There are good headaches and there are bad headaches.
As a guy who regularly deals with the latter on an (almost) everyday basis, I should clarify here that I’m talking about selection headaches rather than the ‘ol “rave behind the eyeballs” migraine. As November rolls around, Joe Schmidt has a good selection headache at openside, but it’s a headache nonetheless. That headache is focused on the #7 shirt and, ultimately, it’s a question of individual vs system as it pertains to the makeup of a pack, specifically this Irish pack.
In the last few years, Joe Schmidt has developed an extremely impressive possession and position based attacking game that has beaten the Springboks in South Africa, beaten Australia in Australia, beaten every team in Europe that could have been beaten and, of course, the All Blacks. Ireland are just outstanding at holding onto the ball for long stretches and forcing the opposition into multiphase defensive sets over a wide area. Ireland use their roster of heavy ball carriers in the pack to stress the opposition alignment and then, when the time is right, use Murray/Sexton to put elusive strike runners (Earls, Conway, Ringrose, Larmour) and power runners (Henshaw, Aki, Stockdale, Kearney) into the gaps that get created by Ireland’s oppressive ball carrying structure.
And “oppressive” is the correct term to use. Ireland batter teams into submission these days with wave after wave of heavy ball carrying pods with a heavy ball carrier surrounded by two forward cleaners (or a midfielder like Aki/Henshaw). This makes it incredibly difficult for the opposition to retrieve possession unless Ireland make a handling error or have poor cleanout technique that leads to a penalty/spill on the floor, which we rarely do these days. But it’s not just the possession that causes the opposition problems – it’s the position.
If you look at the types of possession that are the hardest to defend on an individual basis but the easiest to defend on a systemic basis as long as the levels of defensive and offensive physicality are anyway equal, it’s the one-out carry. Think about it – if you had a team of 35-year-old heavyweights who had to beat a team of talented 15-year-olds for a million euro, how would you play? I know what I’d do – I’d chain carry up the fringes of the ruck with my biggest, heaviest guys until the young fellas cracked. Any time I got the ball back, I’d go back at that again until the game was won.
A one-out carry, when taken from the base of the ruck or close to the ruck off #9, puts a lot of emphasis on the one on defensive ability of the tackler but doesn’t stress the overall defensive system. Even if the one out carry makes ground, the system can easily reset close to the subsequent ruck. Eventually, as long as the physicality and defensive/offensive balance are in any way equal between the sides, a sequence of fringe carries will usually end in a stalemate unless the sequence started incredibly close to the line.
But what if you could chain the essence of a one-out carry at different positions in the attacking line?
This is what Ireland have mastered.
We take the physical stress of a one-out carry and vary it between the first and second channel away from the ruck, forcing the wider opposition defenders to commit to big physical collisions they are unlikely to win (or jackal). Ireland then attack the disrupted space that ruck creates when the opposition’s defensive system resets. In a way, Ireland’s system uses the opposition’s defensive structure against it; practically every ruck has to have pillar defenders and resulting B, C & D defenders aligning off their position. Ireland spread the “out-out” carry over a wider distance and with such pace at the breakdown that teams end up getting overloaded.
Here’s a solid example from the biggest game of Ireland’s year to date;
Ireland move from left point to right point along the side of the ruck in one-out carries making incremental gains but always punishing the English defenders in the initial carry or in the clean out. When the ball comes to Aki – who acts like a 9th forward in Ireland’s system – at the end, he’s got space and an angle to work with and gets a good bust over the line. Ireland would go again from that point with the attacking structure slotting into place automatically.
You have got the A phase, the B phase and the C phase all ready to roll off the Aki ruck.
Rory Best can slot in to support Phase B if needed but O’Mahony’s position on the edge is an important position because it allows his handling, deceptive pace and wide rucking to come into play on these kinds of phase sequences.
So what does this have to do with the #7 shirt?
Look at Dan Leavy in this phase structure.
He’s right in the middle of the heavy carrying. We haven’t seen much of Sean O’Brien in an Irish jersey over the past year but I’d imagine he’d be in a similar position. Where would Van Der Flier be in this kind of attacking scenario? Probably where O’Mahony is. And that’s the structural problem that faces Joe Schmidt.
Ireland’s system relies on having at least four heavy ball carriers in the pack but ideally, Schmidt will go for five or six. Over the past season or so, those heavy ball carriers are Healy, Furlong, Ryan, Stander, Henderson, Leavy/O’Brien with Best and O’Mahony in support roles in different areas of the pitch depending on the context.
If we’re to talk about who I think the best openside of Van Der Flier, Leavy and O’Brien is from a purely technical sense, it would have to be Van Der Flier. His defensive lateral movement and overall defensive tracking are, for me, better than both Leavy and O’Brien. You don’t measure an openside in how many breakdown steals they get, those are highlight reel moments, you have to look at how they move off the scrum in attack (look at that support line) and defence and where they position themselves in defensive and attacking sets.
Josh Van Der Flier positions himself here on most attacking and defensive sets once the play moves outside preplanned scheme range.
Forward Carrying Range Chart
The “Hammer” area is where you’re most likely to see big one-out ball carries, the “Strike” area is where you’re likely to see big forwards hinging into the opposition “C” defence area and the “Run” area is where you’re likely to see someone like Aki, Henshaw, O’Mahony, Van Der Flier and outside backs get on the ball.
I’ll get to that, but first – defence.
From a defensive perspective, having that forward who’s comfortable navigating the wider spaces is vital as it takes physical pressure off your outside centre and increases your ability to play in transition. In my opinion, this is the area of the game where Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien fall significantly behind Van Der Flier.
Here’s Leavy defending that outside channel against Italy in the Six Nations;
He gets badly burned for pace on the outside and that’s something that’s just as likely to happen to O’Brien in the same scenario.
Compare that with the movement and tracking of Josh Van Der Flier here. Follow the red scrum cap;
Yes, this is reductive to highlight one example where a try was scored against one where the play was stopped but it illustrates something that I feel is a weakness in the game of O’Brien and Leavy – wide defence. I broke down there I believe the Irish pack to be most comfortable.
Forward Defensive Positioning Chart
All the forwards can and do slot in anywhere when required but I’d rate them as being really good defenders in the following positions.
Cian Healy: Very comfortable defending at A & B.
Tadhg Furlong: Very comfortable defending at A & B
CJ Stander: Very comfortable defending at B & C
Dan Leavy: Very comfortable defending at B & C and outside/inside C as a jackal
Sean O’Brien: Very comfortable defending at B & C and outside/inside C as a jackal
James Ryan: Very comfortable defending at B & C
Iain Henderson: Very comfortable defending at B & C
Tadhg Beirne: Very comfortable defending at B, C and inside/outside B & C as a jackal.
Devin Toner: Comfortable defending at B & C.
Josh Van Der Flier: Very comfortable defending at B, C and outside C as a jackal.
Peter O’Mahony: Very comfortable defending at B, C and inside/outside B & C as a jackal
Van Der Flier’s lateral movement, decision making (what rucks to attack, what rucks to stand and what rucks to drift on) and technical tackling ability make him a hugely effective openside defender. Again, follow the red scrum cap;
An openside will start most defensive sets in a wide position when they do their initial work off the set piece – be it scrum or lineout. They’ll follow the play if it goes wide and be around the tackle area in the wide position, pillar up at B & C off that ruck needed and then come back across as the play settles.
You can see that action here off a lineout;
This movement and intelligence is a key part of his skillset in defence.
Dan Leavy, however, can shut the door like this close into the ruck which, when you’re under the pump physically, is invaluable.
If you’re Joe Schmidt and you already have Peter O’Mahony capable of filling that wider role while also providing an elite lineout option on both sides of the throw, what do you go for? Brawn or movement?
Van Der Flier is the perfect openside for a wide support role. He’s quick, he can carry a ball in lighter traffic and he’s got great timing coming onto the ball in space. He can hit the strike zone with power or use his hands and pace to carry, link or ruck n the “run” area
For the most part, you’ll see Van Der Flier naturally file out towards the edges as the phase play develops. Here’s some of that positioning in action against Italy – watch for the red scrum cap;
Van Der Flier certainly can carry well in the outer edges of the Strike zone but as he gets closer to the Hammer area, his frame starts to work against him and he becomes more of a support option. This is why you’ll rarely see Van Der Flier (or O’Mahony) rack up massive carrying numbers, even when Ireland are running at an ideal 55+% possession in the game.
When you look at where I think he’s ideally suited for carrying and compare that to the other notable carriers in the Ireland “A” selection, it looks like this.
If we even out the carrying over the course of the whole game, you can see where most players are comfortable carrying. Every one of them can carry in all three zones if required on an isolated basis but it’s mainly an average of where they usually carry the ball.
Cian Healy: Comfortable carrying anywhere from hammer to strike
Tadhg Furlong: Comfortable carrying anywhere from hammer to strike
CJ Stander: Comfortable carrying anywhere from hammer to strike
Dan Leavy: Comfortable carrying anywhere from hammer to strike
Sean O’Brien: Comfortable carrying anywhere from hammer to strike
James Ryan: Comfortable carrying anywhere from hammer to strike
Iain Henderson: Comfortable in strike. Can carry in hammer if required
Tadhg Beirne: Can carry in hammer if required. Comfortable carrying in strike or run
Devin Toner: Can carry in hammer at a push. Can carry in strike.
Josh Van Der Flier: Comfortable carrying anywhere from strike to run.
Peter O’Mahony: Comfortable carrying anywhere from strike to run
Every forward will show up in hammer and strike pods but they’re comfortable carrying in those areas determines whether they are the focal point of the pod or one of the support players tasked with ensuring possession is won.
Against Italy, Van Der Flier mainly took up a support role when he was in a two or three man pod closer in Hammer and Strike.
He was effective in this role but didn’t carry the ball very often – five times for three metres – which should give you an idea of how often he got an opportunity to carry in that wide area outside of the heavy support role he filled in with.
Dan Leavy, on the other hand, can carry the ball like this.
That ability – to carry the ball as a focal point of a heavy hammer pod and make ground in traffic – is invaluable to the Schmidt system. We know O’Brien can fill this role too so where does this leave Van Der Flier with the All Blacks coming around the corner?
Who does Schmidt go for at #7? Leavy, O’Brien or Van Der Flier?
It’s a bind. Van Der Flier is superb in the wide areas on openside plays on both sides of the ball but so is O’Mahony and Van Der Flier doesn’t have a notable ability in the lineout to compensate. Leavy and O’Brien are heavy ball carriers and destructive players inside “C” but look vulnerable the further out from “C” they get while Van Der Flier is comfortable racking up the tackles anywhere from B on out.
With Leavy or O’Brien, Schmidt has a roster of six heavy ball carriers that will be ideal for stressing the All Blacks 12-up-3-back defensive system. With Van Der Flier, Schmidt has a guy who can track and manage the All Blacks 12-13-15-14/11 attacking structure.
This all comes down to how Schmidt wants to align his pack. He can pick Van Der Flier at #7 and not lose anything from his heavy carrying roster in the hammer zone by dropping Best and starting Scannell, but how likely is that? Will Schmidt risk going against the All Blacks with five heavy carriers and, perhaps, Leavy/O’Brien on the bench to finish strong with Van Der Flier suppressing the All Blacks wide plays?
That’s the question. The mix of the back row and pack as a whole against the World Champions will be a crucial part to Ireland imposing our game on them or their game on us.