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Analysis: What did we see from Ireland's attack as the Andy Farrell era began?

Johnny Sexton and co. did look to play but their execution and decision-making was poor at times.

YESTERDAY WAS NEVER likely to a perfectly fluid performance from Ireland, with just five full training sessions together so far under new boss Andy Farrell. 

Scotland delivered their best performance against Ireland in several years. Gregor Townsend’s side were ferocious in their physicality, inventive in their attack in the middle third of the pitch, and mostly solid in defence.

What they were lacking was a crucial finishing touch down in Ireland’s 22. 

Ireland had very real shortcomings yesterday. Their pack was bullied by the Scots at times. It’s rare to see the Irish forwards being dominated but their maul was very ineffective as the Scots defended superbly in that area.

andy-farrell-speaks-to-his-players Andy Farrell speaks to his team before yesterday's game. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Scots also won two scrum penalties. Far more of the dominant tackles came from the Scottish forwards too.

While Iain Henderson did steal two lineouts, Ireland’s pack will need to be much better against Wales next weekend or they risk a very damaging home defeat.

Many supporters watching yesterday were most interested to see if Ireland would bring a different attacking approach and those who watched closely will certainly have noted the slight shift in mindset.

Perhaps the biggest personnel change was Jordan Larmour being installed as the starting fullback, with Rob Kearney now out of the picture. 

Larmour’s main strengths are his pace, footwork, and balance – allowing him to beat defenders. The 22-year-old has sharp counter-attacking instincts and we saw plenty of that yesterday, with Farrell and new attack coach Mike Catt clearly backing Larmour and others to play what they saw yesterday.

Perhaps the most notable instance of this was when Larmour stepped into touch to hand the Scots a prime attacking opportunity that they should have converted into a try.

Ireland have defended superbly for 10 phases here, smashing Scottish ball-carriers until scrum-half Ali Price opts to kick the ball [white below].

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With Larmour covering the backfield and wing Andrew Conway also dropping off the frontline defence, it’s a poor kick from Price.

On top of that, he has no real chase on the left side of the ruck, with just Huw Jones and Sean Maitland [circled in white] on that side and neither urgently following up.

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Conway is the one to gather the ball on the bounce for Ireland and he shapes to kick first – the standard reaction in this area of the pitch. Finding touch is the safe option here, clearing Ireland’s lines.

But Larmour is in Conway’s ear straight away as the wing looks up and they make a decision to run back at Scotland instead.

Conway straightens up and looks to fix Jones before passing to Larmour close to the touchline. The Ireland wing doesn’t manage to fully sit Jones down, allowing him to drift off towards Larmour [blue below].

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Larmour does still have space outside Jones and he accelerates forward but then absent-mindedly makes contact with the touchline as he steps off his right foot.

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The opportunity is clear if Ireland were able to execute better – Conway sticking his man and Larmour not stepping into touch. There are relatively few Scotland defenders in the vicinity while Conway, Josh van der Flier, and Johnny Sexton could all support the ball. 

The fact that Ireland are even attempting to go here is indicative of the slight loosening in decision-making we saw from Farrell’s side yesterday.

The other fact is that Scotland absolutely should have scored from the attacking platform they were gifted there. Stuart Hogg dropped the ball over the line at the end of the attack from this Scottish lineout, although they did get three points from the tee.

The risk Ireland took is obvious.

Larmour collected a huge number of Scotland kicks in the backfield but he didn’t actually properly kick it back at them until the 66th minute of the game, when he regained his own garryowen in a contest with Blair Kinghorn.

Every single time before that, Larmour looked to spark an attack with ball-in-hand. 

There was a memorable example in the 29th minute, as Larmour attempted to break out of his own 22.

He gathers in a long Stuart Hogg clearance at the second time of asking and turns.

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Again, Ireland would generally have sent this ball into touch in the past. Every single one of Larmour’s team-mates is in front of him, many of them 5o metres upfield. 

But the Leinster man has seemingly been backed to trust his decision-making and he feels that the chasing Hogg [yellow below] is isolated.

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Larmour accelerates off to his left and uses his footwork to get outside Hogg, whose pace  to track Larmour is impressive.

Larmour then chips ahead as he meets the bulk of the Scottish chasing line. Now, this is obviously a kick from Larmour – one of only two in the entire game – but it’s very much an attacking touch.

Dink

Hogg makes contact with Larmour’s left leg after the Ireland fullback has kicked the ball, tripping him as he does so.

Tap

Larmour falls over and obviously can’t chase his chip, leaving Adam Hastings to hack it ahead on the bounce as he comes up from the backfield and requiring a sensational bit of work-rate from Sexton to cover all the way across to prevent a try for the Scots.

It really should probably be a penalty for Ireland but referee Mathieu Raynal is disinterested and his TMO opts against having a word in his ear.

The point, though, is Larmour’s willingness to run the ball out of his 22 – something we almost certainly wouldn’t have seen before. 

In both of these examples, Scotland very nearly scored tries as a result of Ireland’s decisions to have a go, underlining the danger involved. 

This was a strange game for Ireland in that they didn’t have a single attacking scrum. They didn’t have many opportunities to launch their attack from lineouts either, usually such a good launching pad for them.

The majority of their 10 lineouts were inside or around the Scotland 22, where mauling is the natural choice. Ireland mauled very poorly in this game.

With limited chances for their team attack to flourish off lineouts – they botched the one real chance they had when failing to win their own four-man lineout – kick returns were the biggest possession source for Farrell’s team and they did some fine work away from the examples above, without being clinical enough to take their chances.

After giving up three points to Scotland’s early onslaught, Ireland made a linebreak with their first attack of the game. Larmour had a cut after Price box-kicked clear from outside the Scotland 22, whereafter Ireland got into their phase-play ‘shape’.

Ireland operated with a basic 1-3-3-1 shape in attack in this game, although there were variations at times. 

The first linebreak came from excellent work-rate by Larmour. We can see him below getting back to his feet after carrying the ball, as Murray begins to move the ball right.

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As Sexton then plays a ‘needle’ ball to Bundee Aki [yellow below], Larmour is getting on his bike to track across the pitch [white].

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Aki carries the ball, with Larmour still in motion.

As Sexton reloads to the right of the ruck, he glances at the Scotland defence and then signals [yellow below] for Larmour to continue to sweep across in behind him.

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Receiving the pass from Murray, Sexton then does well to briefly hold Jones in front of him in.

That prevents Jones from drifting off Sexton early [as indicated in yellow below] and means Larmour has time as he bursts onto the pass from his out-half, getting outside Jones and beating his attempted recovery tackle as he accelerates up to top speed.

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Having broken the Scottish line, Larmour draws up fullback Hogg and passes inside to scrum-half Murray running the support line.

Inside

Scotland lock Scott Cummings and the retreating Hastings manage to scrag Murray from behind and haul him down, preventing Ireland from converting this opportunity.

Nonetheless, the pressure that follows Larmour’s linebreak ultimately leads to Ireland’s opening try through Sexton via a van der Flier turnover penalty after the ball bobbles out of a ruck and Scotland very briefly regain possession.

The Sexton try – which we examined in detail earlier - was an excellent bit of play from Ireland inside the Scotland 22. It came on penalty advantage and it was notable how eager Ireland were to use their advantages in the 22 to take slightly more ‘risk’ with their attack.

Later in the game, Sexton released Conway down the right-hand touchline with a lovely skip pass but his offload inside went to Scottish hands with the tryline beckoning.

We also saw Conor Murray, below, literally pleading with Raynal to allow Ireland the advantage as he halts play for an Irish penalty. 

Advantage Mindset

It certainly looks like Ireland have discussed making every single one of their advantages count and the Sexton try was a good example of what they will aim for.

Ireland made seven linebreaks in this game – Scotland had four – and were frustrated not to take opportunities they created to get some scoreboard breathing space.

In the 27th minute, following a big linebreak through Stander after a clearly illegal turnover from Henderson, Ireland failed to convert.

Farrell’s men are in their 1-3-3-1 shape after Stander’s linebreak and more positive attack sees Sexton screen a pass to Aki [white below].

Shape

Again, Ireland play to the width. Aki moves the ball on to Ringrose and the outside centre makes an arcing run before offloading inside to Conway, leaving Ireland just four metres out and with huge momentum.

Unfortunately for Farrell’s side, Raynal’s attention is drawn back to obstruction ahead of Aki by O’Mahony [red above] on Hastings in the defensive line.

It’s something that can often be overlooked but there is contact involved and the match officials’ call is understandable. The infringement sees Ireland come up empty-handed from more excellent build-up work.

Another glaring missed chance came in the 33rd minute after Sexton hung a delightful 22m restart close to the left touchline.

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Jacob Stockdale is the gleeful recipient of Sexton’s restart, leaping to gather it and then bursting beyond two surprised Scots and beyond the halfway line.

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Stockdale is stopped by the excellent Nick Haining just beyond the Scotland 10m line but the visitors are now in defensive disarray and opportunity knocks for Ireland.

Ireland have sometimes been guilty of following up linebreaks with very direct, narrow carries in the past, but here they look to shift the ball wide to the right.

Murray passes behind two hard-running forwards [red below] to find Sexton…

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… before Sexton fires a second excellent long pass behind Tadhg Furlong [red below] to Larmour.

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Larmour carries for a few steps as he attempts to sit down Scotland 13 Jones before making a short pass to James Ryan on his right…

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The opportunity outside Ryan is very clear.

Peter O’Mahony has his hand in the air, signalling for the pass, while Bundee Aki and Andrew Conway are also outside.

Scotland left wing Blair Kinghorn [red below] is exposed here.

Chance

Fullback Hogg [yellow] is closing up but Scotland don’t have anyone else sweeping across the backfield, with Ireland having broken them down the left just before this. 

If Ryan can deliver a pass, Ireland have a fine chance of scoring here. 

It’s certainly not an easy pass, with Kinghorn an intercept threat in the space between Ryan and O’Mahony. Kinghorn does take a couple of steps backwards, but Ryan misses the chance to deliver the pass and instead opts to carry himself.

The window closes as Jones recovers to drift across and tackle Ryan. Ireland’s attack continues until Price concedes an offside penalty. Farrell’s men get the three points but it could have been 14-6 rather than 10-6.

There was further frustration on Ireland’s final linebreak before half-time as Murray was intercepted.

This chance stems from one of Larmour’s kick returns launching Ireland into their phase attack, before a nice screen pass [white below] from Sexton gives Ringrose time on the ball.

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It’s nice shape from Ireland in attack here to move the ball into space in the wide channel. Scotland are stretched in defence as Ringrose runs at centre Sam Johnson, leaving him in a three-on-two situation.

Johnson sticks on Ringrose rather than drifting out to Bundee Aki, leaving Ringrose with a decision to make with his pass.

Pass

It looks like he might attempt to throw the bridge pass over edge defender Maitland to Stockdale [white above] but his body language is cleverly disguising the shorter pass to Aki [red].

Aki receives the ball and bursts into the space for the break before drawing in Hogg and returning an inside pass to Ringrose, who swerves infield but is tackled by Hastings and Brown.

Ireland need to be composed now that they’ve cut the Scots but instead they get picked off. 

“I was probably too wide and flat off Conor,” said Sexton of the intercept post-match and it’s easy to see why.

Sexton

It’s a fairly straightforward decision for Johnson to target the ball here. Sexton is indeed flat and wide, so the ball is going to be in the air for some time on Murray’s pass.

There are no other players to the inside of Sexton either, meaning no other possible recipient of the pass. It’s only going one place and Johnson goes after it.

Pick

That’s not to say Murray and Ireland couldn’t have done better here. There isn’t much on down this shortside, in truth, with Scotland having scrambled well. 

Ireland have greater numbers stacked on the right and the real error here is a decision-making one again.

The intercept means Ireland have to scramble defensively once again, which they do superbly. 

The flow of the second half simply meant Ireland didn’t have chances to show much more of their attacking intent. Scotland conceded penalties to allow the home team down into their 22, but Ireland’s poor mauling performance meant they couldn’t convert some of those chances into tries.

On two other occasions, Ireland’s grinding play inside the Scotland 22 earned them penalties that they kicked for three points.

There was one other glimpse of Ireland’s ambition further out the field, however, and again it came as Ireland launched off a kick return.

Stockdale fields a Price box kick inside his own half and does very well to shake off the chasing Maitland’s tackle. 

Stock

Stockdale is tackled before Furlong makes a carry close to the ruck, and then we see Ireland’s ambition to shift the ball to the width.

Replacement scrum-half John Cooney screens van der Flier [red below] and hits Sexton…

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… Sexton then throws a second screen pass behind Stander to Aki…

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… and Aki moves the ball swiftly on to Larmour, a third pass from the ruck.

Ireland have Scotland’s defence really stretched.

As we can see below, it’s three-on-two situation out on the edge. Larmour has Robbie Henshaw [white] and Conway [red] to his outside, with Ireland having held their width again.

Width

Conway is in the kind of space every wing hopes for.

While Scotland do have backfield cover out of shot here, it’s also worth noting that both Cooney [white below] and Stander [red] are working across ahead of the ball to provide possible inside support for Henshaw and Conway.

Support

The ball needs to be moved again but Larmour [yellow above] decides to have a dart himself. He does make a couple of metres of gain for this phase but the opportunity is missed.

Two phases later, Ireland knock the ball on and two minutes later they’re back defending outside their own 22, conceding a penalty and three points.

Ireland’s loosening of the decision-making shackles and intent to play with more width was clear to see but their actual decision-making and execution were very poor at times.

Promising build-up play ultimately came to nothing in many instances, while some decisions got Ireland into real trouble.

There have been widespread calls for some years now for Ireland to show more ambition when in possession and while there does seem to be something of a response, they will need to be far more accurate when they look to play. 

They were several passages in this game where Ireland lost the collisions as Scotland dominated their ball-carriers, meaning Farrell’s men simply couldn’t show any ambition.

Attack flourishes on the back of a strong set-piece or ball-carrying platform and in those instances, Ireland often opted to kick. Box kicking when your attack is going nowhere makes sense but Murray mixed some good kicking with a couple of poor efforts. 

Later in the game, Ireland kicked in a bid to pressure the Scots – a common approach when a team is looking to maintain a lead.

All in all, Ireland supporters who have been crying out for more from Ireland in attack can be mildly encouraged by the intent, but it is fair to be critical of their execution and some of their decision-making.

“‘I thought there were some glimpses,” said Farrell when asked about Ireland’s attack.

“I thought we got too carried away at times. I thought some of the decision-making was good. Some of it was a bit wayward. Those types of things are going to be a work in progress.” 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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