I’ve been shouting that about Munster since September when it comes to the changes people are hoping for under Stephen Larkham and the same thing is true for Ireland as we transition from six years of Joe Schmidt to Mike Catt. To put it in context, the Irish squad had the guts of two weeks together as a group between the end of our involvement in the World Cup in October to 16:45 on Saturday evening.
Going from one style to something different will take time but how much time they get to make that change depends on the currency of results. Every win, no matter how disjointed – as this certainly was – will put money in the bank to be used down the road.
A lot of the focus in the immediate post-game focused on some of Ireland’s jaggy work in attack but that does a disservice to an excellent Scottish performance, especially in the forwards – tight five in particular. Previous Ireland wins over Scotland, and indeed most sides, over the last 18 months have been built on our near-complete collision dominance in the front five off #9 and centrally off #10. That was not the case here as Scotland had the best defensive pack display I’ve seen in quite a while with Fagerson, Sutherland, Haining standing out in a number of excellent stops on some of our bigger runners in the front five.
Without that front five domination, we struggled to put our pattern on the game.
Schmidt’s style of rugby was based on maximising this domination in a way that could be repeatedly drilled in training week to week. When Ireland won those collisions – either in the initial contact or over the ball at the breakdown – they worked with quick ball or over the advantage line and when it worked really well, you often had both. Failing that, they could earn a penalty due to forcing collision losses onto the opposition through the offside line or at the resulting breakdown.
But when it wasn’t working well, Ireland often looked like a machine suffering a cascade failure, especially last season. If the initial carrying platform didn’t work as described (quick ball, gain line or penalty advantage) then you’d see Ireland look to reset to the kicking game with a collective refereeing interpretation that actively punished offensive kick chasers by allowing the opposition to escort runners off the ball. That’s how Ireland looked at times in 2019, especially with a ball-carrying deficit in the team from the peak of 2018.
The problem wasn’t all Schmidt. I think it was mostly a collapse in our ball carrying options less than a year out from the World Cup. To some extent, I think we still have this problem and we’re left with a decision to either mitigate against that loss by playing a more complex game (and take all the rocky road that comes with that) or look for ball carriers to fill out our carrying roster.
Even then, how do you change up these ingrained tendencies inside three months?
You can’t. You can only build new bits here and there until what you have is different from what you had. In the Green Eye, I hypothesized that Catt would try to move Ireland over to a 1-3-2-2 or a slight variant thereof depending on context of the moment.
You can see it in action here as Ireland hit the Scottish 22.
The Pod of Three crashes off #9 and then Ireland double screen off the two Two Pods wider out through Aki and then Ringrose, with the wider Two Pod shifting to offer heavy options either side of the runner.
This one was pulled back for O’Mahony’s hard screen on Johnson but you can see the principle of the play and the rough structure we’re trying to use. One thing that stands out on this play is the amount of passing beyond #10 that you see. I know they’re two different games but if we’re to compare the amount of passing from the game in Yokohama to here the difference is remarkable. Ireland passed the ball 95 times in the opening game of the pool against Scotland in the World Cup. In this game, we passed the ball 148 times. Both games had a 51% to 49% possession breakdown in Ireland’s favour.
The biggest point of difference for me was how Ireland used Tadhg Furlong as a midfield Two Pod carrying option for large parts of the first half. It makes complete sense when you think about it.
Why wouldn’t you have 124kg prop as mobile as Furlong in that central position if you’re concerned about your ball carrying impact and you’re looking to widen your attacking radius?
My issue was that Furlong didn’t get enough possession in that central area during the first half. In the below example, you can get an idea of some of the pod shifting that we did during the game. When we start, we’ve got a wide Pod of Three in midfield but, as the play develops, you see Ryan sliding inside the pullback pass to Aki and Herring splitting away to change the picture last minute.
Could this ball have gone to Herring or out to Conway first time? Maybe, but this kind of thing will come with time.
When I watched the game back I saw a lot of this pod shearing.
What’s the point of it? It’s to play a lot of screen ball that hides possible pass options behind the screen until after the ball is in motion.
Ringrose can attack the edge defender here laterally – a traditional no-no – by using the edge of the screen to hold the inside defender with two men outside pinning the Scottish edge cover.
O’Mahony and Ringrose are slightly off on their lines here – O’Mahony angled for a carry early – but you can get a rough picture of what we were looking to do. Here’s another example of that shearing pod;
Furlong and Healy reset off the Three Pod hit up and, along with Ryan, created a split-screen that tucked Johnson in at the edge of the Scottish defence. When the ball came back to Larmour, he was outside the edge defender and could put Aki away on Johnson’s outside shoulder. It should and could have been a try.
We tried to play off this rough structure a fair few times and we’ll be disappointed with some of our decision making at key points.
In a few games time, I think Ryan will look to give the pass in a similar moment. The second half was filled with a lot of the same moments that were often missing the last few bits that turn a decent looking move into something that leads directly to a try.
It was an incomplete performance all told against a motivated and physical Scottish outfit. I think the loss of Doris early on interfered with the carrying rotation that we had planned for the first half at least and we had to reset that pretty early. Either way, I think we would have struggled to impose ourselves with how the majority of our front five got on during settled phase play across both halves.
In the end, it turned out to be a gnarly, gritty win that hinted at what might yet be and at what problems we still need to address but it definitively showed the character and grit of this team is right where it needs to be.
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.
Josh Van Der Flier
First, let’s talk about Conor Murray and John Cooney.
The reaction to Murray’s game seemed to be coloured by a fat intercept pass thrown by Murray in the first half that almost led to a try (but didn’t).
You can see it here.
Not good. That pass is fat, wobbling and Johnson could attack the pass in the air without much in the way of risk. But. It came directly in the aftermath of a linebreak and Scotland had reset well on the openside of the ruck. The space was on the blindside of the ruck and, if the pass reached Sexton, there was a shot at getting Stockdale away. Is this not the kind of thing we want to see, albeit without the intercept?
Personally I felt that the relatively slow presentation of the ball should have sent Murray to reset with a forward pod. I’ve slowed it down here so you can see the tangle of legs mixed with Sutherland’s counteruck.
After the game, my thesis that Murray had been decent – see the three-star score – was railed against by people who thought he was beyond poor. I didn’t see it live and three watches later, I’m of the same opinion. His box kicking was accurate for the most part, as were the majority of his passes and he played a key role in Ireland’s try as well as buying a number of penalties off lazy Scottish defenders.
Cooney had a good game when he came on too, don’t get me wrong, but he had 15 interactions with the ball and spent most of his 20 minutes defending.
Murray’s 60 minutes were played in the context of Ireland struggling to make headway off #9 from a collision perspective. Yet, when the ball was quick, so was his service.
Cooney earned more minutes with his time off the bench and I’m sure he’ll get them, but not off the back of a poor Murray performance that didn’t actually happen. ★★★
This game was won and defended off the back of the Irish back row. Our front five, for me, were a little off their game on both sides of the ball so the work done by the back row was especially good in that context.
Josh Van Der Flier was absolutely everywhere. Only God and the GPS knows how much ground he covered here but at times, you’d wonder if there was a twin Van Der Flier running around in a red scrum cap and catching us all out. I think I’ll name him Tosh. Van Der Flier’s defensive work rate is absolutely second to none and there are few flankers in the game that can stack up with his engine, application, pace and decision making in the half seconds between going after the ball and filing back out to the line.
Line speed pressure, readjustments, tracking, tackle, slowdown. All in seven seconds.
He showed real zip on the ball when he got the ball in the wider areas and he played a huge part in stemming numerous Scottish breaks. Absolute quality. ★★★★★
Never write off the Germans, Optimus Prime or, it seems, Peter O’Mahony. In a week where a lot of people were finding ways to ship O’Mahony off to the test afterlife, he came on after four minutes and gave a support forward masterclass for anyone who wanted to look. He had monster offensive and defensive ruck involvements, key breakdown turnovers and showed up with a bucket full of spite and every dirty trick in the book to keep Scotland out.
First, look at the pull on Hamish Watson as McInally broke the line…
… then look at the SIX SECOND slowdown he got at the breakdown while on his feet that allowed Ireland to reset after the linebreak. All hail the War God. ★★★★★
CJ Stander is another man who, if he bothered to look, would have seen plenty of people guffing off on websites, newspapers and the radio about how lucky he was to be here. At full time on Saturday, with the CJ Stander of the Match award in hand, you could forgive him a wry smile. Stander consistently gets selected for Ireland because, despite anything else, you get consistent top-end production from him in all of his KPIs. He is always a reliable carrier. He is always an impactful defender.
He will always get over the ball at the breakdown for you. He will always lead by example. The overall quality of the team performance can dip or rise, but Stander always brings the same qualities, just like he did here. They’ll stop doubting him eventually but until then, it’ll be Limerick Man Proves Bluffers Wrong Once Again. Top class. ★★★★★