Eating The Elephant

We just about survived the snow, ice and the accompanying thaw and now we have a further challenge to navigate; an Irish rugby weekend with the Grand Slam on the line against a game Scottish side that mugged us in Murrayfield last season.

If results go our way this weekend we could, conceivably, have a championship in the bag by the trip to Twickenham but, as you know, We Don’t Talk About Those Kind Of Things in the build-up to a game of this magnitude. Like a reverse Beetlejuice, talking about the Slam aloud can often lead to the Mocker Gods deciding that, actually, that ‘ain’t happening this year after all.

So I won’t mention the “GS” this week. Instead, let’s control the controllable, hammer the hammer and eat that elephant one bite at a time by looking at the upcoming ruck battle this weekend. In particular, I’ll have a look at how Ireland could look to deal with a Scottish ruck defence that frightened the life out of England in Murrayfield before the mini Ice Age last weekend.

If you haven’t watched that game back, I really do recommend doing so just have a look at way Scotland absolutely butchered England on their own possession. But how did that happen? And will Ireland suffer the same fate this weekend?

Wide Bore, No Support

The first thing we have to acknowledge is how easy England made it for Scotland in Murrayfield. That isn’t a slight on Scotland’s achievement, merely an observation that this was as bad as I’ve seen Eddie Jones’ England play in quite some time. They were sluggish in their attack, confused and insecure on defence and looked badly caught for speed – both physically and mentally.

Let’s have a look at some of Scotland’s steals on the floor and try to spot a common theme;

Here’s the first one I spotted and it’s less than two minutes into the game. This is a ball England should never, ever be losing as it’s less than three metres away from the previous ruck. Look at the pace that Launchbury and Lawes approach Vunipola’s carrying line, and pay particular attention to Lawes. Why is he trying to win a shoulder battle from here?

Note the clear release

Hamish Watson is stuffing Launchbury’s cleanout line post-tackle – something Scotland are quite good at in general – so, for me, Lawes has to take an aggressive ruck entry to take Gilchrist off his feet here. Winning the shoulder battle is out of the question early, so it’s surprising to see Lawes bail out on this contest. This will have given Scotland some real impetus early in the game and taught them a lot about how England were looking to construct their attacks.

Let’s roll onto the next one;

It doesn’t look like it, but there is a release on this tackle by Hamish Watson.

It’s incredibly similar to the last GIF, isn’t it? Launchbury comes from a pillar position on the previous ruck to run a short clean out line and gets stalled by Blue #1 falling into the lane post-tackle. Launchbury comes in from a potential carrying route with a slow, ineffective attempt at a cleanout.

The biggest issue here is the separation between carrier and cleaners.

This kind of spacing gave Scotland way too much time to get over the ball and disrupt England’s possession. From a rucking perspective, England’s alignment on a ninth phase of possession was way too loose and gave their cleaners an awful lot of work to do to even retain possession, let alone provide quick ball.

There just wasn’t any rhythm to England’s attacking patterns. Here’s a great example of a simple scrum platform hit-up that was blown into a Scottish penalty;

First of all – this is superb from Barclay from a technical perspective. Barclay’s initial tackle, use of momentum and clear release position is exactly the picture that he needed to paint to get the reward. From an English perspective, this is a very soft ball to cough up. Robshaw’s pace to the first breakdown off the scrum will be a concern for England but it’s his support line off the scrum that will be the biggest issue for Eddie Jones.

Robshaw lost the race from the scrum and allowed Barclay to beat him to the contact area. Watch them in slow motion;

Barclay blocks Robshaw’s line twice and instead of running a straight line to the breakdown, Robshaw is weaving – meaning he has to run further than Barclay to get to the same spot.

Add in Ryan Wilson running a spoiler line in front of Robshaw a few seconds later and you’ve got the perfect environment for a steal. Wilson does just enough to stutter Robshaw’s step as he approaches the ruck;

This is the difference between a guy with “out and out openside” traits and a “six and a half” like Robshaw. He doesn’t have the pace or the line to beat Scotland’s pacey back row to a fairly standard centre field ruck off a scrum.

What are the common themes here from an English perspective? Confused ruck support, insufficient ruck support and lack of technical application in a circumstance where every other ruck is actively contested by the opposition.

Why is this important for Ireland? We approach the ruck in a radically different way than England do or at least the way that they did against Scotland.

Lessons For Schmidt

I have a suspicion that Eddie Jones saw the same weakness in Scotland that every other test side does – their small, mobile pack relative to their direct competitors. However, he went into this game with a distinct lack of ball-carrying dynamism in his forwards – namely Billy Vunipola. That meant that England had a lot of their pack in unfamiliar roles and it showed. Outside of Nathan Hughes and Mako Vunipola, England didn’t have many reliable “go-forward” carriers. Hartley, Cole, Launchbury, Itoje, Robshaw and Lawes are all quality players but they don’t have the “pop” on the ball that you’d want at test level.

That lead England to play a “wider” forward alignment than they normally would have if they had a more balanced carrying roster. In practice, this means that they spread their forward carries further apart to increase their man on man power advantage and, in doing so, left themselves vulnerable to getting picked off on the floor.

Here’s an example of what I mean;

They didn’t lose the ball here but you can see the theory in action. Launchbury might not be a gainline monster normally but put him one on one with Hamish Watson in midfield and, in theory, he’ll make ground. He certainly did in this instance but Cole had to make up a good bit of ground in support even with Nathan Hughes arriving on the scene early.

England would use one carrier and one cleaner to set up these power matchups further out from the ruck. The theory is that defensive forwards will always line up on offensive forwards and, if that holds true in the game, you can mitigate for a lack of natural ball carriers by isolating Scotland’s smaller forwards on your larger English ones.

In practice it looks like this;

First Phase *Note this doesn’t have to be the first phase in a sequence, just the first phase on this particular phase move*

The first phase uses one forward and one cleaner to set up the next strike up the middle of the pitch. If the carry takes two defenders out of the defensive line while still maintaining quick ball, it’s a good scenario. If it takes out 3 – like a Vunipola carry would – then it’s the ideal scenario. Without a carrier like that, this first phase is also the most vulnerable to getting nabbed in this system as it’s the one you’ve resourced the least with cleanout support. That said, it’s worth it if you can retain the ball.

The pass from this ruck is to one of four forward carrying options in the middle of the pitch. This is where you can hit a solid runner and burn two cleaners over the next ruck.

Second Phase

If this carry draws in forward defenders to the centre of the pitch (and it surely will, if successful) that gives you excellent options on the next phase. In practice, this is a fowards on halfbacks or midfielders scenario but it also has the option of getting the ball into your 10/12’s hands.

Third Phase

If there is a third phase, it gives you excellent options on the reverse play, which England love to use with Ford and Farrell and a wide forward pod left over after the first phase.

Jones used this wider alignment to get those “one on one” contests that he felt would produce good gain line regardless of the players natural carrying ability.

When it worked, it got England results they could work with.

One forward carrier and one forward cleaner to set up
Perfect wide ruck set up for the reverse play. Itoje and Hartley were the wide pod off the second midfield ruck.

If Mike Brown hadn’t given away a brain-dead penalty for cleaning out beyond the ball, then England were ready to roll on the next phase with Nathan Hughes sitting on the far tram.

See the width they were going for off this ruck before it was blown up? They were looking for Lawes one on one with Vunipola cleaning out before hitting the likes of Joseph, Watson, Hughes and Launchbury on the “finishing phase”.

The problem was that England kept getting disrupted on their one-man starter rucks (or a staging ruck, like they were planning with Lawes and Vunipola) and they found that Scotland’s mobile forwards were capable of getting across the pitch faster than expected. When England got that gain line and ruck dominance off set-piece, the space revealed itself;

They just couldn’t replicate this kind of dominance in their phase play or get reliable set-piece position they did on this occasion.

So what lessons can Schmidt take from Scotland’s performance? Well, he would have seen that a wide forward alignment worked to Scotland’s advantage in that it helped their talented fetchers work in space and allow them to use their speed and mobility to get across the pitch in a way that, offensively, wouldn’t be ideal.

For me, Ireland need to narrow the forward carrying and use a dominant midfield carrier to box the Scottish forward defence in tight alignments. I think Eddie Jones will consider bringing Te’o in at 12 alongside Joseph to help “hem” in opposition defences in a way that Farrell physically can’t do and I think that’s specifically due to the lessons he learned from this game.

Ireland have Stander, Healy, Henderson/Ryan, Furlong and Aki as players that demand forward defensive attention. You can see the ideal pattern already;

First Phase

Stander carries around the fringe with Leavy/Best clearing him out. Stander’s ball carrying tends to draw in two defenders on the carry, so that will limit the guys that Scotland will look to bring into the ruck as they are very mindful of their numbers against larger packs. With a specific cleanout crew that are only there to secure the ball, we can prevent Scotland from getting over the ball and narrow them close to our ruck.

Second Phase

Remember, Scotland have a (relatively) slight 10-12-13 channel and Townsend is wary of exposing Russell and Horne to unnecessary defensive responsibility so you can reasonably expect to keep the Scottish forwards in tight spaces like this. Scotland will want to keep it forward on forward – something that Ireland don’t have to do with Sexton and Aki.

Our second ruck could be set up by passing to someone like Furlong with Toner/Lock cleaning him out. We don’t need to get massive ground on this ruck, all we need to do is commit and narrow the Scottish defence while preventing them from getting over the ball.

Third Phase

This phase punches back towards the touchline through Cian Healy, and he’s cleaned out by two of Best, Leavy or Stander. If this ball is retained we have the pass out the back option to Sexton to get favourable matchups of strike runners on Russell, Horne and Laidlaw on the cover.

We want to get the likes of Aki and Henderson attacking outside the forward seam and getting into the face of Horne (who defends outside the last forward usually). Horne is a great ball player, but there’s only so many carries he can take from players with Aki’s physicality, let alone someone like Stockdale, Leavy or, god forbid from his point of view, a CJ Stander or Cian Healy. Aki and Leavy, in particular, will be key to this game. Aki’s presence as a viable heavy carrier in the middle channel will pose a real dilemma to Scotland on phase play and set-piece. Dan Leavy’s support lines and physicality off set-piece will have to be elite to deal with the pace of Barclay and Watson off both sides of the scrum and lineout. If he can keep those lines straight and hard, neither Watson or Barclay have anything for him over the ball, as good as they are.

Exploit Weakness

England kept Scotland’s forwards in the game by spreading their forwards too thinly and giving the Scottish forwards too many isolated carriers to attack. Scotland are good in the breakdown when they have space to work with but they don’t have heavy fetchers like O’Mahony, Stander and Leavy who can stop the ball under big forward pressure. Scotland don’t want to be defending heavy carries close to the ruck because they don’t have the grunt for it over the course of a game. They want the game in wide open spaces.

If Ireland keep their forward set-ups narrow and up the intensity of the strong carries the Scottish forwards have to absorb, the breakdown battle will become a non-factor from an Irish perspective.

Ireland have some of the best offensive rucking in the world right now and this is the game to show it.

Now, who’s for some elephant?