Updated 8am, Saturday 4 February
IRELAND SCORED 36 tries in their 12 Tests last year, and they will need quite a few more of them if they are to wrestle the Six Nations title back from England in the coming months.
We have done a try analysis on Ireland before, when we picked apart their 58 tries over a period from the start of Joe Schmidt’s reign in 2013 to just before the 2015 World Cup.
Last year, we also undertook a study of the 60 tries New Zealand had scored in 10 Tests before they faced Ireland in Chicago.
Analysis of Ireland’s 36 tries in 2016 show rather different results to what we found with New Zealand’s try-scoring. Hardly a surprise.
Anyone who has watched the two teams play in recent years will understand that they create tries in different ways – although the data from the try-scoring analysis allows us to confirm or disprove our presumptions.
What does this analysis of Ireland’s try-scoring over the last year tell us?
That Schmidt’s side predominantly score their tries from lineouts deep in opposition territory, where their close-range attack featuring dynamic and skillful ball carrying, rabid rucking efforts and the influence of scrum-half Conor Murray are so effective.
Below, we see a map of exactly where on the pitch each Ireland try last year originated.
Ireland are playing from right to left as we look at the pitch below.
There are six different types of what we term ‘possession platforms’ – meaning the source where the attacking passages began.
Lineouts are the clear leader even from a cursory glance over our map, while it’s also noticeable how few Ireland tries begin in their own half.
Ireland’s greatest source of tries in 2016 was their lineout, with 21 – or 58% – of the 36 tries they scored beginning with an Irish throw into the lineout.
Below, we can see how many tries Ireland have scored from each possession platform.
This 58% figure is a growth of what we saw in our analysis of Ireland’s tries under Schmidt before the 2015 World Cup, when lineouts were the possession platform for 45% of their tries.
Why do Ireland score so many tries when the lineout is their possession platform? One of the reasons is Ireland’s superb maul, which is highly-organised and particularly difficult to stop.
Ireland only scored one try directly from a maul last year, but would have had five more of them but for blatant illegal play from the opposition to halt them.
Aside from that one try, 13 other Ireland scores came on the foundation of strong mauls after their own lineout throw.
Ireland are particularly excellent at the shift drive, whereby they splinter off to the side of the lineout catcher in a heavily-detailed and pre-programmed manner, essentially creating a second maul.
Ireland are particularly effective at shifting the maul back down the blindside in the manner we see above against New Zealand, although they have quality in shifting to the other side and also still use a more traditional maul based around the lineout catcher at times.
The threat of Ireland’s maul is always there for the defending team, meaning that Schmidt’s side also sometimes use dummy maul set-ups in an attempt to lure the opposition into thinking a maul attack is coming.
We get an example above, with Ireland appearing set to maul the ball, before striking in midfield for a linebreak that eventually leads to a try for CJ Stander.
The set-up from Ireland is key, with Josh van der Flier starting in the ‘receiver’ position just behind the lineout that we might be more accustomed to a scrum-half filling.
Most teams put a forward in the receiver position when they plan to maul, as Ireland do, meaning that forward can arrive in and accept a transfer of the ball from the lineout catcher.
But with Italy expecting that to occur in this instance, Ireland have Jack McGrath coming around from the front of the lineout to accept the ball from Devin Toner, then passing to van der Flier as the flanker moves out beyond the 15-metre line.
The link between Rory Best and Toner at the lineout is an important one, with the Ireland captain throwing to the Leinster lock for 10 of the 21 tries that Ireland produced from the lineout platform.
Below, a full list of the throwing and receiving combinations for each of Ireland’s 21 tries from the lineout.
Best – Toner: 10
Best – Stander: 3
Cronin – Holland: 2
Best – Ryan: 1
Best – Henderson: 1
Best – Murphy: 1
Tracy – Ryan: 1
Tracy – Holland: 1
Strauss – Holland: 1
The combination of Best and lineout caller Toner will certainly continue to be vital for Ireland, although it will be fascinating to see how opposition teams look to mark up on the influential Toner at lineout time.
Indeed, that has appeared to be an issue for Ireland at times over the last year, with the retirement of Paul O’Connell in 2015 having shorn them of one of the greatest lineout forwards in the game and the injury travails of Peter O’Mahony denying them the services of one of the best lineout back rows in the world.
Forwards coach Simon Easterby and lineout leader Toner will be keen to ensure that their lineout has greater variety.
Ireland score lots of their tries from lineouts, so it’s obvious that an improvement in the actual set-piece will also lead to an growth in the number of tries they score.
The next highest source of tries for Ireland is turnovers – eight in total – but these are not the type of turnover tries we often saw from New Zealand last year, for example, where they broke out from their own half after stealing ball at the breakdown.
We use the term turnover to represent an instant change of possession from one team to the other, and in our definitions a turnover includes moments when the opposition attempt to gather in a kick and make physical contact with the ball, only to spill it.
Ireland scored six of their eight ‘turnover’ tries from such circumstances last year, when their accurate kicking game and superbly aggressive chased forced the opposition into losing the ball when they could or should have gathered it.
Although Johnny Sexton is missing this weekend in Murrayfield, Ireland will certainly continue to look for opportunities to stress and break the opposition with their kicking game.
Ireland’s other two turnover tries were an intercept score for Jared Payne against Italy in the Six Nations, and a superb score for Tiernan O’Halloran against Canada after the Canadians accidentally kicked the ball out of their own ruck inside Ireland’s half.
Scrum source and quiet kick returns
We can see from the map at the top of this piece that Ireland scored five tries from scrum platforms last year, with all five of them coming on the opposition five-metre line.
Interestingly, only the Robbie Henshaw try against New Zealand in Chicago was a pure first-phase strike move to score.
Two of the other scrum platform scores were a penalty try and a pushover try against Canada in Dublin, while the remaining two saw Ireland go through three rucks and then eight rucks before actually dotting down.
It will be interesting to see if Schmidt’s side can execute his close-range scrum moves to greater effect if given the opportunity in 2017. Henshaw’s effort in Soldier Field showed the damage Ireland are capable of doing when striking from close to the tryline.
The map at the beginning of this article is also notable for the relative absence of tries originating from kick returns, i.e. fielding an opposition kick and running it back at them.
It’s an area where Ireland simply don’t create much. Their strategy is often built around the fullback eating up as many metres as possible in a straight line and providing retreating forwards with a clear target in terms of the ruck.
Ireland’s low-risk kick return policy contrasts with that of New Zealand, who had scored 14 of their 60 tries from kick return when we did our analysis of their efforts before the November Tests last year.
Our previous analysis of Ireland’s tries in 2015 showed that they scored only 5% of their tries when kick return was the possession platform and that has since dropped to 3% – just one of the 36 they scored last year.
Even at that, Ireland went through 16 rucks before scoring that single kick-return try, with Fergus McFadden finishing it off against Italy.
There have been some glimpses of an increased intent on kick return from Ireland at times over the past year, without five-point rewards, but we await growth in this area of their game.
It would also be interesting to learn whether playing a more creative fullback like Simon Zebo or Tiernan O’Halloran consistently would have an effect on the number of tries Ireland create from kick return.
That said, the real issue appears to be the team strategies and structures around kick return. At present, it seems Ireland are not bringing a try-scoring mentality to the early phases of their kick-return game.
Our try map at the top of the article clearly underlines how reliant Ireland have been on close-range possession platforms.
Indeed, such was the build-up of five-metre lineout tries, we had to spread them back another five metres to give each one of them space to be seen on the map!
16 of Ireland’s tries – or 44% – last year originated from possession platforms five metres from the opposition tryline – mainly the lineout.
That’s up from 34% when we did our try analysis on Ireland before the 2015 World Cup.
Tries from within Ireland’s own half have decreased from 16% before the 2015 World Cup to just 8% – three of their 36 – in the past year.
Again, it’s fascinating to contrast Ireland’s figures in this regard with the numbers from our New Zealand analysis. The Kiwis scored 33% of their tries from possession platforms inside their own half, and only 8% from the opposition five-metre line.
There are many ways to score a try, of course, and one means is not necessarily ‘better’ than the other.
It makes sense for Ireland to look for penalty opportunities to kick deep into opposition territory and use their highly-effective maul to score or as a launchpad.
From there, Schmidt’s side are often extremely effective at working their way to a try, with several vital tools involved.
Conor Murray is generally the man running the play, with strong ball carriers offering themselves up for short carries near the tryline.
Ireland possess a crop of forwards with fine footwork, including the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Iain Henderson and front rows like Cian Healy.
Healy avoids losing yards with a neat step before contact below, in the build-up to Keith Earls’ winning try against Australia.
Ireland’s forwards are intelligent in picking out where to carry to, even when the defence is congested in front of them.
Very often, they will burst back to a soft inside shoulder or accelerate to the outside when a defender sits on their feels.
It may seem like very basic thing to point out, but Ireland’s players are also extremely hungry when in the tackle, consistently bringing powerful leg drive as they look to eke out metres.
Players like CJ Stander excel in this department, as we see in the case below as he lays the platform for Murray to snipe over on the next phase.
‘Latching’ or ‘leeching’ is another valuable tool for Ireland in this zone, with support players binding to ball carriers just before contact or as contact with the tackler occurs, therefore creating two-on-one situations where they have a weight and power advantage.
We see an example above, as Josh van der Flier latches onto Stander before he makes contact with the upright defender, Maro Itoje.
That means a two-on-one for Ireland. Even if it only lasts a split second before George Kruis engages, the momentum battle is won by Ireland and they drive their legs for gains.
Most teams and players in the world do these things when carrying, but Ireland are consistently good at them. They may seem like small details, but then Schmidt has always been utterly focused on the most basic aspects of the game.
Ireland’s ruck work has always been outstanding under Schmidt, and plays an even more important role close to the opposition tryline.
It’s noticeable how Ireland’s aggression at the breakdown ramps up further in the opposition 22, as they look to ensure quick ball to keep the defence unsettled.
Ireland are also strong in cleaning deep beyond the ruck or closing off the corner of the ruck to ensure that opposition defences find it difficult to fold around to the other side and cover. Sometimes, Ireland are simply focused on taking defenders out of the game.
Henderson provides a fine example above, cleaning David Pocock deep beyond the ruck and taking him to ground. Garry Ringrose scores on the next phase, with Pocock absent from the sweeping role he would have filled just in behind the frontline defence.
Adding greatly to Ireland’s threat from close range is the sniping ability of scrum-half Murray, who has the power to burst through gaps that some players in his position might struggle to take advantage of.
The Munster man’s calmness under pressure allows him to identify opportunities to strike, with his dummy pump – faking to pass – only adding to the package.
Murray scored Ireland’s first two tries of 2016, against Wales and England, in exactly this manner, sniping over after selling a dummy to the ‘pillar’ defender on the edge of the ruck.
Murray and Stander
Murray’s importance to Ireland cannot be overemphasised and hit fitness is vital to their hopes of success in this year’s Six Nations.
The Munster scrum-half was Ireland’s top try scorer in 2016 with five tries, while he provided three direct try-scoring passes for others.
There were also a huge number of contributions in directing Ireland’s attack for their close-range scores, as well as his usual kicking and defensive quality.
Another man who stood out in this analysis from last year was CJ Stander, joint-second on the try-scoring list with three tries and he also provided one direct assist.
On top of that, Stander made numerous vital carries in the build-up to Ireland tries, with his impact on the ball often being the difference between Schmidt’s men scoring or not.
There is much, much more to Stander than ball carrying, but he is genuinely world-class in that department.
Even the threat of Stander’s carrying worries the opposition, with his decoys runs often luring defenders away from the carrier.
Stander makes a galloping run to the right of Murray in the instance above and briefly draws two defenders in towards him, with Murray making an excellent decision to instead hit Sean Cronin, who takes advantage of the defenders’ reactions to Stander to burst through.
Go back to Murray’s try against Wales and we see another example, as Justin Tipuric vacates the pillar position as soon as he sees Stander thundering around the corner.
One of the things we noted the last time we analysed Ireland’s try scoring was the low number of offloads, with just 14 of them in the attacking passages that led to the 58 tries in our analysis.
This time around, there were 13 offloads from Ireland for their 36 tries, so the rate of offloading during try-scoring passages of attack has increased.
The players to have carried out these offloads for Ireland last year are listed below.
2 Keith Earls, Andrew Trimble, Ian Madigan, Jamie Heaslip
1 Jared Payne, Simon Zebo, Richardt Strauss, Finlay Bealham, Rhys Ruddock
It’s worth stressing that these were not the only offloads Ireland completed last year, rather the successful ones during passages of attack that led to tries.
Offloads leading directly to tries for the receiving player were thrown by Jamie Heaslip against Scotland, Keith Earls against Australia, Finlay Bealham against Canada, and Rhys Ruddock in the second Test against South Africa.
Clearly, some of Ireland’s players possess the skill level to successfully offload in the right circumstances and it was positive to see tries coming directly after Irish players had received an offload, if only on four occasions.
It appears that some progress has been made in this area, even if Ireland will retain their heavy focus on ball-carrying and hitting rucks.
Timing, phases and passing
When the game is split into eight 10-minute periods, we can see that Ireland scored most tries in the portion of the game following half time.
While the graph above does show that Ireland’s tries were relatively evenly spread out across the 80 minutes, they are particularly effective just before and after half time.
In terms of how many rucks Ireland go through before scoring their tries, the numbers are unsurprisingly weighted towards zero-ruck or one-ruck passages of attack.
Data from across a wide range of competitions shows that the majority of tries in rugby are scored in the earliest phases of attack, whatever about the still-lingering mantra of ‘going through the phases’.
There is certainly value in retaining possession beyond just scoring tries, of course, and Ireland did have several examples of high-phase passages leading up to tries.
But striking early in possession is vital in rugby, whether that is on turnover possession, with set-piece moves, mauls, intercepts, or pre-programmed power plays involving two or three phases.
Below, we can see how many passes Ireland made across the attacking passages that led to tries.
Unsurprisingly, and again keeping with trends from other teams and competitions, Ireland scored the majority of their tries with zero or one pass.
The graph above highlights that 16 of their 36 tries featured zero or one pass.
As mentioned above in relation to low-phase tries, the best time to strike against a team is early in possession, when the opposition are often not as organised as they would like to be.
What is perhaps more telling in terms of how Ireland score their tries is the chart below, which shows us how many passes Schmidt’s side made on the final scoring phase of each try.
The number of occasions on which they passed zero times or just once on the final scoring phase of attack underlines the focus Ireland have close to the opposition tryline – often playing high-tempo, one-out phases to crack the opposition defence.
Ireland remain reliant on this kind of attack in the opposition 22 from lineout platforms, but they are certainly capable of scoring other ways.
It will be fascinating to note if these trends continue in 2017, or if Schmidt’s Ireland begin to branch into other methods of amassing tries.
Before the Six Nations gets underway, it’s worth nothing the importance of place-kicking in deciding the championship.
Tries are extremely valuable, of course, but Joe Schmidt himself has pointed out that Six Nations champions in recent years have tended to score more penalty kicks than tries.
“I think in the last five championships there’s only one championship that’s been won by a team that’s scored more tries than penalties. So in the last five championships, it’s been more penalties than tries,” said Schmidt.
“The last time a championship was won with more tries than penalty kicks was when we won it in 2014, with 16 tries and 10 penalty kicks.”
With that in mind, Paddy Jackson’s form off the tee for Ireland is highly-encouraging.
According to the superb GoalKickers.co.za, Jackson successfully kicked 27 of his 31 efforts at goal for Ireland in 2016, with those numbers incorporating both penalties and conversions.
Jackson’s 87.1% success rate off the tee last year was among the best in international rugby, but as important was the fact that with GoalKicker.co.za’s difficulty rating taken into account, Jackson was the third best place kicker in the Test arena in 2016, behind only Greig Laidlaw and Owen Farrell.
GoalKicker.co.za’s difficulty rating takes into account distance, angle, altitude, side of field, score difference, whether the kicker is at home or away, and the half of the game.
By way of comparison, Johnny Sexton – with 24 out of 31 kicks for 77.4% – was just in 11th position.
Clearly, tries will remain crucial to Ireland and every other team, but Schmidt will have some confidence that he can depend on Jackson off the tee again this year.
Top try scorers in 2016
5 Conor Murray
3 Keith Earls, CJ Stander, Jamie Heaslip
2 Jared Payne, Devin Toner, Luke Marshall, Tiernan O’Halloran
1 Andrew Trimble, Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Ian Madigan, Fergus McFadden, Jordi Murphy, Simon Zebo, Robbie Henshaw, Penalty try, Ultan Dillane, Kieran Marmion, James Tracy, Iain Henderson, Garry Ringrose
Top assists in 2016
4 Kieran Marmion
3 Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton
2 Jamie Heaslip
1 Fergus McFadden, Luke Marshall, Rhys Ruddock, CJ Stander, Paddy Jackson, Finlay Bealham, Garry Ringrose, Luke McGrath, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo.
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