Tours are for winning. When you lose, you can talk about development.
I received a tonne of mentions and emails this week bemoaning Ireland’s lack of “development time” for new players this summer and that intensified this morning in the aftermath of Schmidt’s last team selection of the 2017/2018 international season. Kearney starts, Murray starts, Sexton starts, Furlong starts, Earls starts.
Where’s the player development?
I’d argue that “development on the pitch” is a secondary goal on tours like this at Ireland’s current stage of evolution and that the coaching staff will have learned an awful lot about a few of the “potential” players during the 4 weeks that they’ve been on this tour. There’s the stuff we see on Saturday but there’s also the stuff we don’t see day after day – for Schmidt, those days can be very instructive for seeing who’s got the right stuff.
There’ll be plenty of time for Ireland to expose those with the right stuff against Argentina, Italy and the US in November, and then further develop those who impress in the Six Nations before the World Cup. In reality, there are very few shirts that don’t have a clear depth chart outside of the established starter – that’s the fullback shirt. Luke McGrath (who missed this tour to heal up a knee injury) is, to me, the clear choice behind Murray and the only decision to really be made at this point is “who is the guy behind McGrath?”. The fullback depth chart is a little more complex, but next season should see more options being developed there.
Regardless, winning a tour like this is incrementally more valuable to Irish Rugby right now than answering these depth questions. We’ve got three test matches in November to audition for those roles but we have got a series to win in Australia this Saturday – that opportunity doesn’t come along all that often. Success breeds success breeds success and, obviously, sells tickets, advertising and merch.
So in that context, with a series win in the balance, it’s no surprise to see Schmidt reshuffle his starting XV as he has;
I talk about this week’s selection in detail on the Blood & Thunder Podcast, available here.
The Red Eye Report: Australia
Based on the teamsheet laid out for Australia vs Ireland Game 3 with notes based on last week’s performance. Improved ratings are marked with a bold underline.
Offensive Scrummaging – B – No change. Defensive Scrummaging – B – No change. Attacking Lineout – C – No change. Defensive Lineout – C – No change. Offensive Maul – B – No change. Defensive Maul – B – No change.
Defensive Structure – B – No change. Phase Play Power – C ⬇ – Down one from B. Attacking Creativity – B ⬇ – Down one from A. Losing Genia will affect the width they get on phase play, which will bring their carrying game into focus. Structured Attack Off Set Piece – B – No change. Structured Defence Off Set Piece – B – No change. Overall Fitness – A – No change. Kicking – B – No change. Back Three Kick Positioning – C – No change.
React to the Reaction
The beauty of a three-game tour like this is the punch, counter-punch nature of the video work from game to game as each side reacts to the picture of the previous game. In Test 2, Ireland reacted to Australia’s initial read of our Test 1 attacking patterns by upping the voltage in our carrying game and ruck alignment to punish their relative lack of ballast in the pack. Essentially, our tight carrying patterns punished their mobile, breakdown-heavy back row selection by negating their influence on the game. When Hooper and Pocock aren’t getting you turnovers or slowing down the opposition’s ball in any meaningful way, they become unsuited to the kind of phase heavy game that Ireland like to play.
This week, Australia have selected Luhkan Tui at #6 in an attempt to remedy the issues that cost them in the second test. At 6’6″ and 19.5 stone, Tui significantly ups the defensive punch of the Australian back row on phase play and is a direct response to Ireland’s physical dominance last week, just as Cheika attempted last week. Tui replaced Timu at halftime last week for the exact reason that he’s been selected here.
He gives Australia another heavy pillar to match up with Ireland’s ball carriers and give Hooper/Pocock “stage posts” to run between. This period of play will have informed much of Cheika’s thinking. The key part is the positioning of Rodda, Tui and Coleman.
Rodda lines up on the close range Healy carry with Latu. They make a decent stop with Hooper and Pocock lurking right by the ruck.
That’s prime territory for an openside to have a cut off a “bridge” ruck like this if the opportunity arises through an inaccurate cleanout or latch. Where the “heavy pillar” works out is on the next phase.
He’s the next big hitter on this defensive set and, crucially, Pocock and Hooper are floating between the Rodda tackle zone of the previous phase and the future Tui tackle zone, with one thing on their mind.
Pocock makes a massive go for the ball and it takes a two-man cleanout to fully pry him off the ball with Toner adding support. Watch Pocock’s action after his attempted jackal.
He floats over to the next pillar – Coleman – and gets over the ball when Ireland’s cleanout can’t resource the ruck properly.
That three-pillar system will be a key foundation for the Wallabies in this game. Pocock and Hooper had 33 breakdown interventions between them in the last test and a little more solidity from their primary tacklers will give them every chance to do the same this weekend.
Ideally, Ireland will want to compress these three pillars as close as we can through overloading our carrying in the middle of the pitch.
That will draw Hooper and Pocock to the same area and that leaves Ireland with pace mismatches (front row forwards) and size mismatches (Foley and Beale) to exploit on the relase. When we get these three pillars into positions like this, we can usually get good angles on the release phase to either flank.
You can see the three-pillars getting caught on this phase too and what happens?
Space appears on the edge and we almost get away.
Something to look for.
From an attacking perspective, this back row tweak does give Australia a problem on the other side of the ball. Timu didn’t do an awful lot of ball carrying for Australia in the last test so far as volume goes but he did provide a key piece of go-forward ball on the second phase of their scoring sequence inside the first two minutes.
Without that carrying pop in the carry – at least from the start – Australia will primarily be focused on narrow carries and pull back options in midfield to bring the likes of Kerevi and Koroibete into play on the outside edge.
That defensive lapse from Ireland in the second test came from a defensive overload on the phase prior to Foley’s pass to Beale. If we look back at it, we’ll see a lot of what Australia will bring this weekend.
First, look at the tip-on from Pocock to the Coleman/Rodda carrying pod.
This will be even more prevalent for Australia on Saturday as they’ll be without a natural dynamic ball carrier in the pack from the start so you’ll see a lot of tip-on passes from the likes of Hooper or Pocock in these scenarios.
Ultimately, Australia don’t want David Pocock or Michael Hooper to be eating too many shots in situations like these in the middle of the pitch because there’s a big weight mismatch that shows up when you’re carrying the ball more than it does in defence.
The defensive phase above was quite good from an Irish POV in that we stopped them clean behind the gain line. It started to go astray on the next phase;
Australia pulled the ball back twice on this phase to draw out Ireland’s blitz and probe for a mistake on the outside edge.
That pullback is disguised behind a heavy, four-man screen in midfield that’s designed to generate an isolation on Keith Earls (or Stockdale, tomorrow).
The key cover men for Ireland in this instance are Henshaw and Kearney, who will slide across to the space on the edge to cover Earls. Australia will definitely try this again on Saturday, with a variation for Folau to come around the corner with the ball.
This time, we over folded on the 5th phase.
We lost five guys on this ruck – two in the tackle and three on the blindside. Whatever happened, we had to move those numbers to the openside after the next ruck because three of the players “trapped” on the blindside are key defenders for us – Ryan, O’Mahony and Henshaw.
We didn’t manage it and now we’re giving up a lot of space in the midfield. Ideally, I’d have us aligned a bit narrower here to make Australia play outside us so we can at least back ourselves to get across to Pocock and Folau if that’s the play. That isn’t what happened.
Coleman and Rodda – there’s that pod again – pulled back for Foley, who spotted Beale coming against the grain and put him through the space between Stander and Leavy. The damage was done two phases earlier, but this is exactly the kind of scenario Australia will be shooting for in Test 3.
They want to force our edge defence into overloads like this because if Ireland’s centre field defence holds as it has on the last two tests, there won’t be any way through for Australia in the carry bar an error. Ireland limited Australia’s forwards to a combined 90m on 54 carries and Australia’s starting selection isn’t one that, on paper at least, stands out to me as having a lot of dynamic ball carriers.
Their finishing pack is a different story, though, and I’d expect Tupou and Hannigan to up the tempo for them dramatically.
One of the key features for Ireland last week was the way we limited Australia’s ability to hit us in transition. Our breakdown performance helped there, of course, but we did a great job of taking their kicking game away from them by hanging onto the ball ourselves.
Murray and Sexton kicked the ball four times each, which is ridiculously low for them given their usual play pattern. That was to design – we wanted to keep Folau out of the game – so we hung onto the ball for multiple phases at a time without box kicking. We were helped by the fantastic gain line we were getting from our forwards phase after phase and when we did kick, we stuck it into the corner.
The last frame shows the key to accessing the Australian backfield. You can’t really get at them with box kicks because the risk of giving up a transition to Folau is too great but a wide threat on multiphase (like Healy and Conway do here) you can draw Haylett-Petty into the line and create a pocket of space for Sexton to kick diagonally into.
We were looking for the cross-field kick quite a bit in the last test. That comes down to Australia’s tendency to get a little narrow in defence when they’re under pressure in the carry.
That creates opportunities like this to target the space outside Kerevi on the turn. Execution left us down on this occasion, but look at how much ground Haylett-Petty had to make up on the chase on 3rd phase.
That kind of depth on a few phases post-set piece is something that Ireland can work with too. We did try to target Haylett-Petty in the backfield later in the second half of the second test – in the exact same circumstance as the previous GIF.
Execution left us down in this instance, I think. For me, Haylett-Petty is setting himself up for a 50/50 in this position.
Ideally, I think Sexton wanted to isolate Haylett-Petty under this highball in the backfield – a Sexton trademark – so that Larmour and Kearney can pressure his catch and force a positive scenario. Haylett-Petty is in this position to take on just this scenario and I think it’s something we can pressure him on when we spot him there on a multiphase possession.
We went after Haylett-Petty’s positioning a few times.
That’s something to look at in this deciding test because it looks like Schmidt has seen something in the depth that Haylett-Petty takes on third/fourth phase once we create a big openside to work with.
That third/fourth phase of possession is something that creates a fair bit of kickable opportunities. Look at how flat Australia get on this fourth phase of defence.
Australia kicked a lot less than they did in test two, and I’d expect them to change that this time around. When they used Beale to kick deep into the Irish backfield from first/second receiver, it brought Folau into the game in a big way.
Ireland took that away from Australia by (1) hanging onto the ball to such an extent that kicking it away became an expensive risk for the Wallabies and (2) by stepping on Folau’s chase line.
Look at Larmour swerving (with Sexton instructing him) to force Folau out of his chase line and give Earls a clean take in the air. Ireland will need to duplicate this aspect of our performance to keep Australia penned in and force them into phase play, where we can pressure them man for man.
If we can do that – and do it well – we’ll be a long way to getting the win.