'Something we worked on all week' - Ireland's attack cuts England apart

Ireland scored excellent tries through Keith Earls and Jack Conan, and nearly had a beautiful third.

THERE ARE FEW things in the game as powerful for building confidence as a planned set-piece play coming off to perfection and resulting in a try.

Focused practice paying off to the tune of five or seven points can fill a team with belief at the same time as sucking momentum away from the side who have just conceded.

Keith Earls’ try for Ireland in the first half of yesterday’s dominant win over England was a prime example as Andy Farrell’s side grabbed hold of control of the game with a score that would have been deeply pleasing for attack coach Mike Catt.

mike-catt Ireland attack coach Mike Catt will be deeply pleased with their efforts yesterday. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland have struggled to make a dent with their set-piece attack in this championship and even started this game poorly when Bundee Aki was tackled into touch from a midfield scrum, but Earls’ try was of the highest quality.

Ireland strike from a right-hand-side lineout close to England’s 10-metre line, using a 6+1 lineout with six forwards in the lineout and Josh van der Flier just off it in the ‘receiver’ position.

Ireland’s well-rehearsed movement pre-throw sees Jack Conan [white below] initially looking like he’s going to lift Tadhg Beirne but then leaving the lineout just as van der Flier [red] begins stepping up into it to act as a lifter for Beirne.


Ireland use two dummy jumping pods here to really tie in the English forwards.

Their movement on the ground leaves Cian Healy and CJ Stander in position to lift Iain Henderson [yellow below] at the front, drawing England lock Charlie Ewels onto them.

Meanwhile, van der Flier steps in to help Tadhg Furlong lift Tadhg Beirne [blue] towards the tail of the lineout but only after Beirne has moved forward a couple of steps, drawing Maro Itoje with him.


Beirne actually gets up in the air here, doing a fine job of ensuring that the pod marking him can’t leave the lineout early. These dummy jumping pods are key to the success of the play as Ireland want to leave as much space as possible in behind the lineout for Earls to break through.

Hooker Rob Herring’s throw is perfect as he and Conan nail their timing, the number eight [white below] breaking out over the 15-metre line only after the ball has left Herring’s hands.


England’s ‘tailgunner’ here is flanker Tom Curry [red above] and he does get a good read on the throw but Ireland’s clinical timing means Conan is one step ahead of him.

As Herring’s throw arcs right out over the 15-metre line, Conan has shown agility to be underneath the landing point, having kept his eye on the ball while on the move.

Conan’s skill here to get both hands onto the ball at full stretch overhead while moving backwards is exceptional. 


This shot also underlines the inch-perfect quality of Herring’s throw as it just evades Curry’s fingertips and he is instead left grasping at Conan’s right arm. We can see that Earls [red] is already on the move with a laser focus on the ball.

Conan does brilliantly to reverse the ball back downwards in one fluid motion to find Earls accelerating. It is more perfect timing from the right wing.

We can see Earls’ starting position 10 metres behind the lineout, and therefore onside, in the shot below.


The Munster man has to nail his run here – show too early and he gives England a cue to adjust, but show too late and he will be snaffled by a scrambling defender.

Earls [red below] does nail it, however, and arrives to accept the deft touch from Conan and burst forward into space.


Billy Vunipola [blue above], who is initially in place as the front lifer for Itoje, has the best chance of scragging Earls but he is clearly not expecting the basketball-style touch from Conan and only picks up the winger hurtling onto the ball too late.

Meanwhile, it’s worth highlighting how Bundee Aki [yellow above] makes a run to the outside of Conan, providing a concern for the English midfield defence and drawing them forward, meaning they’re in no position to turn and track back onto Earls.

The Ireland wing is clear and now only has Jonny May [white below] tracking across in a bid to stop him.


It’s a highly exposed position for May to be left in, with Earls already moving up to top speed, and the Ireland wing finishes expertly.

Earls initially eyeballs the tryline to his left, giving May a cue that he will try to finish on that side of him.


But as May then commits himself into a possible tackle on Earls with his right shoulder, the Ireland wing swerves back to the other side…


… and then accelerates again towards the tryline.


While Earls’ pace takes him clear, he does transfer the ball over into his right arm just in case he needs to fend May with his left.


May dives out to bring Earls to ground but it’s too little too late as the Ireland wing transfers the ball back into his left hand, cushions his fall with his right, and dots the ball down for his 34th Ireland try in 93 Ireland caps.


The Irish celebrations illustrate how much this score means to them.

ireland-players-celebrate-with-keith-earls-after-scoring-the-opening-try Ireland celebrate Earls' try. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s something we had worked on all week and you’re always trying to find a way to, first of all, win the lineout cleanly and second, how you can manipulate a defence on the back of that,” said Ireland boss Farrell post-match.

“We worked all week and practiced it hard with the timing of Keith Earls and thankfully it paid off. I thought Jack Conan’s skill was outstanding to deliver the ball because Tom Curry had read it very well. That was very pleasing.”

Of course, there is nothing completely new in rugby and we have seen a very similar play from Ireland and Leinster in the past under Joe Schmidt, as well as from the Crusaders and others in more recent times.

The example below comes against France in the 2015 Six Nations, with Devin Toner employed in the role Conan played yesterday.


We can see Simon Zebo [number 11] accelerating on the same line as Earls yesterday in the instance above, but France tailgunner Guilhem Guirado does a good job of getting a hand in to disrupt Toner’s attempted pop back down inside and the play is foiled.

Go all the way back to 2013 and we see Leinster using the same play to score against Biarritz in the Challenge Cup semi-finals.


Ireland’s version yesterday had its own little details around lineout movement and Conan’s involvement. It was a deeply pleasing score for all involved and particularly attack coach Catt.

“It’s obviously something that Catty had seen during the week that he thought was a potential option for us and luckily it worked out,” said hooker Herring.

Earls’ try was a crucial moment in yesterday’s win but it wasn’t the only bit of excellent Irish attack on a day when things clicked for Farrell’s team.

Their second score, finished by Conan, saw Ireland keep the ball for close to three minutes, scoring on 23rd phase of a passage that saw every single player on the team aside from Iain Henderson get a touch of the ball.

To score at the end of such a long passage of possession is genuinely rare and there was much to like about Ireland’s varied attack. 

Having initially found themselves stuck around the English 10-metre line for the first 12 phases, Ireland use their 1-3-2-2 attacking shape to make a key dent coming back from the right touchline.


Scrum-half Conor Murray hits Tadhg Beirne [5 above] in the middle of the pod of three forwards, with Iain Henderson [5] and Josh van der Flier [7] on either side of him.

As England race forward off the defensive line, the skillful Beirne swivels and passes to Johnny Sexton, the ‘release’ player out the back of the three-pod. 

Sexton then links the ball onto Ireland’s pod of two forwards on his left, Tadhg Furlong [3] and CJ Stander [6].


Ireland’s chain of three passes creates a disconnect in the English defence as lock Ewels leaves loosehead prop Mako Vunipola behind him.

Ewels turns his shoulders in on Sexton as the out-half times shows characteristically good timing on his pass to hold the England lock before releasing Furlong into the space.


Vunipola turns in on Furlong to tackle the tighthead but the Wexford man has his hands in behind the contact and is able to offload to Stander.


Stander is tackled by the retreating Owen Farrell but Ireland are right in behind the English defence now.

With Sexton heading to the breakdown, Earls [red below] steps in as first receiver with the final pod of two forwards outside him in Cian Healy [17] and Conan [8], and Aki [yellow] tucked in behind.


Earls passes for Healy to carry and resources the breakdown himself before Aki steps in at scrum-half to keep the ball moving at tempo, finding Conan and allowing the number eight to show his dynamism with a burst to the outside of Kyle Sinckler for more upfield progress.


Coming back off the left touchline, Ireland carry in their three-pod before Earls steps in at first receiver for the second time, linking to Beirne for a carry in the two-pod as Sexton hovers in behind.


On 17th phase, Sexton decides to bring Ireland’s kicking game into the mix and lofts a diagonal kick over Elliot Daly for Hugo Keenan [yellow below] to chase.

We can see below that Sexton had a good chance to pass here, perhaps finding Henshaw out the back of Herring and allowing Ireland to explore space on the right edge, but his decision to kick works out very well as Keenan comes up trumps. 


The fullback delivers a big play to regain the ball for Ireland, showing superb anticipation and technique to leap off his left leg…


… leading with his right knee into Daly as he soars above the England fullback and through the ball as it comes down towards the ground.


The final bit of fight from Keenan in the contest sees him come clear with possession.


It’s a superb take from Keenan and gives the Ireland attack fresh impetus as England have to scramble once again, edging offside in the process on the next phase.

Ireland keep their foot on the throat with the penalty advantage as Sexton first links to Beirne for another carry before a slick sequence of passing allows Jacob Stockdale to make more progress.

The threat of Furlong [red below] carrying here keeps the English defence narrow as Sexton instead passes out the back to Aki.


As Ewels then rushes up onto Aki, the Connacht centre throws an excellent long pass to Conan, who has held his wide position as part of Ireland’s attacking shape.


As George Ford then races across to recover onto Conan, the number eight passes to Stockdale, who cuts back inside and carries up towards the five-metre line.

Ireland are within striking distance now and after van der Flier makes a carry infield, Conan – having cleared out the breakdown after Stockdale’s carry – seals the deal.

First, the number eight runs a nice decoy line close to the ruck to give Sexton some time on the ball as Murray – whose passing was excellent across this passage – pulls his pass behind Conan to his out-half.


Sexton is tackled by Sinckler and Ford after making a short gain and as Conan arrives to the breakdown, he identifies his chance.


England hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, clearly fatigued at this stage after the long passage of ball-in-play, is worried about the very narrow shortside and we can see that he points across to it and edges in behind the breakdown.


It’s the ideal cue for Conan to make the surprise pick and carry, bursting to Cowan-Dickie’s outside shoulder…


… where he rides the tackle attempt and stretches out his right hand to finish.


It’s another wonderful – and very different – try for Ireland but equally pleasing for Farrell and Catt.

With forwards passing and offloading smoothly, their 1-3-2-2 shape stretching England, and a clinical finishing touch, it’s exactly the kind of play they have hoped to encourage. 

Ireland very nearly had a third excellent try in the second half. 

“I actually thought that if Keith Earls’ second try would have stuck, that would have been pretty special in itself as well,” said Farrell post-match.

Earls’ finish from Johnny Sexton’s cross-field kick was indeed pretty special, but the score was chalked off on TMO review for a knock-on by Healy just before the kick. 


Like the two Ireland tries that stood, this chance came from a lineout platform, with a two-phase strike breaking down the English defence.

This time, Ireland play off the top of a full seven-man lineout as Henderson finds Murray, who passes infield for Stockdale and Sexton to shift the ball into the hands of Aki.

The inside centre makes a strong carry in the middle of the pitch before Ireland immediately bounce back against the grain to their left, where Murray’s rapid pass finds Henderson thundering onto the ball.


We can see that Furlong and Healy are outside Henderson, meaning that England flanker Mark Wilson [yellow below] has to sit off the lock, rather than engaging into a double tackle. Wilson actually hits Furlong off the ball to give Ireland penalty advantage.

Henderson [red] is left with a one-on-one contest against Sinckler…


… which he wins in emphatic fashion, leaving the England tighthead on the ground in his wake as hitches through the tackle attempt.


Henderson accelerates away but is grounded by a tap tackle from Maro Itoje, leaving Ireland just 10 metres out from the England tryline.

Again, Ireland are ambitious once in behind the English, with Murray, Sexton and Henshaw immediately moving the ball out to Conan to make metres up the left touchline.

There’s another sneaky pick and carry from Furlong to eke out further progress before we see another good example of Beirne’s handling skills. Rather than playing to the obvious forwards ball-carriers, Murray goes out the back to Sexton who links the ball on to Beirne.


In one fluid motion, Beirne tips a pass on to Henderson. It’s lovely skill from the Ireland lock, who is running square up the pitch to engage the onrushing Tom Curry.


Henderson has space to charge into but just momentarily takes his eye off the ball and ends up juggling it up and back over his head as Farrell tackles him.

The ball comes backwards off Henderson but – after Herring has popped the ball to Sexton for his wonderful kick – the TMO review shows that Healy’s right hand makes contact with it just in behind Henderson, travelling forward first and then backwards off Henderson’s back. 


While this excellent passage of attack didn’t result in another Earls try, Ireland did come back to the penalty advantage and Sexton kicked three points to extend their lead to 23-6 as England faded out of the contest.

It was a highly encouraging day for Ireland’s attack, the best yet of the Farrell and Catt era.

Ireland’s players had promised us that this was coming, even if the signs on the pitch didn’t always bear that out, and they delivered on their word in impressive fashion. 

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