This was one of those wins that felt like a defeat. Ireland won this game 23-10 but make no mistake, this performance has unearthed a cache of unpleasant questions for Andy Farrell, Simon Easterby, Mike Catt and John Fogarty that will get answered over the next year, one way or the other.
Some of those questions belong to Andy Farrell and Mike Catt. Why, for example, was Finlay Bealham – a tighthead prop – started at loosehead? The 29-year-old Connacht man has played much of the last four years as a tighthead prop at provincial and test level but was thrown in at the deep end here with Eric O’Sullivan looking on wearing a tracksuit. Would O’Sullivan have conceded four scrum penalties on his debut? Perhaps. But in that scenario, Farrell would only be damned for giving a young player a shot that didn’t work out instead of watching a decent tighthead prop get exposed as a below-average loosehead, something we probably knew beforehand.
That alone was enough to turn the Georgian scrum – a non-factor against Wales and England – into an obstacle that Ireland battered up against during much of this game. We didn’t lose penalties at every scrum, just enough to hurt when it mattered. By the time Healy came on the field on 56 minutes the pattern of the game had already been set but to pin it all on a tighthead played out of position isn’t even close to the main problem.
That is just one of the questions but before I get to those, it would be remiss of me to not point out some of the good stuff that took place in the first half. The first try, for example, was pretty nicely put together off a lineout.
Watch the chop decoy lines that Ireland run off #9 to get the opposition defensive line oscillating before the real carry. This makes double tackles difficult to organise and creates one on one isolations for the tight ball carrier and space to run into.
That didn’t create a try directly but created a platform from which Chris Farrell and Billy Burns could execute a pinch move for the opening try. Farrell hung his pass perfectly for Burns and that broke up the Georgian defence. That was nicely done.
This move off a scrum was pretty well designed and executed too. Beirne dropped to the touchline after Stander broke from the base. Earls had scorched around the back on an inside support line but came back on the reverse to take the link pass from Murray, found Beirne with the scrum acting as a block and that gave Beirne space to make a play.
Ireland won a penalty on the resulting phases to kick another three points. Again, it was a nicely designed move off a scrum that produced a tangible reward.
We’ve spoken a fair bit about Ireland’s use of a 3-2-X system under Catt and McCloskey’s disallowed try was the exact way it was designed to run. After Keenan took a ball in transition, Ireland launched a picture-perfect 3-2-2 structure that morphed into a 3-2-X on the reverse.
Look at the width we got on Stander’s carry before coming back across the field.
This is how the system is designed to run almost to the letter. The last hinge pass from Stockdale out to McCloskey is exactly what you’d want in that scenario to find the runners, even if it was adjudged to have been forward. Look at the movement from Burns as he takes the ball from the screen as we progress back across the field.
That wipe across Connors’ late line coupled with his dart towards the defensive line held in Georgian defenders so that when Stockdale received the pass, he was outside a critical number of Georgian defenders as they progressed across the field. Those small margins – two or three defenders having their progression stalled by a half-second – creates the space that good players can use to make breaks and create tries. Stockdale did it without a TMO’s intervention for Keenan’s try but it was based on the same principle – preserved space.
It’s a pity it only happened a handful of times and hardly at all for much of the second half.
Ireland’s scoring sequence in the second half was interrupted by a lovely Georgian try. Check out the subtle chop line by Jalagonia that does just enough to throw Beirne off his cover line on the inside ball. That creates the break into the backfield.
Stockdale has come in for a bit of criticism for buying the dummy but without wanting to sound like his solicitor, I think he was banking on Burns taking the ball carrier so that Stockdale could cover the link pass to the outside support runner. Probably the wrong decision in hindsight but that was the logic I think he was making his decision to step out on.
That, plus another penalty, is what lead to Ireland respecting the scoreboard on the 57th minute but kicking for goal. At that point, it was the correct decision.
Yet it told a story all of its own. With a quarter of the game to play, we had to respect the scoreboard because Georgia were a score away from making this an incredibly sweaty end-game.
Some of that comes down to our setpiece. I spoke before the game about how an infield maul trajectory would work in gaining ground against the Georgian maul defence and we inadvertently showed that to be correct, although not intentionally.
The first maul in this video shows how the infield shove could generate positive momentum and end with a direct finish. The second example shows Georgia giving us the infield shove and, as a result, we powered through afterwards and were held up over the line.
When the opportunity came to put some semblance of a cocktail umbrella on the scoreline in the last few minutes what are we looking for? A surge towards the touchline that gets stuffed.
Watch this maul from early in the first half and reference it to the Red Eye. Watch for the tight Georgian scrum-bind and the individual hook-binds on Stander’s driving leg.
We tried to run over the top of them but Georgia showed repeatedly before the game that they are really good at repelling that kind of straightforward attack. Their hook-bind works best for stopping forward momentum and you can see Stander getting stood up as the pressure from the collective scrum-bind comes through. This maul set showed that we either didn’t pay attention to where Georgia were strong or we did but we fluffed it on-field in the momentum.
Much of our lineout work was pretty rudimentary, almost as if we stripped back some of the more complex calls after last weekend.
This, for example, was a nice little maul feint that, once again, ended with Ireland held up over the line but it was telling that we’d learned by the 79th minute that we weren’t going to drive this 5m opportunity over directly from the maul.
Billy Burns enforced replacement on 45 minutes played a large part in our attack slowing down for the rest of the contest. He wasn’t perfect but he is much better suited to the system that we’re attempting to play. He’s got a bit of variety…
… but, more importantly, he understands the movement required to make the 3-2-X system work phase to phase. It would be a mistake to assume that the biggest factor in making a more expansive system work smoothly is the progression of the ball to wide spaces. That is only half the job. If the defence follows the ball across the field without any halt on their defensive progression, all the movement of the ball does is provide a target for defenders. At some point, either a pod decoy or on-ball movement from the primary handlers has to halt the progress of the defenders to produce and preserve space for the wider players.
Here’s that little clip from earlier as an example;
On the following clip, I’ll show a few examples of what doesn’t work in this system. You’ll see Byrne planting his feet and sending the ball on a fair bit and how that leads the defence onto our wide structures. The second example is less egregious because Connors is able to get an offload away to Ryan under pressure that causes a break. At that moment, I think Byrne needs to send the ball wide to McCloskey/Ryan or make an earlier inside pass to Stander. Instead, he does neither and the chance evaporates.
The final clip in the montage is Byrne taking the wrong lesson from the previous clip by just sending the ball on without any attempt to attack the gain line and Georgia were able to pressure Ireland into a kick through looking for a lucky bounce.
My point is that on that last clip, Byrne had an opportunity to stall the progression of the defender who would ultimately pressure Stockdale into a low percentage kick through.
If Byrne could interest Akaki Tabutsadze to a possible inside break, Tabutsadze would not be able to follow an easy line to step onto Stockdale. Sure, Stockdale could still have backed his hands to get the ball across to Farrell/Daly but if Tabutsadze is a metre back, it’s almost a certain try.
When you combine our inability to negatively affect their maul defence and number management, things get worse. Georgia badly stuffed this Irish maul from a numbers POV because we tried to run over the top of them and when we broke, we weren’t able to effectively commit defenders at the key hinge point of the sequence.
When no defenders are held, what looks like a high-quality try-scoring opportunity is actually a low-quality opportunity because Stockdale has to hope to either beat his man in traffic or fire a long pass to Keenan off his right side that the outside Georgian defender will see and track all the way as it flies through the air.
There’s a bit of defending to do here but Georgia managed it pretty comfortably because they have the effective numbers to do so. Even one extra committed Georgian defender in the central space actually makes this the high-quality trying scoring opportunity it appears to be on the surface.
As the game progressed into the second half we opened up the bag of tricks but we were undone by familiar errors. This was a four-man lineout that stacked our openside with 10 players.
I liked O’Mahony’s chop line – Farrell took advantage well – but again I’d look at Byrne’s lack of movement in favour of speed of ball transmission as being an issue on this sequence too. Healy’s offload was good but Ryan’s lost gain line was costly, as was Henderson’s poor latch.
By the end of the game, we were looking to crab across the field so we could expose an opportunity similar to the Burns/Keenan scores but we were turned over at the last ruck before the reverse across the field and that was pretty much it.
This was a game where we seemed to run out of time despite having 72% possession and 80% territory. One error, one blown phase, one poor decision followed the other and while we can point to being held up over the line a few times, we got what we deserved out of this, which was a win and nothing else.
The questions for Farrell and his team keep stacking up. Our setpiece, once a strength, looks stripped back and bare-bones at the lineout and ropey at the scrum. Why is that? Our transition over to a more expansive system seems hamstrung by selection and conceptual issues that prevent us from utilising it correctly. Why is that? Getting guys like Ringrose, Kilcoyne, Furlong, Henshaw, Sexton and perhaps Leavy and Carbery down the line might help but they alone won’t be the panacea we’re looking for.
I have a growing feeling that we don’t know who we are at test level right now. This isn’t anything so tawdry as looking at people’s country of birth, it’s that we don’t have certainty of purpose. Joe Schmidt had a very exacting style of rugby that used up a lot of conceptual bandwidth amongst the playing group for a number of years and while that was problematic in and of itself, it gave players a template to go back to again and again.
We don’t have anywhere near the same certainty right now.
We have moved away from a game rooted in progressing up the field through managed kick-chase transitions and a highly efficient set-piece that transitioned into high possession, low tempo phase sequences because we don’t have the size to consistently punish sides as we did for a brief time in 2017/2018 when our ball carrying rotation, the relative strengths of our rivals and the ruleset lead to our best year at test level since 2009. Now, we are transitioning to a game that looks to play around a relative lack of size at a time when elite size has never been more important. Look at France, look at England, look at the current World Champions, South Africa. Those three sides kick more than anyone because they have the size to make kicking efficient.
We are trying to play to what our strengths are but we’ve got one foot in the rigidity of the Schmidt era while the other tries to fit into the demands of a new, small-ball style, which I am yet to be convinced is being implemented at the level needed to hurt France, England and others.
This was the latest in a series of disappointing, bang average performances by James Ryan who looks less and less like a test Lion certainty with every passing game over the last few months. This is either an issue with his return from injury or, as I’m beginning to think with ever more certainty, something to do with the role he has been asked to fill since the lockdown and his ability to be the player Ireland and Leinster need him to be, on top of being the Irish captain elect for the next 10 years. Hopefully, something will fall into place for him soon but the drop off in his effectiveness over the last few months is alarming in the extreme.
I’ve been over the idea of players being “support forwards” for quite some time and Will Connors fits that description, to my eyes. He isn’t a lineout forward, which removes him from an area of the game that still produces 50+% of the tries at the highest level so you’d expect him to show up big as a defensive hitter and ruck support guy while also showing up occasionally in the ball carrying rotation. I’m not sure Connors is an elite option in the current game plan IF we’re going to have the lion’s share of possession as we did here. He didn’t really impose himself with the ball in hand, which is fine – he doesn’t have to – but when we’re not using a kick press as a starting point for our phase sequences, I think his value reduces considerably.
Basically, if Will Connors isn’t racking up 10+ impact tackles per game, does he fit what we need in the system we’re currently playing? Not on the evidence of this game, for me.
Andrew Porter showed once again that he’s Ireland’s most valuable tight five forward and he only needed 40 minutes to do so. I didn’t feel it was fair to rate Finlay Bealham due to him being played out of position but I thought that Herring, Healy and Ryan did well for the most part.
Billy Burns looked really comfortable at #10 for the first half and we really felt his absence in the second half. He did his future squad selection chances no harm at all.
I think Ross Byrne is a good player but I think he’s way better suited to Leinster’s game when they are dominantly winning collisions than he is playing a level above in a system where pace, movement and handling on the run are default expectations of the primary ball-handler. He’s a better player than he showed here – and he was far from all bad – but I think what Ireland are trying to do inherently clashes with Byrne’s skillset. I think he’d have been a much better fit in Ireland’s scheme from 2018 but what we’re trying to do in 2020 doesn’t seem to scan well with him.
Iain Henderson played quite well here for the first 50 minutes before dropping a few levels in the second half, along with everyone else. He made some decent carries, a few impact tackles and competed well at the lineout.
Tadhg Beirne had a pretty good game where he showed off some decent footwork on-ball, some good lineout work and won a few breakdown steals. He did everything asked of him and did his future selection chances no harm at all.
CJ Stander had a much busier game than last week and was pretty effective for the most part. We used him as a transition runner in the backfield which explains the high running metres but when he imposed himself well when called upon all through the line off #9 or in the wider channels.
Players are rated based on their time on the pitch, if they were playing notably out of position, and on the overall curve of the team performance. DNP means the player did not feature and N/A means they weren’t on the pitch long enough to warrant a fair rating.