41 phases of play and one big punt from the middle of the field, is what saved Irish blushes in Paris on Saturday. It should never have come to this.

Ireland, clearly in control of the game from the beginning but annoyingly the scoreboard did not reflect this. But how can this be? France never looked like scoring a try until Teddy Thomas’ solo run put them in the lead. Ireland, never really looked like scoring a try either which was partly, down to great French defence.

Annoyingly again, we seem to be able to make small amounts of territory, over many phases of play, expelling too much energy and not making any half breaks and getting around the first line of defence. Yesterday there was a lot of back and forth across the field and not enough meaningful momentum, in a forward direction.

Drilled for matches, not tournaments

Ireland are well drilled under Schmidt and do have that Roman legion aspect to their game. Ireland seems to have a game plan to win matches, but not tournaments. The Six Nations consists of 5 matches over a 7-week period. If we play like we did yesterday, against the other nations we will simply run out of energy and players. We must adopt some new tactics or bring in new players with skills that complement the legion but are not a product of it. Zebo, Carbery or Ringrose would fit the bill.

France v Ireland. Ireland rucks
The Irish rucks in the match just go to show how much energy was expended.
Source: Courtesy of Opta

This is nothing new. Every World Cup tournament since 1987 has followed this pattern. In recent tournaments we have put in huge physical efforts in beating France and Australia, only to turn around at the knock out stage and have nothing left in the tank, or on the bench, to make a difference. This is why Ireland have never, in 30-years, won a single knock-out match at the World Cup. We are physically and emotionally drained before we even start.

The Brad Pitt film Moneyball is the story about a baseball manager who confounds conventional wisdom and examines baseball statistics over the course of an entire season. He uncovers some unconventional player selections and tactics to win the league, with the smallest budget in the entire league. Maybe the Irish management should watch it. We don’t have the strength in depth of other nations, nor do we have a budget like England rugby. Working harder than before is a given in modern rugby and every team is doing that to stay afloat. Working smarter is the key.

In contrast

In contrast, what would New Zealand do with 10-15 phases of play through the middle of the field?

Rieko Ioane scores his second try in the first Lions Test. The All Blacks are not unbeatable by any stretch, but the often make scoring tries look easy.
© Copyright photo: Andrew Cornaga

It would be much more likely to finish with a positive result without a huge drain on resources. Yesterday looked more like a Top 14 slog than a team ready to take on the best of Europe for the Six Nations title. We shouldn’t have to fight all day in the trenches like this. It’s not the Somme. It’s 21st-century rugby and we have yet to adapt.

Author: Kieran Gleeson

11 COMMENTS

  1. Abit dramatic and over reaching article , The weather conditions, the wonderful French defence and passionate performance, the Irish record in Paris and the very ordinary refereeing at ruck time by Nigel Owens should be considered .
    To sum up a decent but underpar performance and a massive signal sent out to the other teams

  2. To be clear with my definition of a one-off team performance or one-off team, I think it constitutes a performance or team that is based on emotion rather than structure. South Africa’s close loss against New Zealand is a perfect example of this as a performance and team. South Africa didn’t show a performance anywhere near that for the rest of their season. I think Ireland definitely could have been accused of being a one-off team up until Kidney won a Grand Slam, but since then, and particularly since Schmidt has arrived, we have improved immeasurably and flouted that definition.

    Ironically enough, I think this can be proven by Ireland’s performances against the weaker nations. Ireland have historically struggled to put away smaller teams because our skills and team structures were not good enough when the emotional motivation to win wasn’t there. Since Schmidt has arrived, we have regularly put 50 or 60 points on teams outside the top 10. I think that our results against the smaller teams show that there is a consistent base level that the Irish team now plays at, regardless of who is in the team. That has to be put down to improved skills and team organisation.

    To make my feelings clear, I think Ireland’s possession-based game is perfect for the 6 Nations. It suits all weathers and guarantees a solid platform for performance in every game. With the rest weeks in the 6 Nations, the first 23 doesn’t have to be rotated too much either. You could however argue that Ireland’s playing style isn’t suited to the World Cup because of the frequency of games.

    The way Schmidt can counter-act that is by building depth and effectively having two separate teams who can get the job done-depending on the level of opposition. Schmidt showed that he is doing this in November, making 13 changes for the Fiji game from the team selected to play South Africa.

    For the record, I think there are plenty of technical aspects to Ireland’s game that they can improve-such as executing overlaps. Having said that, I think that defining Ireland as a one-off team based on emotion is a baseless argument.

    • Sorry Evan, but although what you say makes a lot of sense, you are attacking a strawman rather than Kieran’s thesis. Nowhere does he say that Ireland’s victories are based on emotion rather than structure. In fact the”Roman Legion” he describes is highly structured.

      What he’s saying is that Ireland’s current style of play takes a lot out of them, so while it is effective in individual matches against top teams it is hard to sustain performances for five consecutive games. They were able to win the Six Nations twice when other countries beat each other, but that can’t happen in a World Cup and won’t always happen in the Six Nations.

      I think it is a well reasoned article and certainly wouldn’t describe it as baseless.

      • Looking back at the article and my comment, I would have to agree that I accidentally created a strawman argument. I think it was the ‘drilled for matches, not for tournaments’ sub-heading and the ‘no change for Ireland’ article title that set me off! I got caught up in writing my comment and apologise for calling the article baseless.

        • Starting again…because I still partially disagree with this article’s premise that Ireland style of rugby under Schmidt is unsustainable and unimaginative:)

          Looking at the game again more closely over the last few days, I think Ireland suffered from a number of issues in attack against France which this article described as leading to ‘physically and emotionally draining […] Roman Legion Rugby’.

          While Ireland started quite brightly, issues started to creep into Ireland’s attacking game as the contest progressed. The first and most evident issue was Ireland’s inability to generate quick ball. Ireland suffered at their own hand from poor ruck clean-outs, a failure to remove infringing French players quickly and a lack of footwork from forwards carrying the ball.

          This inability to generate quick ball gave Ireland three attacking options: 1. carry flat to the line to generate go forward and quick ball 2. Kick (a contestable kick or for territory) or 3. Throw the ball wide and try to stretch the defence.

          Against France, Ireland started with option 3 but reverted to option 2 more as the first half went on before ending up with option 1 by the second half and playing very attritional rugby. It wasn’t until the 78th minute that Ireland began to come back to options 2 and 3 again in the form of a cross-field kick and a couple of half-breaks in the wider channels. When looking at the game in this simplified manner, it would be fair to say that Ireland played unambitious rugby.

          However, the second issue, which this article vaguely alludes to with selection changes, was the decision-making of Ireland’s centres when passing and the pace of Ireland’s full back in the backline.

          Aki and Henshaw, with 6 and 11 passes respectively, look very comfortable for Ireland when defending and carrying in tight spaces, but struggled on Saturday with their decision-making when passing in the wider channels. While both players make more good decisions than bad ones, minor poor decisions saw both players limit the effectiveness of Ireland’s attack. Rob Kearney also, while excellent positionally in defence and under a high ball, lacks elite pace for a full-back and struggled to make the outside break against the French.

          Using an example from the game, at 20:15 on the match clock, Ireland have created an overlap-despite playing off slow ball-with both Chavancy(12) and Vakatawa (11) scrambling. Henshaw receives the ball in space from Aki and accelerates into space and before putting a pass in front of Kearney. Henshaw continues his line to block the French 10 from drifting. While this passage at face value looks technically strong and gets Ireland go forward, there are a number of issues that prevent the line-break that was initially on.

          Starting with Aki, Ireland’s 12 identifies the space early and releases the ball early. However, in doing so he fails to either fix the drifting French defence or pass flat enough. If Aki’s pass is flatter, Henshaw gets outside the French 12 and Ireland have a 3 vs.1 against a retreating Vakatawa.

          Having said that, if we remove Aki’s pass from the equation for a moment, Henshaw should be still be flatter and look to still get a shoulder on Chavancy, the French 12. Instead he settles for the French 10 who is taken out to leave a possible 2 vs.2-Chavancy and Vakatawa against Kearney and Earls.

          When Henshaw passes to Kearney, the green 15 is 5 metres behind Henshaw but still outside Vakatawa. However, Kearney’s depth and lack of pace allows France time to drift and get numbers up in defence.

          As the article above suggests, selections such as Carbery at 10, Sexton at 12, Ringrose at 13, and the likes of Larmour at 15, could produce a different tactical approach for Ireland. However, what I have attempted to show in this comment is that, they could have done so within the seemingly ’emotionally draining ‘structures already provided by Joe Schmidt.

          While it may seem like it was Schmidt’s fault that Ireland’s attack was so narrow on Saturday, I believe that it had more to do with the centres inability to regularly release the outside backs with their passing and the pace of Ireland’s full back.

  3. Nice article Kieran. I think you have a point about Ireland although maybe I wouldn’t go quite so far.

    Leinster’s attacking success under Schmidt was praised to the heavens. However, it was predicated on the extra space created by being the best passing team in Europe, and the pressure they put on teams in defence and at the breakdown. Their actual attacking structure was pretty standard. Don’t get me wrong here, I really rate both Schmidt and Ireland. But the guy is not the genius attack coach some people make him out to be. I think his strengths lie in the areas Ireland are good at now.

    On the 42.ie Murray Kinsella wrote a piece breaking down all 41 phases of Ireland’s winning drop goal. There was some outstanding play. However, the only decisions a defender had to make during that whole passage of play were when Jonny Sexton had the ball.

    Contrast that with England the next day, or Wales, Scotland, even Italy. Defenders were constantly having to make choices because their attacks are set up for that purpose. When the defender chooses wrong, the attack has created the opportunity for a break. Ireland’s plan seems just to let their plethora of outstanding ball carriers make ground and see what Sexton can conjure off the back of it.

  4. I think the conditions certainly did not help this particular match and I also thought Nigel Owens missed a number of offside and illegal activities at the breakdown by the French.

    Personally, I thought Ireland would / could beat a new scratch French side comfortably (had they usd different Tactics and more creativity in the backline)

    IMHO, when you play France you need to change your tactics. It’s never a good idea to get into an arm wrestle with French Pack as Ireland did on Saturday (England also struggled when they did this against the French in last year’s 6 Nations at Twickenham and almost lost the the match)
    In additional Ireland like to “dominate” territory and their opposition forwards and Ireland score an unusually high percentage of their tries using the Forwards or Forward Set plays, compared to other countries in 6 nations (except maybe the French and Italy historically). See Stats table below.

    From : http://rugby.statbunker.com/competitions/TryByPosition?comp_id=479

    6 Nations Tries Backs / Forwards.
    2017 Country Tries Backs Tries Backs Scoring % Forwards Tries Forwards Scoring %
    France 8 5 63% 3 38%
    Ireland 14 9 64% 5 36%
    Italy 6 4 67% 1 17%
    England 16 14 88% 2 13%
    Scotland 14 13 93% 1 7%
    Wales 8 8 100% 0 0%
    2016 Country Tries Backs Tries Backs Scoring % Forwards Tries Forwards Scoring %
    Ireland 15 8 53% 7 47%
    France 7 4 57% 3 43%
    Italy 8 5 63% 3 38%
    Scotland 11 8 73% 3 27%
    Wales 17 13 76% 4 24%
    England 13 12 92% 1 8%
    2015 Country Tries Backs Tries Backs Scoring % Forwards Tries Forwards Scoring %
    Ireland 8 3 38% 4 50%
    France 9 5 56% 4 44%
    Italy 8 5 63% 2 25%
    England 18 15 83% 3 17%
    Scotland 6 5 83% 1 17%
    Wales 13 12 92% 1 8%

    This seems indicate that Ireland like to play a structured forward dominated, territorial game and somewhat supports your article and certainly their tactics on Saturday.

    Compare this will England and Wales, who both have excellent packs, but still score a very high percentage of their tries through the backs. Ireland have some good backs, but need to be much more creative.

    When they struggled to “dominate” the breakdown and forward against France this reflected in the scoreline and culminated with them almost losing the match. They seemed to have little in terms of plan B tactics.

    Overall, I agree Ireland are bit to forward orientated and one dimensional l (not enough creativeness and variety in there attack) and therefore IMHO tend to struggle come the World Cups, where strong defense, forward oriented dominance and excellent tactical kicking is simply not enough. You need flair and creativity as well, to unlock defences and win tight RWC rugby matches.

    Hopefully, Ireland keep progressing and expand their tactics and perform well for the rest of the 6 nations and particularly in the next world cup.

  5. I think Ireland were caught in two minds as they game progressed. They started off with a wide game , then the rain became heavier. They should have switched to a kicking game as France are not renowned for being good under a high ball. Instead they took the ball up and ran into big French forwards repeatedly.
    I agree it’s never a good idea to take on the French in an arm wrestle and Ireland have fallen into this trap before playing away to Wales last year and even Wales two years before that.

    Three home games in a row now and I expect Ireland to build momentum. I expect them to be more accurate at clearing out rucks this weekend. If they do that, the game plan they tried to implement earlier in the game against France will work against Italy.

    However if the conditions are wet again, then they won’t get quick ball regardless as the ball will be too slippy. If that happens then they need to play intelligently and play territory. Rugby is about winning.

  6. Watching the game again, between the 50 and 60 mins mark, ireland were building for field position and pressure, and were in the hunt for a try opportunity twice. Silly mistakes let France off the hook and kept them in the game. but if ireland had scored anything on those visits to the 22 France would have crumbled (and there probably should have been a french yellow card in that period too). Awesome stuff lads keep it up

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