Ireland are a supremely dangerous side when we get a combination of good gain line and quick ball.
I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know here – you could say the same of any side in the World Rugby top four rankings – but Ireland are particularly dependent on both of these to generate the kind of phase pressure that gets us our scores.
When we don’t get this combination – like against France this season and Wales/Scotland last season – Ireland can look one dimensional, static and overly reliant on the kicking game to generate momentum.
In previous games against Wales, Ireland have consistently struggled to get their preferred pattern of play into place and it added up to the theory that Warren Gatland “had Schmidt’s number”, offensively and defensively.
On Saturday, Ireland finally cracked that theory wide open by scoring four tries that were built on getting consistent gainline and quick ball with it.
A lot of the criticisms of Ireland’s playing style seem to be centred around two main issues; the lack of offloads and the “one out” nature of Ireland’s carrying profile. I can understand why the lack of offloads might not be to everyone’s taste but Joe Schmidt can’t cater to what a certain subset of sports journalists deem to be “attractive” rugby.
Ireland’s system is quite a complex beast, but the most important part of it is reliability of process. Offloads aren’t banned under Schmidt’s desired style of rugby but they have to be made in contextually correct positions. For the most part, Schmidt wants his heavy carriers to do a few things – commit numbers, set ruck traps, and generate quick ball – and all of those things depend on the channel you’re carrying in. Ireland have been playing this way for quite a few years now, so it’s a surprise to see sections of the media fundamentally misunderstand the roles that Ireland use when they are setting up attacks.
CJ Stander took a little criticism from sections of the media in the aftermath of Saturday’s game for not “beating a single defender or offloading to a supporting colleague”. This sounds like good criticism, but it’s a misunderstanding of what Stander’s role in Schmidt’s attack is and judging him by ESPN stats that are mostly irrelevant to that role.
Stander is almost always used as a narrow sledgehammer carrier that is used to commit multiple Welsh forwards to tight rucks, wear them down over the course of the game and then generate quick ball. If he beats a defender in those tight channels, something is going seriously wrong from a Welsh defensive perspective. He’s not throwing offloads to “supporting colleagues” because the process demands that Ireland concentrate entirely on cleaning out Stander in those narrow channels where he does the bulk of his carrying.
Stander’s presence in the first carrying channel draws the attention of three Welsh pillar defenders because they know that they cannot afford to give Stander any kind of ground that close to the original ruck.
Because if he gets gainline and quick ball off that carry, then Ireland will have trapped most of the Welsh team on one side of the pitch. Ireland know that opposition sides will have scouted Stander’s close in power and Schmidt uses this form of self-scouting to manipulate the opposition defence around the pitch.
In this instance, Stander ties up three defenders close to the ruck, and that makes space for Ryan and Healy to carry in the middle channel, with Sexton lurking behind them for wider options. That threat from Stander is only viable when you fear the percentage option – that he’ll get the ball back for the next phase rather than offload most of the time.
Ryan and Healy are cleanout options for Stander and carrying options in the middle channel, with Best as a cleanout option for them. That gives Ireland viable threats across half of the pitch and a process to follow.
What does this have to do with offloading?
An offload support line is different to a cleanout line in enough ways to make it worth ignoring as a regular attacking tactic. An offload is a percentage play from the carrier and the receiver and if you’re running a proper support line for an offload you cannot offer a good cleanout line for the best kind of quick ruck ball. If an offload has a 40% payoff (at best) but you know that you get a 90%+ return from quick ruck ball, what would you want the bulk of your forwards doing as they follow a carrier? Cleaning out that ball and getting that ball to space further out.
Look at this example;
Stander took the ball in a wider channel – a rarity in this game. He had Kearney lurking on his inside shoulder and Farrell outside. Should he have offloaded here? Well, he could have I suppose. He could have stepped the outside, beat the defender with body shape, got his hands free and popped the pass to Kearney. He could, in theory, have done a handstand with the ball and monkey flipped over Alun Wyn Jones too.
But outside of rugby fantasy land, Stander is a little separated from the other forwards and Wales have solid defensive numbers on this phase. What would Schmidt want him to do in this moment? Take the percentage option.
And that is what Stander does;
He takes contact, retains the ball, slams it back and gives Ireland perfect centre field ruck position with time to realign into an optimal attacking shape.
Wales can’t blitz in this position, so Ireland are in an ideal position to attack the next phase with live options on every pass. Offloading isn’t the only way to make space.
Everyone knows their role and their cleanout duty ruck to ruck. Wales know that it’s coming but they still can’t prevent the line break.
This is Ireland playing to our current strength – our work in the ruck. I had a look at Ireland’s offensive rucking in this game and I was really impressed by the work rate and accuracy I saw from the bulk of Ireland’s pack and midfield.
As a guideline, a Dominant Action is an action that cleanly secures possession when the ball hits the deck. In essence, a Dominant Action is where the cleanout helps to “re-win” the possession on the floor in a strong, decisive manner and adds value to the following phase.
A Guard Action is where a player plays a role in helping to retain possession after we have “re-won” the ball on the floor. Sometimes this can happen on a carry where there is no active contention by the opposition.
A Passive Action can be anything from standing as a “kick shield” on a ruck to adding a bit of bulk to ward against a counter-ruck.
An Ineffective Action is a blown cleanout, a ruck lean or an action that I couldn’t see any direct benefit for.
With that out of the way, here are the ruck stats as I saw them;
|Player||Dominant Action||Guard Action||Passive Action||Ineffective Action|
Sort each column to have a look at the top performers in each column. Roux and Cronin have zero involvements but Ireland had no possession while they were on the field.
I thought Peter O’Mahony’s output for 65 minutes of work was outstanding and further illustration of the value he brings to Ireland’s attack.
Dan Leavy’s numbers show why he picked up an Awed Paulie this week. Leavy, like O’Mahony, has a real nasty streak at the ruck and they combined really well as a combo in this game. Anyone who pays close attention to Rory Best and Devin Toner won’t be surprised with their output here, or why they are key players for Joe Schmidt.
When you combine Stander’s carrying output with his ruck work, you get a glimpse of why he’s a regular 80-minute test match animal for Ireland. His output is astonishing when you consider he does most of his carrying in the heaviest of heavy traffic.
You can see why Schmidt was singling out James Ryan and Andrew Porter after the game too. For me, Porter was particularly impressive with two or three massive involvements in the build-up to two of Ireland’s tries. Plus this impressive bit of genetic freakology;
An interesting one is the contribution of Bundee Aki. Look at most of the media after the game and you’d wonder what Aki was up to in this game – these numbers will give you a good idea of how much ball he helped retain and protect on the deck. He showed exactly why he’s becoming a vital man for Schmidt with an unselfish, physical outing.
When a pack and midfield are generating these kinds of numbers, I get a picture of a team that knows exactly what they’re doing phase to phase and concentrating exclusively on the generation of quick ball. It might not be to everyone’s tastes but this game was an illustration of it working to a high standard.