directly to a box kick that we haven’t managed to retain possession but we have managed to create a defensive ruck and get a set defensive line in place on that ruck.

This setup is mainly for practical reasons. Opposition teams like to attack away from the point where they receiver the box kick because, traditionally, the other side of the pitch is less defended on these kinds of plays.

You can see that Ireland have a fairly clear A-B-C structure in place on this ruck.

The “A” defender pillars up. The “B” defender IDs his man as the scrumhalf (Ryan does a great job of communicating this). The “C” defender is ready to strike on the first receiver with the rest of the line ready to push up and out on the cue of the ball leaving the ruck. You’ll note all of the players in the line watching the scrumhalf and not the defender in front of them.

The ball is the cue. This is a common feature in Farrell’s systems and it differs from some who instruct their line to keep their eyes on their man but the Irish line keep a rigid look at the ball at all times.

Once the ball leaves the ruck and the first contact is made, Ireland transition to their second defensive alignment – the Narrow Blitz.

Essentially, this is a 12-Up-3-Back system and it’s a system that tries to manipulate the opposition with the looks it gives the attack. The 12U3B alignment is vulnerable to being played “around” but it is quite good at preventing ground being lost in the middle of the pitch and offers kick protection in the backfield.

This graphic illustrates it from a wide ruck position. One winger (A) hangs close to the defensive line on the outside edge to “shut the door” on wide plays while also covering any cross field kicks to his side of the field. The (B) winger covers kicks over the top and will cover the same duties as (A) on reverse plays. Our 15 will patrol the middle, reading the play, communicating to the front line and watching for any kicks over the top or defensive slips. This is it in theory and, obviously, circumstances will differ slightly on the field.

The big defensive needs for us here are; strong defensive tacking and ball slowing in the front line, quick decision making at the breakdown (do I attack the ball or fold?) and work rate to fold around the ruck when necessary.

Let’s have a look at this in action;

Wide Alignment on Managed Kick Turnover. Look at Kearney leaving the line to head to the backfield.

Good line speed, strong defensive work from Healy and smart folding from O’Mahony and Ryan are the standouts here. When Wales get the ball back for the next phase, Ireland are in a Narrow Blitz alignment.

Here, the “C” defender becomes a lot more important than on the wide alignment. He pushes hard at the first receiver, while the players outside him push up and out into the oppositions attacking space.

The keys here are the strength of the tackle, keeping out of the ruck unless you have clear separation between carrier and cleaner, and managing your defensive fold.

Let’s have a look at how it played out;

Ireland took away Wales’ space, squeezed their possession and did a great job of slowing down the recycle on the last ruck through Leavy, who used the space between the carrier and his cleaners to get in over the ball. Look at how keen Sexton and Porter are to get out of that ruck area and how badly Shingler wants to trap Porter. This is the numbers battle in action.

We can use this segment to examine the theory behind the Narrow Blitz.

The initial push up takes the space from Wales and pressures the pass. Our hard, narrow blitz puts a squeeze on the Welsh attempt to pass across the line and it helps us to knock Wales back behind the gain line.

Look at the line discipline of the push outside “C”.

That kind of flat wall makes a line break through the middle extremely unlikely barring a defensive mistake and if it works to plan, it’ll provide a dominant hit. O’Mahony hunts Biggar, Ryan shuts the door on the reverse to Hill, and the outside defenders squeeze that pass across the line. This is very effective stuff.

As the ball moves wider, Earls steps up into the line outside Aki to “close the door” on the two Welsh attackers that are outside Aki in the trams.

The key question on the narrow alignment is; what if the ball doesn’t go across the line and, instead, goes out the back to a distributor? Doesn’t that kill the blitz?

Not necessarily.

This is where we get into the study of rugby General Relativity i.e. time and space on a rugby pitch.

If the opposition are lined up outside our edge defender, we have to back our narrow blitz to beat man and ball across the pitch to the point of attack. Look at the above graphic. The distance between the carrier and the overlap is such that it gives Ireland time to get across the space and negate that weakness of the Narrow Blitz – the space it leaves on the outside edge.

That weakness is exacerbated by poor folding, losing numbers in the ruck without slowing the ball and bad defensive shooting. In general, Ireland’s defensive structure is very solid. It’s easy to understand, the roles are clearly defined and we have no week links to hide (i.e. our halfbacks are all capable front 12 defenders).

We can recover back to the system quite quickly after collective errors i.e. see this sequence after a bad scrum 1,2,3 as an example of our ability to snap back into structure quickly.

For me, Ireland don’t have a systemic issue, they have an individual error issue. This isn’t just on kick transition errors that account for three of our seven conceded tries (and which I’ve done to death), it’s with not being able to recover from key defensive lapses in important areas.

Let’s have a look at the tries we conceded against Wales.

Try #1

Wales first try wasn’t the product of a cataclysmic individual error, just a collection of small ones in key areas. I’ll run through the build-up to see where the issues were.

There are no real issues here at all, at least on this phase. Leavy does well to scrag Parkes and Sexton stepped in on the seam defence with the usual quality you’d expect from him. If I was to nitpick, I’d say that Leavy sat down a little on Moriarty but he recovered well enough for it not be an issue.

Let’s roll on to the next phase;

Here it is; two individual errors in key areas. This isn’t really a structure issue this close to our tryline, and the overlap is due to most of our forwards being trapped on the blindside by the phases directly following it. Rory Best slips off the initial tackle and then Andrew Porter fails to get a good stop on Shingler. Stander steps in to make the tackle, which leaves Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell defending 20 metres of space in front of our own posts. A try was scored on the next phase.

There’s nothing fancy here – just a missed tackle followed by a bit of a soak tackle and all of this taking place up the middle of the pitch in our 22 off a set piece. We can have missed tackles (they happen) but slips in this particular position can be incredibly costly, as this one was here.

Try #2

This started out quite well. The initial ruck position comes from a Managed Kick Transition. Look at the general width we get on the first phase of defence.

Stockdale takes up a good position as the edge defender and Sexton runs over to the (A) wing defender position to “shut the door” on the Welsh numbers. He isn’t needed though, as Chris Farrell makes a massive stop on Shingler.

This was a good bit of defensive improvisation after a fairly strenuous defensive set just prior to the kick. Wales would hang onto the ball and recover their composure for a box kick.

This is an outstanding offensive take from Biggar. Rob Kearney will be incredibly disappointed that he didn’t claim this one, given he was in the exact position he would have wanted. It’s a little much to criticise him for not taking it though, given the inherent 50/50 nature of these kicks. The 20m that Wales gained here would force our aligned defence to jog back to reset after already burning a lot of gas to man the line on the phases just prior to this.

Here’s the picture after Biggar recycled;

This isn’t a bad alignment, but it’s far from optimal. We’re a man down on the front line as you can see Healy arriving back late. This isn’t any slight on Healy, as he was obviously burned out at this point, and was subbed straight after. Either way, that missing guy was important, as you can see our blitz is split into two components.

Let’s have a look at how it played out on the next phase;

For me, Earls left himself a bit too much to do on this play and should probably have held his depth in North’s channel. By blitzing up on Williams, he gave Evans a good 10m head start and, even though he made the tackle eventually, I think he could have positioned himself a little better.

I’d want him holding his position in the above image, rather than going that extra five-ish metres. It would have put Parkes in two minds on the float pass and/or forced a ball to Williams which would have eaten up a bit more travel time for the pack. This is all hindsight stuff, of course, because as per usual, the real problems happened much earlier – back on the kick Biggar won.

That transition from their 10m line to ours created a defensive separation and made defending this wide play incredibly difficult once Wales won the ball back.

When we managed to stop Wales off this break, we were in “no mistake” territory given how much black smoke we would have been blowing off this play which, at the point of the last ruck in that GIF, had been going for nearly two minutes of non-stop action shuttling up and down the pitch.

Let’s roll it on;

Let’s ignore the forward pass for argument’s sake.

We had recovered quite well at the point of the beginning of the GIF but you can see the error on the final play – Stockdale overshooting on Parkes. It’s a little over-enthusiasm – the same enthusiasm that would seal the game for Ireland twenty minutes later – but he just made a bad read on this one.

Aki had Parkes stood up so all Stockdale needed to do was attack the space above and/or drift with the ball onto Navidi. It’s an easy mistake to make for a young player in this circumstance though, given he was defending a massive edge on a fairly lengthy defensive set.

Try #3

This try featured a few errors directly from the restart after Murray stretched the lead to 10 points and owed a large part to the cardio intensive last quarter of this game.

Let’s look at the first phase post-restart;

It’s a pretty good recovery. Kearney’s miss on North is fairly egregious but he’s bailed out by Stockdale, so it can’t be considered a key moment.

Again, Ireland recovered well and stopped Wales up on a centre-field ruck. This isn’t a massive deal to Ireland though, given our proficiency with the Narrow Blitz and we had a decent alignment on the ruck.

We have good numbers, and McFadden stepping up to “shut the door”.

Let’s have a look at what happened;

There are two errors here. The first is Conan’s, and then as a follow on from that McFadden is left in a tough spot.

Let’s look at the first error;

Conan makes a bad read and shoots on Parkes (who had a really influential game, by the way). That departure from the defensive structure has a knock on effect that goes into the micro-moment breakdown of how a try is scored.

First of all, what should Conan have done? Something like this, I think;

Conan is the guy inside Aki, for clarity’s sake.

Parkes wasn’t his man to take. Murray was the “C” defender in this instance, and as such Parkes was his man to defend, but I think Conan assumed that he was the “C” defender, given that Murray would rarely be in that position. Murray is communicating to McGrath to watch Halfpenny on the reverse and he’s advancing towards Parkes. In this situation, Conan has to advance and drift diagonally to Parkes outside shoulder.

Either way, Conan stepped out of the structure and when you do that, you’ve got to take man and ball. By stepping out of the line, he created a 3 on 2 overlap that should have been a 3 on 3.

Here’s what probably would have happened if Conan had drifted with the ball instead of shooting on Parkes.

Optimal. Still highly dangerous, but better than what happened.
What actually happened.

After the ball gets to Williams, McFadden is in a tough spot and doesn’t seem to trust Bundee on his inside shoulder. In McFadden’s head, does he stay out on Navidi and Evans? Or go in on Williams? He picks the wrong option and Williams gets his hands free to Navidi and, just like that, Wales are back within three points.

It’s hard to be too critical on Conan because he, like Stockdale, is a young player looking to make a big impact in his time on the pitch. He wanted to make a big defensive play, got his roles a little mixed up (I think) and made a bad read. It happens. You could equally blame our poor restart work in the build-up for putting us in the position to even be defending in this position.

Either way, the narrowness of Ireland’s defence on this ruck – or, indeed, the other rucks – wasn’t an issue. It was the actions of the people in the system.

If we can cut out these little errors, we should have the wherewithal to manage Scotland and then roll the dice against England in Twickenham.

The system works. We just have to work better within it.