In this series of articles, I am going to run through Ireland’s attacking patterns and tactics.

They won’t be as detailed as the English series that I have just completed; more like the 1st article in that series.

Ireland’s Tenets

  1. Possession and by extension the breakdown is key. Players must always be supported going into the breakdown and they must land in a position where they can present the ball cleanly. When Ireland kick the chase must be fast and pressured, no team should be given possession back cheaply.
  2. Physical and mental fitness is imperative. The team must have the clear-minded ability to outlast the opposition. This means going up to forty phases whilst performing the basics and details correctly and legally every phase. This is combined with constant pressure on the opposition, which in turn leads to frustration. This allows the team to win penalties and grindathon style matches that come down to the wire.
  3. Discipline must be maintained, almost at all costs. Penalties only serve to help the opposition and give them the advantage. If a penalty must be conceded, better it be a game-changing moment where it counts most.
  4. Plays and patterns set by the playmakers should be made flat to the line as to break it.
  5. In attack. every player has a role and must follow it surgically. The right lines, angles and timing must be right by every player in order for the result to be effective.

Roman legion

Steve and Gareth have very aptly broken down the flavour of the Irish team in their videos. If you haven’t watched these I highly recommend you do. But what they’ve discussed, is that they don’t rely on individual players or moments of brilliance to win games. Shane Williams for Wales post-2008 is a great example of over-reliance on a player.

Rather, they’re like a Roman legion, regimented, disciplined, and very effective. They rely on the system, not the man to get them over the try line. And the Joe Schmidt way is the way of the team. Where a man can fall into the team effectively, follow the processes and structures and perform his role to aid the big picture.

This is fair. If you lose an X-factor player, you don’t want your team to be reliant on him. You want to be able to slot someone in, and the loss of your first choice won’t be as important as it could be. It’s the system, not the player, that creates the win. That, is the premise for me, behind Ireland. They want players who do the basics well and can do those basics that enhance the efficiency of the system. However, there are flaws in this.


In my opinion, X-factor is often needed. As I’ve said before, I believe International Rugby to be a ruthless and harsh ecosystem. Coaches are always trying to outwit each other, outfox the other. They’re developing new ways of defending an attack. And developing new ways of attacking different defences. If a team’s processes are worked out, if a system is worked out, or a team is able to anticipate the next move, the opposition can render the team completely ineffective.

Teams that can’t adapt end up grasping at straws and ultimately abandoning the system. When there’s no player who can step up to the mark with a great outside break, a powerful drive over the line to gain momentum or a great piece of footwork, the team can become lost. Therefore, there are two options for teams such as these.

  1. Develop new systems and become proficient in new ways of playing.
  2. Bed in X-factor players who can fill the roles of the system, and play outside them.

Joe Schmidt is not only one of my idols, he’s one of the sharpest rugby brains on the planet, and he has done both of these.

Discussing Ireland's patterns and tactics? What will they unleash this year on the Six Nations (6 Nations)
Discussing Ireland’s patterns and tactics? ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Pre World Cup

In 2014 and 2015, Ireland won both the Six Nations. Fact. However, they mainly played a kicking game via Murray and Sexton, with very effective chasers. The halfbacks would send the ball up, and Kearney/Bowe would come through as flanking chasers. They would arrive on either side of the catcher, preventing the catcher from passing to his teammates. The chasing line would join them, at which they would do their best to hold the ball up off the ground with their choke tackle, gain a turnover, and pressure the opposition further.

It wasn’t their only strategy, but their ball in hand attack hadn’t developed as much, and it was a very efficient, and very accurate system.

However, Ireland was out in the quarters along with all the other home nations. The reason?

They could not execute their game plan the way they wanted. Because Sexton was out. Murray was in, but Sexton is key to the Irish game plan, and one of the best players in the Irish team. They were missing a lot of others as well. But Sexton was key.

Whilst Madigan is a brilliant player with the ball in hand, at the time, that wasn’t the way Ireland was winning games conclusively. They relied more on their kicking game, their accuracy at the breakdown and their defence. Sexton was what was needed to perform the role that made their system work, and he was injured. Hence, the team did not have the capability to employ the system as effectively, and they were overrun by the Argentinians. Who were quite brilliant that day.

Post WC

Joe Schmidt went away and started to develop new systems. He wanted Ireland to become proficient in new ways of playing. Over the course of the next few days I’m going to break down Ireland’s development of phase play, and then, we’re going to talk about the X Factor players that Ireland have since started to develop.

If you haven’t already seen the England pattern and tactics series you can start the journey here.


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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