Congratulations Ireland on a historic third Grand Slam. This was yet another intelligent and clinical performance from the men in green. In this article, I will explore some of the tactics Ireland used in beating England.
England themselves have now lost three games in a row. Defeats to Scotland and France have exposed serious flaws in their game. However, despite these disappointing results, England did show significant signs of improvement in this match.
Irish Ambition and Confidence
In England’s first attack of the game, they have the ball just inside their own half. England set up a 3-pod involving James Haskell, Kyle Sinkler and Chris Robshaw. Ireland have made an error in alignment. Dan Leavy is standing between his centres, leaving him exposed if the pod run at Bundee Aki and hold the Irish drift. Jonny May is calling for the ball to be pulled back to him. He will then be able to run at Dan Leavy and Garry Ringrose with 25 metres of space. He also has 3 England backs to help him. This is a simple 4 v 2 with plenty of room to operate in.
England waste the opportunity. They have carried the ball into the middle of the Irish fringe defense rather than Aki on the edge. England secure quick ruck ball and give it to May. However, the Irish defense has reorganised and the English no longer have an overlap or space to exploit it. England came into this game knowing Ireland are vulnerable in the wide channels. Scotland and Wales both showed them how to attack Ireland. They did not have the confidence in their systems to exploit this early opportunity, which reflects where Eddie Jones’s side are right now.
Ireland also came into this game knowing their opposition have vulnerabilities out wide. They showed early on that they trust their skills and systems enough to attack from anywhere. In the picture we see Ireland are not as organised as the English moments earlier. They are near their own line and they have a prop standing at 9. Jonny Sexton realises that Jacob Stockdale is in acres of space. He can’t cross kick because Jonny May (out of shot) can run onto the ball and it is too risky. He also sees England’s line speed is slower than usual. Cian Healy gives him a good pass so Sexton decides to pull the ball back to Bundee Aki. He trusts Aki can get the ball to Garry Ringrose, who in turn can set Stockdale free.
Ireland do lack a second playmaker in their backline. Aki’s pass isn’t great, and Ringrose is checked. Ben Te’o forces him back inside, and the chance is gone. Ireland recycle and exit the 22. However, notice the anticipation of Jonny Sexton. In the picture, he is 10m in front of the ball carrier and behind the English defence. Sexton is in perfect position to support Ringrose and turn a potential 2v1 into a 3v1.
England win the breakdown battle
Many of England’s problems in attack have come from issues at the breakdown, discussed here and here. England initially lacked confidence in their recycling. In the first few minutes they repeatedly kicked away good attacking ball in promising positions. However, as the game wore on it became clear England were resourcing rucks adequately. Ireland made only 2 breakdown turnovers and England won 98% of their own rucks. This included plenty of fast ball.
In the picture, we see Maro Itoje and James Haskell have cleared out Peter O’Mahoney. What the picture doesn’t show is Itoje also cleared the previous ruck. He showed commendable work rate to get off the floor and assist Haskell. Haskell actually missed O’Mahoney, and in previous games, England might well have conceded a turnover here. However, Haskell’s efforts allowed Itoje to come in and finish the job.
Ireland did not just accept England’s ability to recycle their ball. Whenever there was a hint of an isolated carrier, they competed. In the picture Garry Ringrose wins a vital extra second by coming in after a tackle is complete and competing for the ball. This time James Haskell is able to clear him off the ball without leaving the scrum half exposed. England were markedly better at dealing with the Irish jackals than they were French or Scottish ones.
England were clearly very focused on resourcing breakdowns. Just before the Elliot Daly chance, shown in the picture, Owen Farrell, Mike Brown and Jonathan Joseph hit a breakdown from a Ben Te’o carry. With confidence in their system, one of those players would have looped around the outside of the ruck. This would have created a chance to release Daly for an easy score as he had drifted outside his marker. Instead, England go back inside for one more phase before releasing him and Keith Earls makes a phenomenal tap tackle.
England alter their attacking strategies
This picture shows an early England attack. Owen Farrell (10) is surrounded by 4 forwards. Mako Vunipola (1), supported by Kyle Sinkler (3), run a line towards the Irish fringe defence, attacking the same space as the previous ruck. This is an example of “Brumby mode” explained by Conor Wilson here. England have spare forwards in Maro Itoje (4) and Chris Robshaw (6) to clear the ruck, which should ensure fast ruck ball. England used this tactic intermittently during the game, and it helped them get over the gain line more than in previous matches.
Farrell actually pulls the ball back to Elliot Daly instead, but he kicks the ball away as the English forwards are all running away from him. Irish defenders outnumber the English attackers and England still fear giving Ireland easy turnovers.
Later in the game England brought on George Ford. They were chasing the game, and they also realised that Ireland were not winning turnovers at the breakdown, which would allow the Ford – Farrell axis to function once more.
Having a second play maker allowed England to exploit the wide defense of Ireland. This picture shows the lead up to Elliot Daly’s second try. England have an attacking scrum on the right side. Owen Farrell (10) straightens the line and pulls back to George Ford. This holds the Irish midfield defense. Ford is able to float a pass to Mike Brown, who does not have to break stride. Keith Earls and Rob Kearney are sucked in, and Brown gets a lovely offload away to Daly for the try.
Space also opened late in the game for Jonny May’s consolation score. Ben Te’o is able to fade off a pass from George Ford, turning a 2v2 into a 2v1 and sending May over for a very simple score. The value of being able to stretch a defense with two play makers was shown again.
Like the Scotland and France games, England chose to back their driving maul. In this match, they turned down several first-half chances at kickable penalties in favour of a 5-meter attacking lineout. In a slightly controversial decision, the referee yellow carded Peter O’Mahoney for pulling down a maul that was marching over the Irish line but didn’t award the penalty try. The explanation was that the maul was pulled down before it got over the line, however, these days the 7 points are often awarded in such situations. Ultimately England got little reward from their driving maul, which was defended well by the Irish.
Ireland cope well without their usual gainline success
Ireland attacked their usual way. They like to use attacking kicks and first phase strike moves to gain field position. Then they use heavy forward carriers off 9, close to the ruck. This allows them to resource rucks. Opposition teams quickly find Ireland dominating territory and possession. They have to make ridiculous amounts of tackles and Ireland start to strangle them into submission. They have plans for specific opposition weaknesses, such as the second Stockdale try or the Conor Murray try against Scotland, discussed here.
In this game England were able to edge the breakdown battle, enabling them to increasingly dominate possession and territory as the game wore on. England stopped the Irish carriers on the gain line. Ireland’s forwards made only 66m from 80 carries, with CJ Stander accounting for 24 of those and, courtesy of his run to the line, almost half the metres made. They averaged just 0.83 meters per carry. In contrast England’s forwards managed 137 meters from 93 carries, averaging 1.47 meters per carry.
Ireland showed an impressive ability to score tries from the other areas of their attacking game even when the play off 9 isn’t working. They were ruthless in taking their few opportunities and showed they are far from a one trick pony. Not many sides can score three tries despite only making 224 meters ball in hand.
The CJ Stander try showed Ireland at their very best. They are so comfortable in their own game and so confident in their skills. How many teams would run a strike move where their tight head prop is the play maker? Joe Schmidt admitted afterwards that Ireland had some success in 2015 with a similar move and decided to try it in this game too.
We see Tadgh Furlong carrying the ball and holding the English drift. Bundee Aki is on his outside shoulder. Jonny Sexton is running a loop play. The English defence anticipate Sexton getting the ball. Instead Furlong lifts to Aki, who goes clean through. Note CJ Stander’s anticipation here. He is already behind the English defence and well ahead of the play. Aki passes inside to the onrushing Stander and he manages to reach the base of the post for a magnificent set piece try.
Ireland have scored a lot of tries in this 6 Nations. However, their ability to create linebreaks from phase play has been criticised. In this picture we see Conor Murray float a pass to Jacob Stockdale down the blind side. He simultaneously passes and steps into Richard Wigglesworth, England’s sole guard on that side. This takes out the defender, turning a 1v1 in a small space into a linebreak. As the guards on the open side are tight forwards, they are not able to get across to stop Stockdale. He still has a lot of work to do, but is full of confidence and finishes superbly after chipping Mike Brown.
Ireland’s superior kicking game
The Garry Ringrose try is the obvious example to use for Ireland’s kicking game. Ireland love to use the box kick or high bomb where Rob Kearney can run on to the ball against an opponent standing still. In this picture, the kick is judged to perfection, and in the ensuing scramble, Ringrose is able to follow up and score. Note how Garry Ringrose and Jacob Stockdale are in much better positions to react to any fumble than the surrounding English defenders. A ricochet in almost any direction would leave one of them favorite to reach the ball first. There was some luck involved in this try, but the Irish did everything to maximize their chances of capitalising on it.
England’s kicking game put less pressure on the Irish. In this picture we see the main chaser is Kyle Sinkler. Richard Wigglesworth has placed his box kick a little bit long. While Sinkler is mobile for a prop, he is not the ideal man to compete for high balls. He has Daly and Joseph outside him, but there is a big gap inside to Owen Farrell. Keith Earls is shadowing Rob Kearney, who takes the kick. Earls points to Sinkler, telling Kearney he is isolated. Kearney turns the wrong way and the English backs are able to force a turnover at the ruck. However, Ireland were able to field the kick with ease and only a poor exit allowed England to make something of the kick.
Ireland thoroughly deserved their win and their Grand Slam. They showed that denying them gain line and forward momentum is not enough to stop the green machine. They showed intelligence, a great kicking game and stout defence. Ireland are brutally efficient, a trait discussed by Donal Lucey here. It was not perfect, as they were unable to really get their forward game off 9 going. They still retain vulnerabilities out wide. But Ireland can celebrate knowing they are going places as a team.
England will likely make a lot of changes for their tour to South Africa. As a result, we may not be able to assess whether England are really moving in the right direction until November. As Steve Hansen recently remarked:
“Even though the [Irish] guys have been on the Lions tour, the same tour the English boys have been on, they’ve had opportunities to rest up and be mentally, emotionally and physically able to go out and play good Test rugby,” BBC website
England’s Lions have played too much rugby and look jaded. However, there are good reasons for optimism. England have shown progress towards fixing their breakdown problems. They are beginning to generate more go forward ball, even without Billy Vunipola, and they are looking less vulnerable out wide. Eddie Jones will blood new players and have time to develop trust in their systems. They showed heart and played with increasing confidence, although it was too late to affect the result in this game.
Author: Daniel Pugsley
I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I play for Abu Dhabi Harlequins 3rds and coach the U6s where my daughter plays. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I am new to sports writing, but why should the Quins lads be the only ones to suffer my ramblings!