The GIF Room :: The Other 77 Minutes

This game was really two games.

One game finished when Dupont hooked his penalty to the left of the Irish uprights and another began. We all remember how that ended. Maybe we’ll never forget. I won’t kid myself into thinking that anyone is going to remember the other game on Saturday and rightfully so. The 77 minutes of set-up work that forgot to land the killing blow doesn’t really deserve to be remembered. It pales in comparison to Le Drop in the same way that the game that preceded this other, different 41 phase, 40-metre drop goal in the 83rd minute of a game refereed by Nigel Owens did. (Side note: time is a flat circle.)

Let’s pretend for a minute that the drop goal never happened. Let’s live in that reality for a small while. Should we be concerned with the attacking work that preceded that 5 Minutes of Madness? Well, yes and no.

Yes, there were issues in this game but no, I don’t think they’re systemic issues to the way we’re setting up to play in 2018.

Metaphor

The “rugby as metaphorical combat” meme is one that’s a bit overused but it has merit, although not in the collective battlefield sense that a lot of people use it in. A coach I spoke to recently opened my eyes to something I had known but not really been able to put into words; rugby is like a boxing match.

Rugby, like boxing, demands that you put together combinations (phases) to land key strikes (tries) that help you win the fight early (win the game). Boxing isn’t just about going out there and throwing punches wildly – you’ll get starched by any competent opponent when you do that – so you have to set up your strikes, probe the opponent’s weaknesses and land your strikes when the opportunities present themselves.

To continue the theme, not every phase has to lead to a try but most of the phases you accumulate should help set up your opponent to get finished later. Very few boxers will get KO’d from a jab but if you jab at a guy’s left eye for long enough, you can set him up for the shot he won’t see coming and that will end the fight. This is what phase play looks to achieve in rugby.

On Saturday, Ireland tried to work the body of the French defence in the hope of gassing them out, slowing their defensive reset and then punishing them once the gaps appeared. To combat that, France picked a very mobile back row and rolled the dice tactically on how to combat Ireland’s work with the ball in hand.

Brunel gambled – successfully – that Ireland would look to hold onto possession in this game and that we would probably dominate the possession stats. Ireland had 68% possession overall and a 70%/66% split in the first and second half.

Brunel, assuming this would be true, plumbed for an ultra mobile back-row that could match Ireland on phase play for pace but he needed a bit of luck to get away with the selection. France would have to slow down Ireland’s breakdown by hook or by crook, ride on the edge of Nigel Owens’ good graces while doing it and hope the rain continued for 80 minutes to gradually narrow Ireland’s width.

Here are a few examples of France’s work at the breakdown.

These two from early in the first half show the intention;

Great slowdown work here by Lamarat. Neither Aki or Van Der Flier will be too delighted with the intensity of their cleanout, however.
France throw two men at Furlong. They make a real mess of the clean out by using Furlong’s leg drive against him and swinging around him and slowing the ball presentation – plus they’re offside.

France knew that Ireland would tear them up if we managed to get a reliable supply of quick ball so we had to be slowed by any means necessary.

Slimani not rolling away.
Poirot – hands on the floor before going for the ball.
Guirado – not supporting body weight and playing the ball on the floor.
Guirado falls on the wrong side and slows the ball presentation. Note Furlong losing his footing prior to the clean-out due to a combination of Vahaamina leg and the greasy conditions.

This isn’t ref bashing – and I know some of the above are nitpicky to the verge of being a tossup if they’re illegal or not – but I’m showing them to illustrate France’s mentality in defence. As far as I’m concerned, you get away with what you can when you can and if Munster needed to do this in a game, I’d want them trying the same.

The truth of the slow ball problem in this game is multi-faceted; our starting second-row was a little carry heavy and off rhythm at the ruck, our rucking in general wasn’t great, France got away with some slow ball tactics that they, perhaps, shouldn’t have, and Ireland’s carrying got narrower as the rain continued.

France were happy to risk infringing on our possession – especially in the mid-range of the game – because they were confident that the initial read they got from Owens would allow them leeway. It was well played and, marked by its absence on most of the phases in the build-up to the drop goal when a penalty would have been disastrous for them.

When France stopped our first phase – be in the loose or off scrums in particular – they slowed down our chain of possession.

As I went into in the Red Eye, Ireland rely on a good starter punch with quick ball to kick off their wider plays and if France could prevent that initial quick ball, they would go a lot of the way to making Ireland easier to defend, especially as the ball got greasier and greasier as the game wore on.

Here’s Ireland in the 69th minute looking for a centre field ruck to play off;

Dupont does just enough to stall Sexton’s plant back for Murray. That means the wide sequence of O’Mahony to Furlong to the wide pod option of Henderson, Cronin and Stockdale can’t attack France’s outside edge.

If Ireland don’t get that initial quick ball, we won’t go wide unless there’s a special circumstance like a yellow card man advantage or something similar. Schmidt doesn’t really like for Ireland to play hands in front of teams. Remember – quick ball equals space, slow ball equals no space.

The margins look tiny because they are tiny. A second lost in the ruck translates to less space in the area that you want to attack.

Here’s a good example from the first half;

We’re in attacking alignment here but we didn’t get the type of quick ball we wanted from the initial carry so Healy goes up the fringe to see if he can get a bit of pace on the ball. He doesn’t succeed.

Let’s go the next phase;

Off Healy’s carry, we go to a second channel carry with Van Der Flier doing the honours. He gets a good carry in – nice footwork and pace onto the ball – and Best’s cleanout on Gourdon gives Ireland the quick ball we need to attack. Now we can move the ball but the next pass option is critical;

I think we took the wrong option here. We got the ball back quickly enough but when you look at what happens on the next phase, I think we took a little too much out of this sequence.

That’s some nice interplay between Murray, Healy and Sexton before spreading it to O’Mahony and Stockdale but we’re running out of space. That last phase with Henderson gave France an easy out on this attack and we really should have taken a better option.

The theory was solid – make France work in defence regardless of the outcome – but in this instance, it was one of those missed opportunities that begin to accumulate up over time in the same way that fatigue builds in the defence.

The longer you go without getting a try, the longer the other team has a belief that they can catch you with a sucker punch.

The Pattern

Ireland, much like the All Blacks, will usually try one of two things if we don’t get that initial quick ball outside the Red Zone.

  1. We’ll “reset” by kicking the ball to touch, for a contestable, or by kicking to a player target to try and force a kick transition opportunity out of the opposition.
  2. We’ll try a channel 1 or 2 carry from the point of the ruck to try and generate the quick ball that we didn’t get the last time.

On Saturday, we didn’t do enough of the former in my opinion, given the weather and our breakdown performance to that point. That isn’t to say we didn’t do it at all – here’s a good example of punching narrow until you get quick ball and then a kick option when we don’t like our options – two options in tandem – but there were a few occasions when we could have done with more of this kind of thinking, especially in the second half.

Our initial plan seemed to be rooted in attacking the French wide and making their pack work from side to side. We did it off our very first lineout;

Look at Guirado, Vahaamina and Slimani moving across the field to match this pattern – that’s exactly what Ireland would have wanted.

On the phase after this – despite Lamarat’s excellent slow down of the ball – Ireland went back to the opposite side of the pitch;

The initial width we got from the lineout exposed space for us to attack on the reverse play.

It’s moments like this that maybe had Schmidt thinking “what if I’d selected Larmour here…” but that’s neither here nor there. The main point is that Ireland were looking to attack France’s cardio early and initially, we liked to do this through wide, pacey options like the above off the top of the lineout.

Here’s another example of our work off the top;

That’s a great initial strike by Henshaw in midfield. For one of the few times in the game, we got good gain line and quick ball. Perfect, says you.

But again, I think we went for the wrong option;

We go for the inside ball to Kearney up the middle with Murray and Healy trying to stretch a gap for him. This is a gimmick we’ve used a few times in the last few years (for Leinster and Ireland) but France shut the door on it fairly spectacularly.

From there, Ireland went on a 16 phase sequence that I’ve mapped here. Each “R” is a ruck;

We lost the ball to a strip on the 16th phase but to that point, after the failed strike play, we had been following the usual pattern; keep the starter carries going until you get quick ball or a shout for the ball to go wide to space. At this point in the game – 48 minutes – we probably felt that we could take these kinds of phases for the benefit they’d give later in the game, but if you look through the phases in the build-up there’s just a lot of the same issues – slow ball coming from clustered French defence.

Phase 6
Phase 7
Phase 8
Phase 9
Phase 10
Phase 11/12

And it goes on.

To go back to the boxing analogy, this kind of movement acts as a body punch that hurts the opponent’s gas tank and (in theory) makes things a little easier later in the fight but it only counts when you actually use that advantage.

The problem was that we spent so long “softening up” the French defence that we seemed to forget to pull the trigger until it was too late.

Some of that blame falls on our 9/10/12 combination and some of our run options off ruck ball. The backrow’s balance didn’t look fully “right”. Sean O’Brien was a big loss for a lot of reasons, but especially for the division of roles that his talents allow. I think we tried to make up for that by putting Ryan and Henderson together in the second row but that wasn’t fully successful from a cohesion point of view. Both men played well individually but looked a little off rhythm when it came down to the division of cleanout and carrying.

We’ve got a few “outs” – but then, there always is. Our breakdown was a mess and we can point to a triumvirate of blame between the ref, good French work and poorly timed Irish cleaning out. Whatever way you want to split it, that ended up with a lot of slow ball and we’re just not set up to work off that, especially when the weather comes in. By far the biggest one is the absence of Sean O’Brien (closely followed by our over-reliance on Johnny Sexton as a playmaker, but that’s for another day). 

Without Sean O’Brien’s ability to occupy two defenders (combined with Stander’s ability to do the same), we found it quite hard to generate the width and dynamism we managed in November. O’Brien is a key component in the pattern Ireland use because of the number of defenders that he naturally draws.

With O’Brien holding numbers in an attacking line combined with CJ Stander and Cian Healy, we tend to avoid the narrowness that plagued most of these opening 77 minutes.

And that’s before we get into the other aspects of his game but, long story short, I think O’Brien’s presence gives us the kind of balance and pack blend options that push Ireland’s attack to the heights we saw in November.

That we didn’t reach these heights in Paris can be blamed on what happened at the breakdown, in my opinion. Add in the greasy ball and the increased contextual pressure throughout the game and you have a good explainer for why a miracle was needed.

Basically – too many jabs and body shots, not enough uppercuts and liver shots until we were on the ropes and gasping in the 12th.

I wouldn’t expect to see the same issues arise until the England game and even then, only if O’Brien doesn’t play.