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EVERYTHING WE ANALYSE in Ireland’s defeat in Murrayfield must be linked back to the mental malaise that seemed to overcome Joe Schmidt’s side on Saturday.
Their decision-making lacked clarity, they appeared distracted at times, there was a muddiness in their thought process and their awareness was reduced in a performance that lacked a proactive edge too often.
That was most evident in their start to the game, but these factors slipped back into Ireland’s game after they had gone 22-21 in front, and even existed intermittently during their scoreboard revival.
Figuring out what went wrong in the mental preparation is priority number one for Schmidt and his coaching team, who will examine their own performance in the build-up.
Ireland’s shortcomings in focus were illustrated in a number of ways, but perhaps most notably in an uncharacteristically sloppy defensive performance, as they allowed Scotland to race into a 21-5 lead in the first half.
There were issues with how Ireland folded around the corner of rucks – i.e. shifted from one side of the ruck to the other – their spacing in the front line defence and even in how their backfield defenders reacted to danger.
Stuart Hogg’s two tries provide fine examples of the issues, but they are demonstrative of further incidents of a similar nature.
Defence coach Andy Farrell and his players need a commanding defensive performance this weekend in Italy to show that these were mere blips, rather than deeper-seated issues.
It should also be stressed that Scotland were excellent on Saturday, but here we are interested in what Ireland can do to improve in the coming weeks.
Four phases before Hogg dots down his first try, Scotland miss a fine chance to score, with out-half Finn Russell opting to hit Hamish Watson on a short, hard line – rather than go out the back door to Huw Jones.
We can see above that both left wing Sean Maitland [wearing the 14 shirt] and outside centre Jones throw their arms up in exasperation at Russell’s decision.
Already in this build-up, we see some folding and spacing issues for Ireland here, as one Scottish pass – from Laidlaw to Russell – essentially takes three men out of the game.
But Ireland don’t heed the warning and after they manage to slow the Scotland ball down and defend three close-range thrusts at their tryline, they concede wide on the right.
Garry Ringrose is the man exposed on the edge of Ireland’s defence, but the real issue is back over on the right side of the ruck.
When we rewind to the beginning of the try-scoring phase and switch the angle to behind Ireland’s posts, we can see that six Irish defenders are filling the right-hand side of the ruck, marking up against a single Scotland attacker.
Rob Kearney is making a move to track across in behind the ruck, after Sean Maitland has shifted across in the Scotland attack, but it’s far too late to make any difference.
Ireland had time to avoid this situation and, at the very least, get one more defender to fold over to the left side of the ruck.
The ruck that precedes Scotland’s try-scoring phase is around eight seconds long – ample time for one or more defender to fold across to the left, even before Maitland has moved from the left of the Scotland ruck over to their right.
Devin Toner is the ‘pillar’ directly to the right of the ruck and therefore must hold his position – if he leaves then a clear gap for a Laidlaw snipe opens up – but next defender out CJ Stander will feel he should have left earlier.
Stander does get instruction from Jackson to join the line just inside him on the right of the ruck, meaning the back row could have benefited from better information being fed to him.
Ireland have the visual cues in front of them – namely a lack of Scotland attackers – but simply don’t react and fold. Their lack of awareness and proactivity is typical of the mental flatness Ireland brought on Saturday.
Ireland have six defenders to the left of their ruck, with Scotland having six attackers on that side, but the Irish defence obviously needs to be solid close in to the ruck to prevent Laidlaw or one of the Scottish forwards from sniping over.
It means that Laidlaw’s screen pass behind hooker Ross Ford to Russell gives Scotland a 5-on-3 in attack that is also going to be hugely difficult for Conor Murray, Robbie Henshaw and Ringrose to defend.
Henshaw hammers up hard on Jones hoping to stop the ball if Jones receives it, and that means Ringrose has to hammer up too. But Russell’s pass floats out beyond Jones and also beyond the advancing Ringrose, bouncing up into Hogg’s grateful hands.
In truth, Ringrose is left in a no-win situation out on the edge, with the severe damage having been done by Ireland’s heavy over-stacking of the far side of the ruck.
There were similar issues in the second try Ireland conceded at Murrayfield, when quicker folding and better spacing could have prevented a score.
Scotland play off the top of a five-man lineout to number eight Josh Strauss in midfield.
Ireland spoke after this game about how “losing the collisions” is what made it hard for them to defend, but that is not a reason in this instance.
It’s certainly a strong effort from Strauss with good fight on the ground, but he barely makes it over the gainline with his carry.
Furthermore, CJ Stander gets over the ball in a good position to slow it right down and ensure the ruck is almost six seconds long. That’s Stander’s job done in midfield – slow the ball to make sure his team-mates can get set in defence.
But Ireland don’t take advantage of the time Stander’s work buys them.
Over on the left side of the ruck from Ireland’s point of view, we can see five defenders marking up on just two Scottish attackers. A familiar issue.
With a six-second ruck, there is time for one more defender to fold around the corner and that’s likely all Ireland would have needed to comfortably cover the Scots’ second phase attack.
However, there is no additional fold from Ireland and they are left marking empty spaces to the left of their ruck.
Even still, the defence is in a position to deal with Scotland’s second-phase attack on the right-hand side of the ruck.
Ringrose will wonder whether he could have swapped his way further out the defensive line in this instance.
We can see above that the Ireland 13 is involved in the initial tackle on Strauss, looking to strip the ball from the Scotland number eight’s grasp, before re-joining the defence.
Most teams want their backs positioned as far out the defensive line as possible, allowing the slower-moving and less agile forwards to occupy the roles closer to the ruck.
Could Ringrose have swapped Sean O’Brien and Iain Henderson inside here, therefore giving Ireland a more ideal set-up? There’s a tiny window of time, but Ringrose’s head is focused in on the ruck and Ireland don’t swap.
Even still, it’s not a catastrophic issue and Ireland’s defence is in a fine position to deal with Scotland’s attack on the right-hand side of the ruck.
Let’s look at the roles of each Irish defender in this instance.
Jack McGrath [white 1] is the Irish ‘pillar’ at the very edge of the ruck and his duty is to hold his position and deal with any late passes back inside if Scotland scrum-half Laidlaw [blue 1] makes a run to the fringe of the ruck. Once the ball is clearly gone, he can drift.
Ringrose [white 2] is the second defender out from the ruck and his first job is to defend any sniping run by Laidlaw to the fringe of the ruck. After Laidlaw passes, Ringrose’s next job is to cover any inside passes from Scotland out-half Russell.
For example, if Russell [blue 2] was to pass back inside to Jonny Gray [blue 5], Ringrose would be tasked with tackling the Scotland lock.
Sean O’Brien’s [white 3] primary job is to deal with first receiver Russell [blue 2]. When the first receiver passes, O’Brien’s next job is to drift out the line and provide support to the defenders outside him, allowing them to drift out onto the next attacker.
One man outside O’Brien is Iain Henderson [white 4] and his job is to deal with Tommy Seymour [blue 3].
Paddy Jackson [white 5] is next in the Irish front line and he is tasked with marking up on Huw Jones [blue 4].
Keith Earls [white 6], meanwhile, is tasked with getting to Stuart Hogg, who is out of shot left of screen.
In the Irish backfield, Rob Kearney [white 7] is designated as the last man to tackle Sean Maitland – also out of shot – if Scotland manage to get outside Ireland and free their final attacker.
So, on first glance it’s really not an alarming situation for Ireland to deal with.
But it rapidly becomes that with the realisation that Ireland’s spacing and decision-making is off.
It’s subtle, but Ireland’s spacing is ever so slightly wrong and they go from being in a good numerical position to being exposed within a split second.
There’s a slight disconnect between Henderson and Jackson, but the entire Irish front line could have benefited from taking another step out towards the touchline, McGrath and Ringrose excluded.
That would allow the Irish defenders to come forward slightly more aggressively and with a clearer picture of who is marking up on who.
As it unfolds, Laidlaw’s excellent pass pushes Russell as he runs at Ireland’s defence and we get the situation below.
Essentially, both O’Brien [white 3] and Henderson [white 4] are now, very briefly, engaged with defending Russell [blue 2].
Henderson, to his credit, has eyes for Seymour [blue 3] but the fact that Russell has been pushed across the field by Laidlaw’s pass brings him towards Henderson’s channel and that forces unease in Jackson [white 5].
Jackson is now worried about the running threat of Seymour just to Russell’s left – appearing to think Henderson might not get to Seymour – and he turns his shoulders in towards Seymour, as indicated by our red arrow below.
The yellow arrow indicates who Jackson should be marking up on: outside centre Jones [blue 4].
It’s only a brief turning in of the shoulders from Jackson, but the damage is now done.
Jackson’s hesitation means Jones gets well outside him as he collects an excellent skip pass from Russell, and now Earls has to check his intention of drifting on out to Hogg.
There’s a clear threat from Jones on the ball, so Earls has to briefly check in on him – as indicated by our red arrow – when he really needs to get drifting hard out onto Hogg – our yellow arrow.
Jackson’s hesitation and turning in on Seymour has cost him any chance of getting back at Jones, and Earls is left in trouble.
With the ball in Jones’ hands and clear danger on the edge, it’s really time for Ireland’s backfield to make a move.
Kearney [white 7] is deep behind the Irish backfield, having initially been set up to cover any kick to that area of the field.
However, as soon as Russell passes the ball, the threat of a kick to this area is greatly reduced and Kearney should be considering coming forward to link with Earls.
Even if Jones prods a late grubber kick in behind Kearney as he advances, Simon Zebo should be covering across to deal with it.
Ireland’s ‘pendulum’ in their back three doesn’t kick into gear here, however.
Reflecting on this Scotland score, Ireland are likely to feel that had Kearney come forward as the wide attack became apparent, Zebo [white 8] could have worked harder to get across the pitch and covered in behind Kearney.
Furthermore, Zebo might even have taken last man Maitland had Kearney advanced and dealt with Hogg. There is quite a lot of ground for Zebo to make up, but he is walking across the pitch as the screenshot above is taken.
Kearney, meanwhile, opts to back off Hogg and then drifts away to Maitland, hoping that Earls is going to get to Hogg. He doesn’t, of course, with the brilliant fullback’s pace taking him clear to score a damaging second Scotland try.
Had Kearney instead looked to advance forward as soon as it was clear Scotland were passing to left touchline, then Hogg on the ball is forced to make a decision under far more pressure. Instead, his pace allows him time to dummy and burst through to score.
The issues for Ireland in this 20-second passage of defence are multiple.
Harder work and better awareness not to get stacked up 5-on-2 on the left side of the ruck would have helped, as would have better initial spacing, sharper identification of who was marking who and then better work from the pendulum.
All of these aspects of the defence are very fixable and it was notable that Ireland were far better in most areas in the second half at Murrayfield, folding well around the corner and getting far better spacing in their line.
We get a good example above, as Ireland get their heads up and communicate early through Jackson and Henshaw, ensuring that Henderson, Rory Best and McGrath all fold around the corner.
That allows Ireland to get good spacing in their line and come forward with aggressive linespeed. Ringrose shoots up to get an excellent hit in on Jones, forcing the ball loose.
These are simple aspects of defence, of course, but the two Hogg tries show exactly how much can go wrong when those basics slip out of Ireland’s game.
- This article was updated at 21.45 to correct the mislabelling of Finn Russell as ‘blue 3′.
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