An analysis of Ireland’s try-scoring trends against Tier 1 opposition between 2016 and 2018 – as well as looking at other descriptive measures of the team’s play – shows that they have had success operating a disciplined, possession-heavy gameplan. Having edged the top-ranked All Blacks at home in a tight encounter in November, they now occupy the position of primary challenger to the current holders as the 2019 Rugby World Cup cycle turns towards its conclusion.

The graphs below chart the source of Ireland’s tries against Tier 1 opposition in fixtures between 2016 and 2018: the direct source of the scoring phase, and the area of the pitch in which it took place. The six possible sources of the scoring phase are (i) a ruck, (ii) a lineout, (iii) a scrum, (iv) a tapped penalty, (v) a turnover (including those at ruck and set-piece) and (vi) a kick return. The pitch is divided into five sections: (i) the area between the attacking team’s goal line and their own 22m line; (ii) the area between their 22m line and 10m line; (iii) 10m line – opponent’s 10m line; (iv) opp. 10m line – opp. 22m line; and (v) opp. 22m – opp. goal line.

(NB: in contrast to Murray Kinsella’s previous try analysis for The42 –  which looked at the source and area of the first phase of each of a team’s scoring sequences –  this analysis accounts for the phase on which the try is scored only.)

All other team data is from ESPN.

Ireland’s try-scoring trends analysed

In statistical terms, the case for Ireland’s position as the second- or third-best team in the world over the last three years is compelling. They have the third-highest winning percentage against Tier 1 opposition in this period (69%, compared to England’s 78% and New Zealand’s 85%), the second-highest average points difference per 80 minutes (+9.4, compared to England’s +9.3 and New Zealand’s +19.3), and finished their 2018 season with a 10-0-1 record.

Over this period, they have been heavily reliant on close-range phase play to score their tries:

Ireland's try-scoring trends
Ireland’s try-scoring trends

As the graphic above shows, they have averaged 1.5 tries a game from rucks inside in their opponent’s 22m line across the three-year period. However, this number has decreased each year of the cycle. From 1.8 in 2016, it has fallen in consecutive years to 1.6 and 1.1 in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Ireland’s try-scoring trends: within 40m of the goal line

However, in 2018, they scored 3.2 total tries per 80 mins against T1 teams, their highest mark of the three years of the cycle to date (2016: 2.5/80 mins; 2017: 3.0/80 mins). This was due to a much higher return from set-pieces and turnovers. They scored 1.5 per 80 mins from these sources combined in 2018, after hitting marks of 0.9 and 0.5 in the preceding two seasons.

Notably, their indicators of ball-progression efficiency – that is, how successful they were at moving the ball up the pitch with each carry – regressed last season. They made fewer metres per carry (2.6m in 2018, vs. 2.9m in 2017 and 2.8m in 2016) and a lower rate of clean breaks (4.9% of total carries in 2018, vs. 5.5% and 6.0%). However, they offloaded the ball less than ever (3.4%, vs. 4.1% and 4.0%), turned the ball over less than ever (every 32.9 touches, vs. 27.6 and 32.0) and kicked the ball in open play much less frequently. After averaging a kick every 4.9 carries in 2016 and every 6.1 in 2017, they only kicked once every 8.0 carries in 2018.

With this low-risk, possession-heavy approach they had their highest overall share of possession in the cycle (57.1% of all carries made in their games), and – crucially – pushed the ball-in-play time of their games to another level. Ireland’s fixtures against other T1 teams in 2018 saw an average of 284.9 total carries and 227.9 total rucks, combined to averages of 244.5 and 181.6 respectively across all games contested by T1 sides in 2016-18.

Ireland’s try-scoring trends: possible regression from turnovers

What can we infer from this data? Most likely, Ireland’s ability to hold the ball for long periods without turning the ball over – even though they do not move up the field with ball in hand as effectively as other top international sides – forces fatigued, possession-starved opponents into technical errors, allowing them to win penalties which create set pieces in dangerous positions. They reached new heights with this strategy in 2018, when they won 10.8 penalties per 80 mins (2016: 10.4; 2017: 10.0). They were able to convert these penalties into 0.9 tries per game directly from a lineout or scrum platform, thanks primarily to their lineout maul (from which they scored 6 tries in 11 games) and their ability to execute Joe Schmidt’s set plays  with great precision.

However, it is important to note that their attacking performance from turnovers may be due for regression in 2019. While they averaged 0.6 tries per game from turnovers last season, 5 of their 7 scores from this direct source were returned interceptions, all with no passes required after the turnover of possession. It is unclear how repeatable this is as a source of points, as they had scored only 1 such interception try in their 18 previous T1 games in the cycle. Garry Ringrose’s try at Twickenham (along with their disallowed effort on penalty advantage in the first half of the New Zealand game in 2018) is an example of a score from a turnover that is likely more sustainable in the long-term: using contestable kicks deep in the opposition’s 22 to recover a spilled ball around the try line.

Conclusion

Schmidt’s side have honed their point-scoring approach over the course of his tenure, and his vision for the team was almost perfectly realised in a momentous 2018 season. While there may be some indicators of possible regression in try scoring from transition situations, as they enter the 2019 Six Nations they are likely to continue to achieve considerable attacking success from their attritional phase-play approach and set-piece accuracy.

Author: The Chase

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