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Analysis: Ireland switch off at key moments for Thomas' sizzling try

Joe Schmidt will have been frustrated by how Ireland conceded to les Bleus.

OVERALL, IRELAND CAN reflect on a strong defensive performance against France in the opening round of the Six Nations but there are always improvements to make.

The clear weakness in Ireland’s defensive performance against the French was the concession of a try to Teddy Thomas in the 72nd minute, leaving Joe Schmidt’s team in an alarming situation of chasing the win in a game they had largely controlled until that point.

We will look at the positives in Ireland’s defensive performance elsewhere this week, but there is no doubt that Schmidt has already run through the conceded try with his team in a bid to ensure they don’t give up a score like it again.

The opportunity for les Bleus arises when Rob Kearney gathers a poor French grubber kick into Ireland’s backfield and launches his own left-footed kick into touch.

RK Kick

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The first issue for Ireland is one of work rate. It seems harsh to question them in this regard after the stunning five-minute passage that led to Johnny Sexton’s drop goal at the death, but they momentarily switch off for this try.

When Kearney [red below] kicks the ball, all of his team-mates are ahead of him and therefore cannot move up to pitch to chase.

RK

Referee Nigel Owens warns, “Stay green” just in case any of the Irish players have notions of chasing upfield.

However, as soon as the ball crosses the touchline, the Irish players are all free to advance.

Only scrum-half Conor Murray [red below] is alive to this and we can see him immediately begin to sprint upfield as he realises that the ball will not go deep into touch – a quickly-taken lineout is a possibility.

CM

Following his own kick, Kearney does not sprint upfield and it appears that some of the Irish players ahead of him are waiting for the fullback to do so in order to bring them onside. In this sense, Kearney may feel he could have worked harder.

Murray shows clarity of thought in turning on his pace as the ball crosses the touchline, and Devin Toner does follow the scrum-half’s lead too, as indicated below.

DT

The ball crosses the touchline, where Anthony Belleau gathers it.

The French out-half has a quick glance back upfield.

AB

The space he identifies, and is presumably communicated to him by Dupont too, is indicated below in yellow.

Space

It’s the 15-metre channel on the inside of the advancing Murray, where there is no Irish player coming to fill up after Kearney opts not to sprint forward.

Belleau and Dupont can also see Thomas [circled in blue above] retreating and understand that he will be in position to attack in that 15-metre channel.

As such, Belleau fires the ball infield immediately to Dupont and play continues with barely a pause.

When Dupont gathers, it’s always likely he will bounce back against the grain and into that 15-metre channel we’ve indicated. Out on the openside of the field, he can see Toner working hard to advance up behind Murray, with Dan Leavy and others coming up too.

Dupont

Dupont sells it to Murray by initially arcing out towards the open field, before hammering off his left foot and back inside the fast-advancing Irish scrum-half.

Should Murray have come forward at such speed here? Should he have waited for at least one other team-mate to link up with him before attempting to engage the French?

For some teams the answer would be yes, but we have increasingly seen defences backing individual kick chasers to hammer up hard in order to prevent kick returning teams from getting a second pass out into the open field on kick return.

Saracens are a brilliant example, so often sending one chaser sprinting upfield in a bid to shepherd the counter-attacking player towards Saracens’ follow-up chasers.

Now, we won’t know Ireland’s specific chasing policy, but it is certain that Murray should be able to rely on having a solid, united defensive line in behind him if he is unable to make that first-up tackle.

Step

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The ideal scenario is that he tackles Dupont here and France are under immediate pressure as Ireland come forward, but the scrum-half misses his tackle and Dupont strides at Ireland, with Thomas getting to his right shoulder.

The next question is what kind of shape Ireland’s secondary line is in, and the answer is a negative one as Dupont is able to put Thomas away down the touchline.

When we change angle to behind Ireland’s tryline, we can see that Kearney initially links with Bundee Aki inside him.

Chase

Dupont [blue] has just received the ball as Kearney [red] draws up alongside Aki [yellow].

There is some space to Kearney’s left but Ireland’s secondary chase looks in good shape to deal with France bouncing back down that 15-metre channel if Murray is unable to tackle Dupont.

But as Dupont steps to Murray’s inside shoulder, Kearney and Aki have become disconnected, as we see below.

Integrity

The integrity of the line has been broken, with Aki  just falling slightly behind Kearney on his outside and Sean Cronin on his inside.

This proves to be deeply harmful for Ireland.

As Dupont rounds Murray, we can see below that it should still be a two-on-two situation for Ireland, with Aki taking Dupont and Kearney dealing with Thomas.

2-on-2

But Kearney and Aki are not defending together – they have essentially become detached from each other with the fullback ahead of the centre.

We do not know what the communication has been like here [although on the initial chase it appears Aki indicates for Kearney to advance up quickly], but the disconnect leaves Kearney in the space between Dupont and Thomas, rather than simply focusing on Thomas.

With the ball in two hands, Dupont is able to draw Kearney into turning his shoulder infield, leaving Thomas completely unmarked on the outside, as we see below.

Shoulders

The image above also underlines that Aki is still in a decent position to deal with Dupont, showing us exactly how poor this is from Ireland’s defensive point of view.

D

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They should really never be beaten back down the touchline where their original kick comes from, the intention often being to actually channel the counter-attack into this area, which is where the bulk of their defensive bodies are coming forward.

But that failing between Kearney and Aki on the edge allows Thomas to scorch up the touchline and he rounds Stockdale sublimely.

Let’s underline again the attacking play all round from France here, from the identification of the space, the footwork, draw and pass from Dupont and the stunning finish from Thomas.

But again, Ireland will have looked at how they can be better.

Finish

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It’s a nightmare situation for Stockdale to be presented with.

He initially holds the backfield in the event that France kick back at Ireland, as is his role here.

As Thomas sprints past Kearney, who can’t recover from turning his shoulders in on Dupont, Stockdale can see that he is going to have to deal with Thomas.

The Irish wing probably has some hope that one of his retreating team-mates can scrag Thomas initially, but once he realises that isn’t the case he may reflect that he could have advanced towards Thomas.

Decision

The thinking here would be to close down Thomas’ space and force him to make a decision under more pressure.

It’s very easy to point this out with the benefit of multiple angles and the stop-start-rewatch of replays, but Stockdale may feel he could have taken a more proactive approach in this situation.

Even if he does come forward, Thomas could still beat him with footwork or chip/grubber ahead and win the race, but at least in that scenario Stockdale is applying pressure to his skills.

Instead, Stockdale backs off Thomas.

Stockdale

This serves to accentuate Thomas’ advantage, particularly given that Stockdale is showing Thomas the inside rather than the touchline – often viewed as an extra defender.

The French wing is already getting up to full speed as Stockdale backs off from a standing start and Thomas’ scintillating pace takes him on the swerving line out beyond Stockdale’s reach before he straightens back up to evade the back-tracking Johnny Sexton and Keith Earls.

The men in front of Stockdale could have done better to prevent him from being exposed in the backfield like this, but the Ulsterman is likely to be displeased with his effort to rescue a difficult situation.

All in all, it’s a try that will have deeply frustrated Schmidt. Ireland’s initial reaction to Kearney’s kick was poor, they became disjointed on the chase and they failed to deal with the French attack proactively.

The sublime French play took advantage and almost denied Ireland victory in a game they never should have come so close to losing.

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‘You switch off and go into a deep, dark place’: CJ Stander’s (obstructed) view of those 41 phases

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Murray Kinsella

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