Ireland, have maintained their kicking game. To this day they still use their box kicking ability very effectively.

They have since evolved their attacking game. This, is down to two patterns. In this article, we shall be focusing on the first pattern. The 3-3-1 Looper, and its variation.

One is a modified version of the 1-3-3-1. The way the Irish do it, however, is different to other teams who spread the ball wide between the pods. The Irish pods of three (or “3 pods“) usually operate within a pass of each other. Different to the spread out way that the Australians do it, for example.

The best way to describe this pattern in words is: “Break the team to make the break“. The backline portion of this pattern comes after the 3 pods have both been used. In this way; it is very regimented, the template similar every time, it also explains the reasons why Ireland use such a big 12 rather than a playmaker there. As the break portion is dependent on the platform and direction of attack set by the use of the 3 pods.

Like all Joe Schmidt teams, this has variations. This article will first show; the 3-3-1 pattern, which needs a large openside to work, and secondly the 3-3 variation that involves the back dummy looper in place of the 1 pod.

Important note

I must emphasise, that this is the Irish default pattern when they are in the situation where they have a full openside to use it. When they don’t have this, they will work themselves into a position where they have a full openside so they can use it. This is usually when their backline play has only gone to the centre of the field, and they need more space to fully employ it on the reverse switch. I will show this in more detail later.

Irish 1-3-3-1 Pattern

Below, we can see the start of the Irish 1-3-3-1 pattern. It’s quite simple; the 3 pod are up flat so that it can go to any number of players, and behind, we have a ballplayer highlighted, who can take the ball out the back with a screen pass and pass it out should the call be made. Also, Zebo is on the blind and can take that inside ball that Ireland are very keen on.

Irish patterns and tactics 1. Will they use this in the Six Nations (6 Nations)

One phase later, we can see the second 3 pod, in a similar alignment, taking the ball to contact. Each contact is under five seconds, which means the team are generating approximately a 3-second ruck. This shows the success of Ireland’s breakdown pattern. In the 3 pod themselves, though they’re not necessarily trying to occupy any given defender, they are trying to constrict the defence.

The Looper play is the one that targets defenders surgically. Again we can see Zebo moving across with the passes, maintaining that role as the inside option on the next phase should it be called.

Ireland's patterns and tactics 2

The option of Zebo is ignored. On purpose. The ball goes to the 1 pod, Furlong, one of Ireland’s most powerful carriers. Furlong’s place as the 1 pod is more effective as it’s nearest to the overlap where the Irish backline is. And that’s where the maximum damage can be done in event of a break close to them.

The use of the 1 pod here is what makes this the 3-3-1 Looper. Here we see Sexton ready to take the ball should it be on, but the numbers are still on the outside for the English, so the ball isn’t shifted.

Subtle use of Furlong

Furlong is one of the strongest carriers on the pitch, and the likeliest to create a break close to the edge of the defence. This means if he gets the gainline break, it sucks in defenders from the edge and means more space that the backline next to him can immediately utilise. Why? Because defenders have been drawn from the area where Ireland have an overlap.

If he was placed in the first 3 pod and made the break, he draws defenders from the centre of the field rather than the edge. This allows the defence to renumber on the inside to target the next 3 pod, and the ball still has to travel to get to the backline. Giving the defence more time to push.

Ireland's patterns and tactics 3

The Looper play

After this is where we the Looper play comes in. In their 1-3-3-1, Ireland uses their 1 pod forward in 3 ways:

  • 1. As shown above,
  • 2. A screen for Sexton,
  • and 3, as the dummy for the loop play.

After the 3-3-1/3-3, Ireland nearly always go to the backline, be it over 1 or 2 phases. Sometimes they again will truck it up with the 1 pod to make it a 3-3-1 play or they may reverse the direction and run from the backline there. The key though is that after the 3-3, or 3-3-1, they usually utilise the backline.

In this case; Sexton (red) takes the ball and passes to Ringrose (blue) on a hard run.

Ireland's patterns and tactics 4a

While Sexton is making a tracking unders run preparing himself to take the ball Payne is stood very flat. With Payne flat, his option is to either take the flat pass from Ringrose or screen Sexton. Screening Sexton allows him to pass out to Earls (white) on the wing. We will explore this later in a few examples, but there is quite a bit of obstruction that happens in the Irish Looper plays. It’s subtle, but it does happen.

Ireland's patterns and tactics 4

Not quite

In this case, it doesn’t work. The defence reads and rushes up, causing Ringrose to dummy, and go to ground. The ball goes to the blind. The forwards on said phase have gone into secure the ruck, leaving only a 2 pod available standing off the ruck on the openside as seen below. However, from out of screen, O’Mahony comes in to support making the 3 pod option. There are pods in the Irish system when the numbers aren’t right that go in with a 2 pod, however, nearly always, due to the closeness of the previous ruck, you have a 3rd man come in from the prior ruck to assist in securing the ball. This supports the fact of Joe Schmidt’s fundamental focus on the breakdown.

Ireland's patterns and tactics 5

Occupy defence

A phase later, we see the second 3 pod positioned close to the ruck, trying to occupy the fringe defence.

I believe this placement is two-fold:

  • 1. they’re trying to occupy the defence for a potential inside option for Earls (white).
  • 2. they’re trying to drag in defence from the open further in for the next play.

Ireland's patterns and tactics 6


Now, this is where the predictability of the pattern can backfire.

Ireland have run a 3-3. The placement of their pods has been done as such to constrict the opposition in a relatively short area of the field. What play comes next? That’s right. The Looper play, and that’s exactly what happens.

Nine passes out to Ringrose (blue) who takes a hard line attacking the gap between D4 and D5 (green). Sexton (red) runs behind to target the inside shoulder of D6 (purple), and Payne (red/black dot) runs directly behind Ringrose to the inside of Sexton, receiving the ball at near obstruction level and targeting the area between D5 and D6 (green and purple).

Ireland's patterns and tactics 8

This is a cleverly designed Looper play. Ringrose occupies the two green players, who are meant to make a 2 on 1 tackle. Sexton is drawing Lawes at purple, and targeting his inside shoulder, meaning he can obstruct the gap for Payne to go right through. Theoretically.


Ringrose though is not a big unit. He does not occupy the green defender’s attention, with them pushing up and going straight through at the last second. Thereby leading to Marler occupying the space designed to be clear for Payne’s run. This is why Henshaw/Aki are needed. As they are powerful enough to commit 2 defenders in the Looper play attacks.

The Irish clear out and re-target the blind. The Looper play has been run. What is the next phase going to involve? Yep. Back to the 3 pod.


I like to call this the 3-3-Looper. The first play involved the 1 pod, which can be used in multiple ways as discussed. On the return, the 1 pod has not realigned in his position. Therefore, only the 2 “3” pods are used. The loop play being made without the 1 pod involvement. This explains why the ball doesn’t go wide to Zebo, as the strike point on the defence would be too far from the nearest forward to guarantee possession.

A very well thought out and intelligent plan, with an excellent decision from Sexton.

We all saw Carbery playing the Sexton Looper role against Fiji, so it is something they are working on. Expect to see this in the Six Nations.

Note: Manufacturing the full openside

Ireland are incredibly regimented with this method of playing. Roman Legion-esque. However, this is the optimum pattern that Ireland use if they have a full openside, as they have space. And that’s a big if. They like working it in the order of “3-3-1 Backline/3-3-Backline” when they have a full openside. They use the 3-3-1 Backline on the first openside, and after they’ve used the field, the 3-3 backline on the reverse openside.

As we know though, you do not always have a full openside to work with. Because of this, once the backline is used and they’re near centre field they usually try to get back into such a position where they can use this pattern.

Reestablish the pattern

Here we see Ireland on the 20-metre line. This is after they’ve fully used their 3-3-1 Backline play. They want to reestablish a position where they can use this pattern, so they go to the blind with a 3 pod-backs move.

First, they truck up with a 3 pod.

Six Nations patterns

After this, they want their 3 pods on the openside for when they use them in the next two phases. So they use the remainder of their backline on the openside.

Six Nations patterns

Once this is successfully completed they again have a full openside. As such, they are in a prime position to begin again. And they do. They launch their first pod on their first phase to the open, with the yellow/black dot player going in to help secure the ball as a spare forward. Simultaneously, we can see the second pod preparing to run on the next phase just under the first pod.

Six Nations patterns

Now Ireland have used their 3 pod, the next stage is the 2nd 3 pod, which we can see happen here.

Six Nations patterns

The next stage is the backline.

Six Nations patterns

As we can see from the above, the Irish use this pattern when they have a full openside. When they don’t have the openside they do a series of one out passes to pods. Or, they use up the rest of the backline on the blind to manufacture it, so they can get back into their pattern. The stills from this video show the Irish performing this pattern continuously, in which they also score a try.

I thoroughly recommend watching this sequence of play to see it in real time.

For the first article in this series see the following – Part 1: Tenets.


Author: Conor Wilson

Recently retired from the Military, Skydiving and rare Steak Enthusiast and Player of the beautiful game of Rugby.

Joe Schmidt, Will Greenwood and Rod MacQueen are my heroes, and my proudest moment was putting Jason Robinson in for a try at a promotional Rugby day. It was truly beautiful.



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