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Analysis: Attention to detail and violence help Ireland deny Pocock

We examine each of the Wallabies back row’s efforts to steal Irish possession last weekend.

DAVID POCOCK WAS always going to be a major threat to Ireland’s chances of finishing their November series with a third win in four games.

David Pocock remonstrates with referee Jérôme Garcès Pocock was negated for large periods by Ireland's rucking. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

The Wallabies back row, playing with the number eight on his jersey, proved to be a relentless threat to Ireland’s possession at the breakdown.

This encounter saw Pocock display many of the skills that make him one of the best turnover merchants in the world, but Joe Schmidt’s Ireland did enough to prevent him from having an overbearing influence on the game.

Here, we look at how Ireland dealt with each and every one of Pocock’s attempts or plans to steal their possession post-tackle. There are huge moments among the catalogue, with Schmidt’s side saving the very best until last.

1:13

Although they hardly needed a reminder, Pocock served Ireland an early warning of his intent at the breakdown on their very first carry of the game.

1 - 1.13

Garry Ringrose carries the ball and Josh van der Flier is first on the scene for Ireland, stepping over Ringrose and apparently feeling that he is in a solid guard position.

However, Pocock simply reaches over and beyond van der Flier to get a big right paw onto the ball.

1.1

Is Pocock entitled to play the ball with his hand in this manner? A ruck occurs when at least one player from each team “who are on their feet, in physical contact, close around the ball on the ground.” Thereafter, no player can attack the ball with their hands.

There is physical contact between Pocock and van der Flier before the Wallabies back row gets his hand on the ball, but is it really a contest?

Van der Flier hasn’t actively looked to engage Pocock  - before he realises the turnover threat and does so – and it is this kind of grey area in which Pocock so sublimely operates.

1.2

Van der Flier realises what’s happening and rotates his upper body to wrap his left arm around Pocock, just as captain Rory Best arrives in for a vital contribution, driving into Pocock’s left shoulder and shunting him backwards.

Even still, Pocock maintains his connection with the ball with that strong right hand, and Ireland only retain possession thanks to Ringrose holding on on the ground.

It’s a close call, but van der Flier, Best and Ringrose combine to just about prevent an early win for Pocock.

1:45

Five phases later, Pocock is involved again as a tackler on CJ Stander.

2 - 1.45

Even when he’s the front-on tackler, Pocock is always thinking about the turnover.

We see Jamie Heaslip’s razor-sharp awareness of that as Stander carries the ball. Instead of latching onto Stander and driving his team-mate forward, Heaslip targets Pocock before the tackle has been completed.

So even as Pocock is tackling, already Heaslip is engaging with him to clear away a threat that will materialise.

2.1

While we can see above that Pocock is fighting to stay on his feet after the tackle, Heaslip has already begun clearing him away.

Pocock therefore can’t get a clear release to challenge for the ball again, and he goes to ground just as Best arrives in to drop a shoulder into his back to be certain he won’t look to pop back up.

There is a further bit of detail here too, as Stander shows his intelligence.

2.2

Throughout the carry, Stander has a firm grip on Pocock and he doesn’t release it until Murray has moved the ball on for the next phase.

Stander’s intends to be 100% sure that Pocock cannot bounce up from the tackle and have a shot at the ball.

It’s the kind of attention to detail that Joe Schmidt’s side has become famous for, and even if it doesn’t have a major effect here, it demonstrates how aware Ireland are of the threat of Pocock.

1:57

On the very next phase, Jared Payne runs a switch off Paddy Jackson and isn’t held in the tackle of Rob Simmons, scrambling back to his feet and bursting in beyond the Wallabies defence, before being hauled down by Bernard Foley.

Impressively, Pocock makes it back to have a brief shot at the ball post-tackle.

3 - 1.57

Again, we see the kind of grey area Pocock operates in around the breakdown.

Pocock essentially approaches the tackle point from the side, rather than through the ‘gate’ – which is not actually written into the laws of the game.

3.1

But Pocock is a true master of painting pictures at the breakdown, of showing off body shape that suggests that he has indeed approached through the gate.

So while he may be approaching from the side in the image above, we can see below that he is beginning to snap into an excellent position below.

3.2

Pocock is swinging himself in behind the tackle point and painting exactly the kind of picture the match officials want to see – him competing for the ball through the gate.

Perhaps he has jumped over a side wall to be behind that gate, but that is the beauty of Pocock’s breakdown mastery.

He finds himself in a decent position to then jackal over the ball, but again we see a strong awareness of the threat from Ireland.

Ringrose picks Pocock out early and accelerates into the breakdown, dipping his body low and driving his left shoulder into Pocock to shunt him backwards away from the ball. A superb rucking contribution from the young centre.

2:32

Still, Pocock is undeterred as Ireland string together phase after phase of early pressure. The Wallabies number eight has to wait around 30 seconds for his next bite, but he is always, always alert.

4 - 2.32

In this instance, we see Pocock’s incredible ability to get onto the ball. We frequently use that phrase in rugby, but very few players are as accurate in attacking the ball itself as Pocock is.

Often, we see jackaling players clinging onto the ball carrier’s body or just clamping around their arms, but Pocock is unerringly accurate in getting his hands firmly around the ball.

4.1

He does so once again here, despite shooting in at the ball from a couple of metres back, and there’s instantly a real danger to Ireland’s possession.

Stander trips over tackler Will Genia on his way to the breakdown and that means Pocock can use his power to win the first physical contact.

However, Iain Henderson does superbly to arrive in as second man – resisting the temptation to ruck from the side – dip his body low, and drive into Pocock, hammering at his left leg to destabilise him as Stander finally gets a grip on his upper body.

The Wallabies get penalised at this ruck for taking out halfback Murray, but play continues with the advantage.

2:53

We’re still in the same passage of Ireland attack here, by now onto phase 15, as Pocock has another dab at the ball.

His stamina is quite spectacular.

5 - 2.53

Murray dummies and carries into Michael Hooper and Stephen Moore, with Pocock arriving in as the tackle is almost completed.

He instantly clamps around the ball again, and should release as Murray goes to ground. Hooper, his own team-mate, is slightly blocking Pocock from making a good rip of the ball, however, and we see more evidence of Ireland’s focus on Pocock.

Rather than hammering into Hooper, Jack McGrath just slides up over him to make contact with the back of Pocock’s shoulders and discourage him further.

3:06

Two phases later and, still, Pocock has thoughts of attacking Ireland’s possession.

6 - 3.06

Pocock is the tackler this time as Best picks and jams forward.

Although getting Best to ground is an obvious priority for Pocock, he tackles in a manner that will allow him to stay on his feet and, hopefully, jackal over the ball once Best is tackled.

But we see Ireland’s tactic of engaging Pocock before he can complete his tackle again here, as Furlong arrives in aggressively.

6.1

We can see above that Furlong has essentially begun the process of clearing Pocock out before the tackle is finished.

It’s a highly proactive approach and Furlong manages to get Pocock to deck in this instance.

5:49

We witness Ireland getting a little rougher with Pocock a few minutes later after Toner competes brilliantly on the Australian throw and Henderson snaffles the loose ball.

7 5.49

Pocock is involved in the tackle, and again we see Ireland take their proactive approach with him. They’re not hanging around to ascertain if he’s going to target the ball.

We can see above that Furlong spots Pocock early and actually reaches up and over Henderson to get to Pocock – rather than latching onto Henderson.

There is a threat of a choke tackle here, and Furlong wants to take Pocock swiftly out of the equation. Henderson manages to fight to the ground, and the early intervention means that Furlong is well placed to clear Pocock away.

7.1

As Furlong drives up through Pocock’s left shoulder, his front row partner McGrath joins the party to make sure the Wallabies back row gets the message.

McGrath is looking to use his own body weight and momentum to roll Pocock away to the left side of the Irish ruck, but makes contact with his right hand around Pocock’s head.

7.2

It’s a penalty offence, of course, but it just underlines Ireland’s willingness to do whatever they can to get Pocock away from their ball.

We see Furlong end the contest on top of Pocock, who appears to be quite aggrieved at the manner in which he’s been removed.

7.3

It’s the first little sign of frustration from Pocock and we can see above that he is slow off the ground for the first time.

McGrath and Furlong [circle in white] beat Pocock [yellow] off the ground and shift on to their next jobs.

6:17

Not that Pocock had been put off the task. Not in the slightest.

We’re still inside the opening seven minutes of the game when he has has a quick thought of poaching, as Ireland come back wide to the left in the same passage of attack.

8 - 6.17

Pocock’s new enemy McGrath carries the ball into contact, but we’re most interested by the Irish rucking players again.

Watch the focus and awareness of Furlong as he approaches the breakdown, spotting Pocock and then dipping into the contact to win the ‘shoulder battle’ against Pocock, whose access is admittedly narrowed by tackler Tevita Kuridrani.

Van der Flier floods in behind Furlong to ensure lightning quick ball for Ireland, with Pocock making a good decision to completely disengage and therefore stay alive in the defensive line.

6:22

That decision means Pocock gets a better shot at the ball at the very next breakdown, after Dane Haylett-Petty tackles Andrew Trimble.

9 - 6.22

Pocock is there early and we get another example of his incredible ball focus as he snaps a right hand onto the pill.

9.1

As the first arrival for Ireland, Best has to be equally accurate in his selection of rucking technique if he is to prevent Pocock from getting his left hand – gripping onto Haylett-Petty for support – through onto the ball.

Best’s decision-making is excellent as he opts for the croc roll [or can opener or tin opener] technique, looking to roll Pocock back to the right and away from the ball.

9.2

As Best does that, showing his strength to lift Pocock, there’s a vital contribution from Keith Earls as second arrival.

The Ireland wing gets a grip on Pocock’s left leg as he drives up into the Wallabies back row, managed to take that pillar of stability away from him and add to Best’s actions to remove the threat.

Earls then does well to remain in a guard position over the ball, providing important protection for scrum-half Murray as Dean Mumm comes in for a big counter-rucking hit.

9:38

Ireland’s next visit to the Australia 22 sees Pocock finally get some sort of reward for his efforts.

10 - 9.38

He makes the turnover in this instance, but advantage is playing for Ireland so in reality the reward is not great.

There is also the fact that Pocock shows no clear release between his involvement in the tackle and his jackaling over the ball.

10.1

Pocock simply slides his hands down carrier van der Flier’s body to the ball, with no clear release. Referee Jérôme Garcès appears to believe it is a legitimate turnover, however, as he brings play back to the previous penalty.

While Pocock’s legality may be in question here, the incident does underline his consistent ability to keep his feet in the tackle, as well as his brute strength and low centre of gravity over the ball.

Still less than 10 minutes into the game, Ireland’s understanding of the threat has only increased.

15:50

Pocock felt he had earned a turnover penalty in the 16th minute, but Garcès viewed the situation differently and Jackson kicked the opening points of the game as a result.

11 - 15.50

We can see Pocock pounce over the ball with alarming speed in the clip above, again painting an excellent picture with his body position over the ball and his feet in behind the tackled player.

Ireland get the penalty in this instance for Moore not rolling away. There’s quite a bit going on at this ruck, so it’s worth going through.

11.1

Above, we can see that Toner, first arrival for Ireland, has just gone off his feet. He arrives to the breakdown and appears to dip down to deal with shifting Moore out of the way, but realises that Pocock is the threat and attempts to drive his shoulder through.

However, Toner has lost his footing as Moore rolls through and is taken out of the equation.

That means that second arrival McGrath is the key man for Ireland.

11.2

Pocock has already clamped over the ball in a strong position, with his legs spread wide to give him an extremely solid base.

As McGrath arrives in to deal with Pocock, he traps Moore into the ruck with his legs, as we see above. It’s something that McGrath excels at, trapping players into rucks to milk penalties, but in this instance there is nothing else McGrath can do.

Moore is in an awful position on the wrong side of the tackle and McGrath can hardly just stand back and watch Pocock make a clean steal. He engages with Pocock and carries out the croc roll, but the ball has already been pilfered.

Fortunately for Ireland, Garcès is of the view that Moore has blocked off their ruck access and provides Jackson with the chance to give Ireland some reward for their huge early dominance of possession and territory.

For Pocock, a potentially excellent turnover is chalked off.

18:37

Finally, Pocock gets the decision in the 19th minute.

12 - 18.57

The turnover penalty comes just seconds after Pocock has missed a tackle on Trimble further upfield.

12.1

Apparently further motivated by being beaten, Pocock tracks back for Australia with real intent as Simon Zebo slips the tackle of Foley and is just about dragged down by Genia in the backfield.

The relentless Pocock has worked back into position to pounce.

12.2

Again, we see Pocock’s ability to paint a good picture for the referee even if his approach to the ball is questionable.

We can see above that Pocock is essentially coming into the breakdown via that ‘side wall’, but again he instantly snaps his body into the correct position with his feet in behind the tackled player.

12.3

It’s brilliantly fluid from Pocock again, as he gets his hands instantly and firmly onto the ball.

He’s locked into that jackal position in the blink of an eye and this time Ireland aren’t able to rescue the situation.

12.4

Slightly tripping on tackler Genia, Payne gets beyond the breakdown point and therefore can’t get a firm hit onto Pocock.

Toner does manage to get a good contact onto Pocock’s left shoulder, as we see above, but that’s not enough to shift him and the Australian finally gets the penalty he has been craving relentlessly since kick-off.

23:15

Now full warmed up to the task, Pocock was thirsting for his next chance to steal Irish possession. However, he was denied another at the ruck just before Zebo’s stunning grubber kick to Earls for the opening try of the game.

If Ireland can’t cope with Pocock here, they don’t score that try through Henderson.

13 - 23.15

The first thing that helps to prevent a Pocock turnover here is more intelligent work from ball carrier Stander.

Schmidt is huge on his ball carriers fighting on the ground post-tackle, ensuring that any jackaling player is going to have to work ultra-hard to get a good sniff of the ball.

‘Bodyball’ is how the Ireland head coach terms his demand for fight on the ground.

Excellent ball placement is paramount in Ireland’s set-up too, as Schmidt demands that the ball carrier fights to provide clean possession for the next phase.

13.1

If Stander stops fighting in the moment above, after Genia has tackled him, Pocock is likely to pounce for another turnover.

We can see the Wallabies back row hovering over the tackle, as in the incident where he turned Zebo over, and there are no rucking players for Ireland in sight.

Stander fights. It may only be two tiny crawling movements up the pitch, but it’s enough. That tiny element of detail from Stander means Pocock doesn’t clamp directly onto the ball, as he did for his previous turnover.

13.2

We can see above that Pocock momentarily struggles to get his grip onto the ball after Stander’s crawling action.

Clearly he is off his feet in the image above, but Pocock is intelligent enough to realise that the arriving Ireland players looking to clear him away will actually drive him back up onto his feet – again painting that good picture for the match officials.

Furlong and van der Flier plough into Pocock, bringing him up onto his feet as he expects, but the Wallabies back row won’t relinquish his grip around the upper body of Stander.

Furlong goes to ground over on the right side of the ruck, having failed to shift Pocock off the ball, but he adds a vital extra detail in.

13.3

Furlong pushes his left arm and head up through the left leg of Pocock to take that pillar of stability off the ground, with the tighthead pushing his body across into Pocock as he does so.

With Toner simultaneously working on Pocock’s right leg, the Irish trio manage to take him completely to ground.

13.4 - Try

Pocock must end his turnover attempt as a result, Ireland retain their possession, and Henderson scores on the very next phase.

The little details make a difference.

33:29

Some rucking detail on Pocock made a vital difference for Ireland’s second try too, with Ringrose the beneficiary this time.

14 - 33.29

A transfer attempt from Stander to Toner to set up a new maul just fails for Ireland five metres out, as Simmons sacks Stander just before the blindside flanker can move the ball to Toner.

That creates a breakdown and Henderson is the first man there for Ireland.

Pocock is directly in front of Henderson and makes an instant move to push through the Ireland lock. Henderson reacts by driving him deep beyond the ruck.

14.1

We can see above that Henderson has driven Pocock to ground almost five metres ahead of the ball, and the Wallabies back row is not happy about it.

He throws his hands into the air in frustration and then decides to have a brief tussle with Henderson.

14.2

We have highlighted Pocock on top of Henderson in yellow above, after the Wallabies back row has shoved his attacker into the ground in frustration.

The problem is that the ball [red] is already on its way out towards Ringrose, where he will scoop it up on the bounce and take advantage of some subtle blocking.

It means that as Pocock scrambles back to feet, he’s a little behind where he would have been in covering across.

14.3

We see Pocock in yellow above, back on his feet, but some distance away from where he would have been without Henderson’s deep rucking and his own decision to engage with the Ireland lock after that.

Ringrose is on the ball and heading in between McGrath and Toner, who subtly close off the tackling opportunities for Rory Arnold and Sekope Kepu.

Ringrose is able to dart through with a lovely low carry, and Pocock can only watch in frustration as the Ireland centre stretches out to score.

14.4

Henderson arrives in to get up in Pocock’s grill and let him know all about the error of his ways.

The deep rucking by Henderson is obviously not legal but it’s something Ireland and the provinces have done brilliantly in recent seasons. Henderson’s actions should have been penalised, but Pocock may be more frustrated by his own reaction in hindsight.

He did appeal to Garcès, arguing that he would have been the cover to tackle Ringrose, but the referee was uninterested and the try stood.

52:46

With Australia dominating possession in the second half, Pocock obviously had far fewer opportunities to get over the ball.

His first glimpse came more than 12 minutes after the break as Ireland looked to build an exit from deep in their own 22.

15 - 52.46

Ireland have safety in number this time, as van der Flier arrives to croc roll, Earls hammers in from Pocock’s right side, and Heaslip seals the deal with a solid shunt as third arrival.

53:47

Ireland were perhaps a little lucky to get away with an apparent side entry in clearing Pocock out soon after.

16 - 53.47

Stander is the man to deal with Pocock in this instance, after some good footwork by replacement wing Kieran Marmion.

Again, Stander appears to engage with Pocock just momentarily before Marmion goes to ground and this may be what saved him from giving up a penalty.

16.1

Clearly, Stander clears Pocock away to the left side of the breakdown, but he makes the initial contact as Scott Sio is tackling Marmion.

Stander does also come upfield from behind Marmion in support initially and that seems to be what Garcès picks up, before appearing to shift his focus to Pocock hovering over the ball.

Stander has a brief glance up at Garcès after clearing Pocock away, possibly anticipating a sanction, but is relieved to see none coming his way.

62:52

Heading into the final quarter and after Zebo’s momentum-shifting hit on Hooper near the Australia tryline, captain Best makes another early intervention to stifle Pocock’s next thought of a turnover.

17 - 62.52

Pocock is the tackler on Murray but again he keeps his feet with a clear intention to have a shot at the ball.

However, Best gets in early to ensure that Pocock can’t even make a clear release after his tackle, and Ireland’s penalty advantage continues.

63:08

16 seconds later, Pocock arrives at the breakdown hunting for the ball yet again after a powerful carry from replacement lock Ultan Dillane.

18 - 63.08

Pocock almost pushes Kane Douglas out of the way in his haste to get at the ball nice and early.

18.1

The clearout technique by Toner, having been beaten to the ball by Pocock, is excellent as he dynamically croc rolls the Wallabies jackal off to the left.

Having initially lost his feet, Joey Carbery provides a helping shoulder by driving up into Pocock and allowing Murray in at the ball.

64:59

Fittingly, Ireland’s most crucial denial of Pocock at the breakdown was their final one.

It came in the build-up to Earls’ match-winning try and it looked like a completely lost cause until the stunning intervention of Cian Healy.

19 - 64.59

Peter O’Mahony makes a big carry over the top of Australia centre Reece Hodge, with Earls in support.

The first man to have a dab at the ball for the Wallabies is prop Sio, with Earls having to focus immediately on that threat as the first arrival for Ireland.

However, Pocock slots into position in what is now familiar style, approaching from the side of the breakdown point initially.

19.1

Within a split second, he’s done enough to paint a good picture for the referee, as he gets his feet in behind O’Mahony and targets the ball.

19.2

Pocock does briefly help himself stay on his feet by planting his left hand on the ground, as we can see below, something he is not entitled to do within the laws of the game.

19.3

However, it’s something that is commonly done in the game, with Ireland themselves often benefiting from the oversight of this offence.

We can see above that Healy is still some way arriving to deal with Pocock, but O’Mahony buys his team-mate some time by clinging onto the ball.

19.4

As highlighted above, O’Mahony actually pulls the ball in underneath his own right knee to provide further grip on it and allow Healy those valuable extra split seconds to arrive.

And arrive he does.

There’s no hope of making an effective croc roll in time here, and Healy won’t be able to slow himself and look to drive in from a slight side angle to shift Pocock away from the ball. He’s got to move Pocock instantly or it’s a turnover penalty.

The only answer is a violent connection with the back of Pocock’s shoulders.

19.5

Healy hammers into Pocock’s upper back and shoulder area, with his power enough to shunt the Australian backwards and up off his feet.

It’s a truly violent collision in such a dangerous area, but Healy is within his rights. Pocock’s bravery means he consistently puts himself in position to take these kind of hits. He understands that it goes with the territory.

With O’Mahony clinging onto the ball and Pocock now off his feet, Ireland do just enough to retain possession.

Seven phases later, Schmidt’s men score the winning try on the left corner.

Total ruck contributions

 46 Josh van der Flier – 18 first, 11 second, 8 third, 1 fourth, 5 defensive

32 Devin Toner – 7 first, 16 second, 7 third, 2 fourth

26 Tadhg Furlong – 6 first, 9 second, 8 third, 3 defensive

23 Iain Henderson – 7 first, 6 second, 4 third, 5 defensive

22 Garry Ringrose – 10 first, 7 second, 2 third, 1 fourth, 2 defensive

21 Rory Best – 7 first, 6 second, 5 third, 3 defensive

18 Jack McGrath – 6 first, 7 second, 2 third, 2 fourth, 1 defensive

17 CJ Stander – 4 first, 6 second, 5 third, 1 fourth, 1 defensive

15 Keith Earls – 6 first, 3 second, 3 third, 3 defensive

14 Jamie Heaslip – 7 first, 4 second, 3 third

Simon Zebo – 3 first, 4 second, 2 third

Jared Payne – 6 first, 3 second

Paddy Jackson – 2 first, 3 second, 2 third, 1 fourth, 1 defensive

Cian Healy – 2 first, 2 second, 3 defensive

7 Peter O’Mahony – 2 first, 2 second, 3 defensive

Ultan Dillane – 3 first 1 third, 1 fourth

Finlay Bealham – 3 first, 1 third

4 Joey Carbery – 2 first, 1 second, 1 third

Andrew Trimble – 1 first, 2 second

3 Rob Kearney – 2 first, 1 second

Sean Cronin – 1 second, 1 third, 1 defensive

Kieran Marmion – 2 second

Conor Murray – 1 defensive

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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