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Analysis: Tadhg Furlong's brilliance highlights ferocious Ireland forwards display

Dan Leavy, James Ryan, Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson will be cornerstones for some time yet.

WHILE THE HALFBACK pairing showed its class, Jacob Stockdale broke records, the ever-changing midfield was influential and the experienced heads of Keith Earls and Rob Kearney made a difference, Ireland’s Grand Slam success was built on the bullying brilliance of their pack.

Ireland’s forwards were dominant across the course of the 2018 Six Nations, with their performance in Twickenham last weekend highlighting so many of their qualities.

Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy celebrate after the game Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy were immense again. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Joe Schmidt’s packs have always been intelligent and technically astute, but the Ireland head coach has so often insisted his players are smaller than the opposition.

While the actual heights and weights may still point in other teams’ favour, Ireland are no longer giving anything away physically – far from it. Now, their technical quality and tactical smarts are almost overshadowed by their smothering physicality.

Against England, the more experienced heads like captain Rory Best, Cian Healy, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander were brilliant once again.

But what stood out equally was the savage impact made by 21-year-old James Ryan and 23-year-old openside flanker Dan Leavy.

Tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong was man of the match and is still only 25, while second row Iain Henderson was magnificent and just turned 26 just last month.

Stander [27] and O’Mahony [28] are hardly old men yet and will have a huge part to play for Ireland for years yet, but the fact that Furlong, Henderson, Ryan and Leavy will almost certainly still be around for the 2023 World Cup bodes well for Ireland’s future up front.

Dan Leavy and James Ryan celebrate winning Leavy and Ryan were huge for the Irish pack. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

In this piece, we will look at aspects of the immense performances from the four youngest members of Ireland’s pack – aspects which the rest of the forwards delivered on too.

Ireland had essentially won the game by half-time thanks to an impressive 21-5 lead but even in the second half, the Irish pack remained the dominant force.

The dual destroyers

St. Michael’s College alumni Leavy and Ryan made a ferocious physical impact on this game and on the championship as a whole.

Despite their youth, they were among the most powerful and hard-working forwards in the competition.

From the very kick-off against England, Ryan shows his determination and aggression, driving into Maro Itoje alongside Jacob Stockdale and sending him firmly backwards.

HIT

This hit sets the tone for what is to come.

Four minutes later, Ryan combines with Leavy to lay down another major marker.

England are attacking from a lineout platform, eager to make a strong start, when captain Dylan Hartley comes around the corner at speed.

Hartley

Leavy and Ryan, below, are the two Irish defenders closest to the ruck – though Furlong is folding – and Hartley runs directly into their zone.

Double Hit

Ryan and Leavy both dip down towards Hartley’s legs and drive their right and left shoulders, respectively, into the England hooker, lifting him clean off the ground and smashing him into the dirt.

Smash

It’s a hugely important early physical statement from Leavy and Ryan for Ireland, hammering Hartley – who often runs this kind of line particularly effectively.

Without any gainline progress, England are forced to kick the ball two phases later and Owen Farrell concedes a penalty following his kick up – that in turn providing Ireland with the platform for their opening try.

That score for Garry Ringrose connects back to Leavy and Ryan making a physical stand for their team against Hartley.

Leavy is a player who brings huge work rate to the mix and one passage in the 25th minute stood out in this regard, as Ireland went through 11 phases of defence before Bundee Aki conceded a penalty.

We join with the match clock at 24.22, on phase six – Leavy combines again with Ryan for an excellent tackle on Mako Vunipola.

24.22

Leavy has a brief jackal attempt before working back into the line.

24.28, phase seven – Leavy now combines with Furlong for a firm hit on George Kruis.

24.28

Again, he gets back to his feet immediately.

24.35, phase eight – Leavy completes a low tackle around Jonathan Joseph’s ankles.

24.35

For the third time, he bounces straight off the floor and into the defensive line.

24.41, phase nine – England bounce back to the right and Leavy chops low again to take Hartley around the ankles and help to bring the England captain to ground.

24.41

It’s a remarkable four tackles in four phases from Leavy over the course of 20 seconds.

While the flow of the game here should be taken into account in providing Leavy with tackling opportunities, the openside flanker still has to make those tackles and he excels here with how quickly he gets back to his feet after each tackle.

Leavy made 15 tackles for Ireland against England, although Ryan went one better at 16.

The second row is also an excellent technical tackler and his performances over the course of the championship are certainly educational for any young players looking to learn about tackling effectively.

Time and time again, Ryan dips low into tackles and immediately removes the ball carrier’s ability to drive forward.

Both men were busy in the ball-carrying department too, with Leavy just nudging ahead here with 11 to Ryan’s 10.

Leavy is explosive in the carry and with an average of 1.5 metres per carry against England, he was second only to the superb Stander [2m per carry] in terms of the ground he managed to eke out on average.

Again, early statements are important and one of Leavy’s finest carries came in the opening minute of the game.

Linespeed

England bring aggressive linespeed above, as Leavy gets set for a one-out drive off scrum-half Conor Murray, but the Ireland openside doesn’t flinch.

He uses his excellent footwork to step to the inside of the onrushing Maro Itoje, creating a one-on-one against George Kruis.

Leg Drive

Leavy surges into Kruis, keeping himself up with spirited leg drive and eking out a couple of metres for Ireland.

On a day when both defences were strong in defending the one-out carries, Leavy showed the way early on.

Ryan’s 10 carries were in congested areas of the field and while he only managed an average of 0.5 metres per carry, his work rate was beyond question.

While we have yet to finish our ruck analysis from this game – it should be along in the next 48 hours – the initial impression from Ryan and Leavy, and indeed all of Ireland’s forwards, was impressive.

Leavy was also able to show his handling skills with seven passes in this game.

In the build-up to Ireland’s first try, we see Leavy and Ryan both featuring just before Johnny Sexton’s kick.

Tip On

After a lineout that Ireland are lucky to retain, Murray hits Leavy with a pass [white above] to the left of the ruck.

England’s James Haskell is hammering up from the defensive line but Leavy shows deft hands to slip a tip-on pass [red] to Stander, ensuring he is not tackled behind the gainline.

Chris Robshaw jackals over Stander when the tackle is made and Leavy is first to arrive but cannot completely shift Robshaw. Ryan arrives from the inside, however, and drives in low on Robshaw to finish the job.

Ruck

At lineout time, Ryan and Leavy both won two throws each while also contributing with a handful of lifts, but their impression in the maul was even greater.

This is an area where both of these young men excel and it’s something that can be difficult to appreciate when watching games live.

Even on repeated viewings, it might simply look like people pushing but the physical effort involved is immense and the power of Leavy and Ryan stands out.

Once again, we turn to an example from early in this game.

England have taken their lineout through Itoje and are in the process of shift-driving their maul infield [as indicated in red below].

Maul D

Leavy [white] has stood off the maul initially in his role as the defensive ‘tailgunner’ [tasked with getting to England's first receiver off the lineout], while Ryan [blue] is over on the right of the maul.

With England shifting infield, we can see that the bulk of the Irish resistance is not ideally placed, unable to prevent England from going forward as they move around the corner.

Leavy and Ryan are important in the response.

Following captain Best’s example, Leavy drives in at the front of the English maul.

DL

Before Ryan works around to the back and hammers in too.

JR

With Henderson joining them and cleverly swimming in towards the ball, Ireland suddenly produce a huge counter-drive to hammer the English maul back towards the touchline.

Counter

And with Henderson clinging around the ball when the maul goes to ground, referee Angus Gardner signals a momentum-boosting Irish turnover.

Turnover

This is a pack effort from Ireland, clearly, but the power and low body positions brought by Leavy and Ryan make a telling difference.

Ryan’s athletic excellence has also proven important in Ireland’s scrum, where he is packing down at tighthead lock, in behind Furlong.

It’s renowned as the more difficult of the second row scrummaging positions, with the pressure that comes through the tighthead prop demanding strength and major endurance.

Ryan is delivering that to the benefit of the Irish scrum and still finding the energy to deliver an impressive work rate around the pitch.

Talented tighthead

Furlong’s performance was ludicrously good in this game and underlined his status as one of the finest players in world rugby.

That the Wexford man is still only 25 is startling. It’s thrilling for Ireland and Leinster to think that he could improve even further in the future.

There are many distinctive traits in Furlong’s skillset, but it is perhaps his handling ability that separates him most from other tightheads.

Everyone in modern rugby needs to be comfortable on the ball, but Furlong has taken it to another level in terms of tighthead play.

Furlong

His pass for the CJ Stander try was one of the most stunning moments of the game – clearly taking England by surprise.

The sheer fluidity of Furlong’s movement is what stands out most.

He catches Sexton’s pass and gracefully flows into his mini-spin, turning his back on Hartley in the same moment as he is delicately and calmly releasing his disguised pass to Bundee Aki.

Whatever about tighthead props, many players in other positions would struggle to complete the pass as successfully as Furlong does here.

While the New Ross powerhouse could have been forgiven for standing to admire the effect of his good work, he is swiftly on to the next job.

Next Job

He obviously starts behind the England hooker, but Furlong accelerates past Hartley, and while Ireland don’t need him to finish the try, that effort is consistent across all areas of his game.

Furlong made four passes against England – one coming on turnover possession and underlining his awareness – and he was very nearly key to another Irish try.

Again, there is awareness below in the 58th minute as Ireland get a penalty advantage just before Murray fires off a pass to Furlong in a position to carry.

Furlongg

But instead of simply trucking the ball into contact, Furlong understands that Ireland have a chance to be more ambitious with their advantage.

He presumably gets a call from Ringrose out the back and swivels to deliver an accurate pass to the Ireland centre.

Link

It’s simple play, but Furlong does these link passes better than most tight forwards and his basic accuracy here gives Ringrose the space to produce a lovely overhead, basketball-style pass to Jordan Larmour – who should, perhaps, pass to Keith Earls for a score but almost manages to get over himself.

With 18 tackles and not a single miss against the English, Furlong was Ireland’s second busiest defender and his performance in this area was jam-packed with quality.

Generally speaking, attacking teams seek out tightheads and front-five forwards in the defensive line – looking to expose their relatively poor decision-making, mobility, and communication. But Furlong is far from a weakness in those aspects.

TF

We see him above in the 31st minute as Ireland defend in their 22, Furlong signalling for his team-mates to fold around the corner – and he is audible over the ref mic too.

Aki responds and folds to the inside of Furlong, before England scrum-half Richard Wiggleswoth launches the phase.

Itoje [red below] is a threat to the Irish defence but George Kruis [yellow] is the real target of Wigglesworth’s pass.

D

Furlong is initially drawn in on Itoje, but his footwork and readjustment when he realises the ball is travelling on to Kruis are highly competent.

The Ireland tighthead opens his body back out towards Kruis, drives into the tackle…

T

… slips down onto Kruis’ legs to finish it…

Finish

… before rolling swiftly to the side and bounding back onto his feet, working back into the defensive line.

This game underlined the variety in Furlong’s tackle technique, with low chops, slow wrestles and some powerful big hits too.

Itoje is surging at the Irish line in the shot below, looking to finally hammer through them on 10th phase, with O’Mahony in the sin bin.

Maro

But Furlong and fellow prop Healy have the England second row lined up and they opt to hammer into him up high.

Hit

The double hit takes the sting out of Itoje’s powerful carry and they combine to drive him into the ground to their left, before we see Furlong’s work rate again.

TTF

He’s back on his feet in less than two seconds, something that was consistent across his performances in this Six Nations – and those of the other Irish forwards.

While many tightheads struggle in defence, Furlong’s fitness, decision-making, mobility and work rate mean he very rarely gets caught out – even when involved in kick chases, where those elements are tested to an even greater degree.

Furlong’s dynamism in the carry is well known and while he didn’t quite get a chance to go on a trademark rampaging run on Saturday, he did make 12 solid carries in thick traffic.

Carry

Furlong gets to Sam Simmonds’ outside shoulder in the example above, dropping his own right shoulder down onto the Englishman in an effort to bump him off.

But as the tackle is made, Furlong is now suddenly in danger of being turned over by Itoje.

Threat

Reacting well, Furlong works hard to get a long-body placement, taking the ball well clear of Itoje’s potential grasp and allowing Best to clear the England lock away.

Place

Furlong consistently delivers at set-piece time and was part of a solid Irish performance at the scrum – one that Schmidt felt deserved more reward from the match officials.

Nailing the scrum is, of course, a key element of Furlong’s job and he excels there too, as well as lifting consistently well in the lineout, but these additional layers of quality that we have touched on above make him the superstar he is.

Old man Henderson

We could go into detail about the performances of any of the Irish forwards, but it’s worth highlighting the excellence of Iain Henderson at Twickenham too.

Himself and Ryan look like Ireland’s first-choice lock pairing for the 2019 World Cup, while it’s not unrealistic to think they could still be around as a duo for the 2023 tournament too.

Henderson started this game well by running directly through the tackle attempt of Owen Farrell in the opening minute, and he delivered a performance of outrageous work rate thereafter.

He was Ireland’s top tackler with 22 and the passage after half time, when England battered the Irish defence, showed his work rate. Henderson made six tackles in that six-and-a-half minute period to help ensure Ireland kept the English onslaught at bay.

Henderson’s maul skills were highly impressive too, particularly for a vital turnover on Itoje late in the first half.

Ryan competes in the air and very nearly wins the English throw into a lineout inside the Ireland half.

Ryan

Itoje juggles the ball but does gather and as he comes to ground, we see Henderson making his move.

In the split second before the maul can form, Henderson slips his left arm through and in towards the ball.

Hendo

Completely outmuscling Kruis, Henderson then forces his body through, driving himself in between Itoje and Kruis, and around onto the ball.

Ball

We can see Stander [8] joining Henderson in the image above and he is vital to this turnover.

Itoje recognises that he’s in trouble, isolated from his team-mates, but Henderson and Stander show their strength to keep him off the ground.

Up

England appeal to referee Gardner that a tackle has been made, and point out that Itoje’s knee has touched the ground, but Gardner ignores them and says, “Taken down by England, it’s a maul” – and not a tackle.

When the mass of bodies does come to ground, Gardner signals the turnover scrum and from there, Ireland win a free kick, a scrum penalty, a lineout penalty, kick into the England half and then launch the passage that ends with Stockdale’s try.

The turnover, with Henderson at the heart, kicks the entire chain into action.

The Ulsterman claimed three lineouts for Ireland, stole one of the English throws and offered up strong competition on other occasions, while he carried the ball seven times overall.

His defensive performance was filled with the kind of slow, momentum-spoiling, wrestling-style tackles that have been a major part of Ireland’s defensive tactics in recent times.

Henderson led the way on so many occasions as part of a barnstorming effort from Ireland’s pack.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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