DEFENDING AT OUTSIDE centre involves making important decisions in very short periods of time.
Rush up hard or drift? Bite in or sit off? Hit high or drop to the carrier’s legs?
Communication from the 13 shirt is also vital to a team’s chances of defensive success, given that the outside centre often has a wider-angle view of the attack and its threats.
The very best outside centres possess an ability to read the game quicker than those around them, to sometimes sniff out danger before it has even truly formulated, allowing them to be proactive in dealing with the impending threat.
At the age of 22 and just five caps into his international career, Ireland’s Garry Ringrose still has important lessons to learn, but the early signs are promising.
Ringrose was making only his third start at outside centre for Joe Schmidt’s side against Italy last weekend but was one of the most impressive players on the pitch.
In truth, Italy were dire, but even with that qualifier in place, Ringrose’s display was superb.
His try was an obvious highlight – showing his vision, footwork, balance, acceleration and top-end pace – but Schmidt is likely to have been more pleased with Ringrose’s defensive contributions.
Below, we get a fine example of Ringrose’s growing confidence and impact.
This is exactly the kind of proactive defence Schmidt is looking for from his outside centre, and his team in general.
“You can’t wait and watch good teams play at you,” said Schmidt on Saturday. “You’ve got to somehow keep the pressure on them, even if they have the ball.”
That’s exactly what Ringrose does here, although he is helped by the kind of improved defensive organisation that was present throughout Ireland’s performance – a week after their failings in this department in Murrayfield.
In this example, we see Devin Toner and Tadhg Furlong folding around the corner to be involved in the defensive line on the left side of the ruck.
Ireland were much better at identifying when to fold against Italy and they worked harder to do so.
Toner and Furlong getting into the line means that Donnacha Ryan, the third man out from the ruck, can line up on Italy’s first receiver, Carlo Canna, as we see below.
That is a good starting point for Ireland’s defence, and it’s something that didn’t always happen against Scotland.
The image above also shows that there is quite a big space in between Sean O’Brien, fourth man in the Irish defensive line, and Ringrose.
Given that Ireland’s spacing was an issue in Murrayfield, this might seem a little alarming but it’s almost certainly a deliberate tactic from Ringrose.
By standing wide of the ruck, Ringrose is actually inviting O’Brien to move out into that space and therefore allow the Irish defensive line to have some width.
Imagine that Ringrose had instead lined up closer to O’Brien.
That would have, in turn, dragged left wing Simon Zebo infield and then suddenly Ireland would be in the kind of situation they found themselves in for Stuart Hogg’s second try in round one – caught on the outside with little chance of recovering.
Ringrose repeatedly stood wide in defence for Ireland against Italy, seemingly showing space inside for the Italians to attack, but invariably his positioning dragged his team-mates into getting better width in their defensive line.
This incident shows us how, as O’Brien reacts to Ringrose’s communication and drifts slightly as he comes forward.
We can see above that the spacing between O’Brien and Ringrose is no longer an issue, as the Ireland flanker reacts to Ringrose’s width and the presence of Ryan covering Canna – that initial fold was crucial – to target Tommaso Benvenuti in the Italian line.
The image above also demonstrates that Ringrose is communicating to O’Brien that he has picked out Giovanbattista Venditti in the ‘second wave’ of Italy’s attack.
Ringrose’s decision to shoot out of the Ireland line comes in the same split second as he sees Canna releasing his pass.
In that brief moment of time, Ringrose backs himself to go hard and shut the ball down on Venditti.
We can see above that Italy have fullback Edoardo Padovani and right wing Angelo Esposito waiting out wide, so if Ringrose gets this wrong, Simon Zebo is going to be left to deal with a two-on-one.
Ireland do have Rob Kearney covering in the backfield, but it’s certainly not a situation they want to get into if it’s possible to avoid.
But Ringrose’s reading, timing and acceleration take him into Venditti’s peripheral vision just as the Italy wing catches the ball and Venditti doesn’t back himself to make the pass under pressure.
The contact from Ringrose is not ideal. As we can see above, he hits with his right shoulder, when a left-shouldered hit may well have been a better use of his pace and momentum into the collision.
It is, perhaps, a missed opportunity to level Venditti and create a turnover situation for Ireland, but Ringrose will begin to bring that in time.
For now, seeing the outside centre backing himself and his reads in this manner will be encouraging for Schmidt.
Ringrose’s involvement in this passage of defence was not finished yet, as Italy recycled the ball and came back down his channel two phases later.
Ringrose and Ireland have numbers in their favour this time, so he rushes up hard to put pressure on Benvenuti, who steps to his inside shoulder.
O’Brien joins from the inside to halt Benvenuti, but we see evidence of a skill that Ringrose continues to attempt to build into his game – the strip on the ball carrier.
He makes a dynamic ripping motion from underneath the ball – almost like someone vigorously pulling the starter cord on an unresponsive lawnmower – but in this case Benvenuti resists.
Another two phases later in this Italy attack and we see another example of proactive defence from Ringrose.
This time, Ringrose is on the edge of the Ireland front line defence, as Zebo drops slightly into the backfield to cover a possible Italian kick.
We can see that Italy have six attackers on their feet to the right of their attacking ruck, but they are retreating after Robbie Henshaw and Jamie Heaslip have led up the Irish linespeed to make a tackle behind the gainline.
As scrum-half Edoardo Gori bounces back to Italy’s right, Ringrose has already made an early decision. He’s seen the Italians retreating, recognises that there is no one wide and flat to take a long pass, and he shoots up hard.
That suddenly narrows the options for Gori, as Ringrose is in a position to hit the Italians closest to Gori as they get the ball or perhaps even intercept it.
With the pressure now flipped onto Gori, he makes a poor decision in trying a ‘miracle pass’ that is not really on – given the absence of a team-mate standing flat and wide to take a floated pass over the top.
Padovani is forced to scramble across in an effort to gather the bouncing ball, but his foot slips into touch. Even if he had stayed in play, Ringrose was waiting, hungry for another tackle.
These are positive proactive plays from Ringrose and something that Schmidt will be encouraging him to do more of.
While it’s hard to say that Ireland learned a huge amount from hammering Italy, their confidence will certainly have taken a step forward and that applies to Ringrose’s defensive game.
He is, of course, still learning and given that he is not one of the biggest or most physically powerful players in the Test arena, he will lose the odd collision.
Above, we see Scotland’s Hamish Watson bullying Ringrose in contact as the Ireland centre goes high on the Scotland flanker with a weak inside shoulder.
But even in that defeat for Ireland, we saw real evidence of Ringrose’s ever-growing defensive ability – particularly when they sorted their collective organisational and work-rate issues in the second half.
With good folding numbering-up on his inside shoulder in the instance below, Ringrose can back himself to shoot out of the line.
The result is a spill by Huw Jones and Ireland are unlucky not to claim possession.
As an outside centre, Ringrose is always going to be reliant on the players around him to provide him with opportunities to back himself, but all the signs are that he is a player who has the intelligence, reading skills and belief to make big defensive plays.
There are much, much tougher tests ahead but for now Schmidt will be pleased with what he’s seen.
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