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Analysis: Ireland's defence stifles France but conceded try will rankle

We pick apart the choke tackling, kick-chasing, well-read defensive effort from Les Kiss’ men.

LES KISS IS perhaps the most influential member of the Ireland backroom staff aside from Joe Schmidt, given the team’s excellent defensive record.

Kiss predates the head coach as a key cog in the Ireland set-up, having first joined as defence coach under Declan Kidney in 2009, when he helped his new employers to a Grand Slam in which they conceded just three tries.

During last season’s Six Nations triumph, Ireland conceded the fewest points in the championship [49], as well as the fewest tries [four].

Peter O'Mahony and Mathieu Bastareaud Ireland managed the threat of Bastareaud well on Saturday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Kiss’ time in charge of the defence has also seen Ireland top the defensive charts in 2011, and aside from 2012 they’ve not been outside the top three Six Nations teams in terms of limiting opposition scoring.

If Ireland are to retain their title this year, the defence is obviously going to play an important part. In that regard, the early signs are positive, as Ireland have conceded the fewest points [14] and tries [1 - equal with France] over the opening two rounds of the championship.

The victory against France on Saturday involved a strong defensive effort, even if there was disappointment in conceding a try to les Bleus in the second half.

In this article, we examine some of the aspects of Ireland’s defensive strategy that helped them to overcome Philippe Saint-André’s side, as well as that conceded try.

Chokers

Perhaps Kiss’ greatest claim to worldwide rugby fame has been his introduction and perfection of the choke tackle, that moment when a tackle turns into a maul and the defensive team wins the put-in to the resulting scrum.

It’s commonplace across all levels of rugby now, but Ireland are still putting the technique to good use at the very peak of the game. It’s not something they look to do in every game, but when they do use the choke tackle, it’s effective more often than not.

The most memorable choke tackle on Saturday came after just eight minutes when the much-anticipated and somewhat-feared collision between Johnny Sexton and Mathieu Bastareaud came to pass.

Source: RBS 6 Nations/YouTube

In the build-up to the game, we had highlighted the perceived need for Ireland to tackle France’s 120kg centre low around the knees or ankles, but Kiss’ charges actually looked to take Bastareaud higher up the body.

Sexton has always had a high tackle focus and despite the words of caution from both Schmidt and Racing Métro coach Laurent Labit, it appears that is never going to change, regardless of his recent issues with concussion.

The 29-year-old relishes going in high and planting a shoulder into ball carriers, either looking to strip the ball or initiate the choke tackle.

That’s exactly what happens on France’s first real attack of the game, Sexton getting a right shoulder on Bastareaud, riding the Toulon man’s power, then wrapping in on the ball as Tommy Bowe, Robbie Henshaw and Sean O’Brien hammer into the contest.

This was far from an isolated incident, as Ireland repeatedly looked to carry out choke tackles on the French.

Source: RBS Six Nations

The incident above comes in the 26th minute as France again look to build a threatening attack, having been starved of opportunities to do so by Ireland’s clever retention of possession and strong kicking game.

France again send Bastareaud hurtling at Sexton on first phase off the lineout, where the out-half, Henshaw and O’Brien almost carry out another choke tackle turnover. ‘Basta’ fights his way to the ground, but Ireland are waiting on the very next phase.

This time it’s Rory Best and Devin Toner who hold the carrier [Eddy Ben Arous] up in the tackle, Jack McGrath also arriving in to lend his strength. Best eventually manages to overpower Ben Arous’ grip and strip the ball away for an important turnover.

In the second half, we get a very similar example and again at an important time of the game.

Source: RBS Six Nations

Peter O’Mahony’s strip of Rémi Lamerat in the instance above comes in the 53rd minute, and with Ireland 15-6 ahead. France have gone through 12 threatening phases of attack, meaning the Irish defenders are fatigued.

Still, O’Mahony comes up with a moment of power to rip the ball loose of Lamerat’s grip, Jamie Heaslip having done the work in forming the maul and taking a damaging knee to the back for his troubles.

Sapping the attacking team of these chances to build scores is naturally of huge importance and the choke tackle gives Ireland have a ready-made tool for doing so. England showed quality in this area against Wales in round one, meaning we could witness a fascinating battle of the chokers in Dublin on 1 March.

Limiting le jouez

The closing 25 minutes or so of Saturday’s game were notable for the resurgence of the French attack, as they scored a try through Romain Taofifenua and looked dangerous on a handful of other occasions.

Critics have pointed to Morgan Parra’s introduction as key, as well as asking why France didn’t play in this manner from the very start of the game. Those are fair points, but possibly don’t take into account how Ireland’s defensive strategy limited the opportunities for les Bleus.

It’s often highlighted that France are brilliant in unstructured situations, when their jouez mentality of taking risks, offloading and beating defenders one-on-one comes to the fore.

That remains a reality, so part of the Ireland game plan was to ensure France simply didn’t have many of those situations to play off.

One aspect of the game that can often give rise to unstructured scenarios is kicking, with France so dangerous at running ball back after receiving, picking out chinks in the chasing line and then thriving from that initial break or half break.

Source: RBS Six Nations

We get a particularly strong example of Ireland ensuring that doesn’t happen in the clip above, as Conor Murray unleashes a typically strong box kick and Rob Kearney smashes Scott Spedding as he lands from the reception.

Of crucial importance is the secondary chase from Ireland, featuring Toner and Best on this occasion. That tight-five pair work extremely hard to be on the scene after Kearney tackles, ensuring a turnover threat and luring Damien Chouly to seal the ball off for an Ireland penalty.

That work rate from Best and Toner was shared across the Ireland team on Saturday, ensuring that even when Ireland’s defensive tactics did not come off perfectly, they could cope and cover.

Source: RBS Six Nations

The hunger is evident again in the video above, as Johnny Sexton exits through the boot and again Ireland ensure France have little opportunity to break out and use those wonderful counter-attacking skills.

Kearney again leads the chase, tackling Camille Lopez, but the out-half slips away an offload and there’s an immediate sense of danger for Ireland. However, the secondary line is as organised as it possibly could be.

Chase Hounding .1

That organisation also means Robbie Henshaw [circled above] is free to make a read on the pass and shoot up to close off the wide option for Wesley Fofana. Without his teammates having worked hard to get be on either side of him, Henshaw would probably not have been in a position to hammer up and scrag his opposite number.

Instead of having to deal with a threatening France counter attack, Ireland’s superb chase means they’ve have exited their half perfectly and made it stick, something they did throughout the encounter at the Aviva Stadium.

Source: RBS Six Nations

The final clip above is slightly different in that Ireland kick from closer to the halfway line, but the premise is the same.

Schmidt and Kiss’ men worked extremely hard to compete post-kick against the French, either regaining possession or at the very least ensuring France had limited chances to enter that feared jouez attacking mode.

Restarts

While we’re on the topic of working hard following accurate kicks, it’s worth highlighting Ireland’s success with restarts on Saturday.

Here at The42, we’re big fans of kicking contestable restarts and Ireland’s strategy provided an illustration of exactly why.

Source: RBS Six Nations

Having allowed France to equalise at 3-3, we saw the first example of Ireland’s desire to compete on their restarts as Bowe won the ball over the head of Chouly.

A couple of phases later, France failed to roll away at the ruck and Ireland were able to go 6-3 ahead. Just reward for an excellent restart effort, and the kick itself from Sexton is worthy of highlighting.

This restart to the right touchline area is a highly demanding skill, but the Ireland out-half manages to get an incredible amount of hang time on his kick to allow the aerially strong Bowe time to get underneath the ball.

Restart 6-3 .1

Again, Ireland’s follow up behind that primary chaser is strong and Henshaw reels in Bowe’s tap down to drive Schmidt’s men immediately onto the front foot in attack.

Heading towards half time, Ireland used almost the exact same tactic to eventually bring about another crucial three points from the tee.

Source: RBS Six Nations

The kick from Sexton seems to spend even longer in the air this time, allowing Bowe and Jared Payne more than enough time to chase up and drive Chouly out over the touchline. From the resulting lineout, Ireland draw another penalty and go 12-6 ahead.

There’s more than the kick and chase involved, but these are essentially points-scoringly good restarts from Sexton and his backs, clearly targeting what Schmidt and Kiss had identified as a French weakness.

Chouly maintained his position wide and close to the 10-metre line on France’s left-hand side for every restart, and Ireland looked to use Bowe’s strength in the air over the number eight.

Source: RBS Six Nations

Even the very first kick of the second half was targeted at Chouly, and again Ireland’s execution was superb.

Bowe wins the battle in the air, Payne shows rapid reflexes to reel the ball in and away go Ireland on the attack, immediately and unexpectedly asking the French defence to organise.

Individuals make the collective

Defence is very much a collective duty that is all about the willingness to work hard for one’s teammates. We’ve written about that aspect of not having the ball before, pointing out that teams with strong underlying cultures are very often good defenders.

Ireland appear to have that collective strength and desire to work hard, but it’s worth pointing out that the individuals who make up the group are, in the large part, strong defenders themselves.

There is intelligence and an understanding of how defence works among the Irish group, although one could argue that it’s Kiss’ tutelage that has helped them to grow those attributes.

Either way, it’s a positive for Ireland to have a growing number of players who make good reads, work hard off the ball and relish the contact.

Source: RBS Six Nations

Scrum-half Murray is one such player, although the example above does not illustrate the Munster man’s appetite for collisions. Instead, we can point to his reading of the game, that ability to perceive what will happen before it actually happens.

Murray is tasked with defending the short channel close to the touchline at the lineout, but he’s not happy just to sit in there and wait for someone to come running at him.

Murray Defender .1

As highlighted above, Murray is scanning the opposition for any cues he can spot that might allow him to read their intentions.

The play France have called here is for Lopez to dink the ball back into the right, behind Ireland’s lineout and with right wing Huget sprinting onto the ball.

Murray Defender .2

Murray, however, reads Huget’s early line back towards the lineout and immediately drops back to cover the space. As it happens, Simon Zebo has made the same read and is in position to gather the kick too.

Still, this brief moment underlines Murray’s ever-growing comfort as a defender, while his ability to win the contact even against forwards adds hugely to Ireland’s defence.

Paul O’Connell is another canny defender, a proponent of the chop tackle and a man with an inspirational work rate off the ball. Around the set-piece, he possesses an equally sharp defensive mind and we saw a glimpse of that on Saturday.

Source: RBS Six Nations

On Saturday morning, we highlighted the need for Ireland to negate the threat of France’s powerful maul and O’Connell’s pack did exactly that on the one occasion les Bleus had a promising mauling position.

The complete stand-off from the maul, which Ireland used so effectively against South Africa in November made a reappearance, and though the refusal to engage has its critics, it’s intelligent defensive play.

O’Connell is behind many of Ireland’s tactics and ideas at the lineout, along with forwards coach Simon Easterby, and his ongoing presence is encouraging as Ireland prepare for the visit of set-piece specialists England.

Finally, a word for the outside backs. Bowe has been making strong reads in wide channels for some time, his intercept try against Australia back in November a notable example.

Source: RBS Six Nations

Over on the left wing, Zebo has been defending superbly in the last number of months, standing out in this area in November and bringing that form into the Six Nations.

Schmidt and Kiss have tasked Zebo with improving his reads since the Cork man first came into their Ireland set-up and he has certainly done as much. In the clip above, we see him making a good decision to stay tight on Spedding and help force the knock-on.

No tries

Balancing the defensive positives for Ireland last weekend, there was a conceded try that will rankle with Kiss as much as any score against his team does. The players will be equally keen to learn from the concession, even if they were playing with 14 men at the time.

Source: RBS 6 Nations/YouTube

Best’s absence meant Ireland were likely to be stretched in defence, but Kiss and the playing group will have looked back at Romain Taofifenua’s try during camp in Galway this week for those all-important ‘work-ons’.

Conceding zero tries is perhaps an unrealistic prospect, but it will always be the target for Ireland under Schmidt.

Despite all the positives of the exiting and chasing game for the preceding 70 minutes of the game, this try stems from a failure of those elements of Ireland’s game.

On Feet

One of the things Ireland largely did well in setting up their exits was not rushing the kick. When they needed to, Schmidt’s men played two, three, even four phases in their own defensive zone before kicking the ball out.

The intention in doing so is to find a position of strength from which to kick, and also to ensure that there are multiple chasing players on their feet when the kick is actually released.

As we can see in the image above, Ireland really don’t have any of their forwards in viable chasing positions, having mauled the ball rather unsuccessfully.

Certainly, the entire backline are in positions to chase, but that crucial secondary line is going to find it very difficult to get into strong positions should the primary chasers miss the tackle, or in folding on the second phase.

Phase Two

That much is immediately evident as France shift the ball away to Ireland’s right after a rapid first ruck. Ireland’s forwards simply aren’t in position to fold around the corner, O’Connell the only one who makes it to the right-hand side of the ruck.

A brief mix up between himself and Henshaw over who is the pillar [defender on the immediate edge of the ruck] also means both players are kept tight for an extra split second and reduces Ireland’s ability to drift hard.

That leaves France with a fine opportunity to take the contact wide on the left on their own terms, and Fofana gets them onto the front foot immediately.

Debaty

That same front foot allows the 122kg power of Vincent Debaty to run onto the ball and hammer into Ireland’s defence, winning another gainline despite the firm low tackle of Henshaw.

With no breakdown competition from Ireland, Taofifenua can scoop the ball up and offload to Benjamin Kayser for more progress. Replacement back row Jordi Murphy then does well to slow the French possession by competing at the next ruck, providing Ireland a chance to restructure.

Unfortunately, there’s a mental or physical switch-off from the Irish defence to leave them numbers down on the left-hand side of their D.

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 15.54.43

Despite France’s ruck being five or six seconds long, none of Ireland’s six defenders on the right of the ruck fold across to lend bodies on the left-hand side, where France are clearly stacked in attack.

Indeed, there is just one French attacker on the right of the ruck for Ireland to mark up on, meaning the presence of six defenders is absolutely unnecessary.

Some of these players on the right have already been through a maul and covered around 100 metres or so due to the kick and subsequent loss of yardage, but a five-second ruck still gives at least two of them time to get around the corner and ensure Ireland are well set defensively.

The failure to do so, despite having completed almost the full 10 minutes of Best’s sin-binning and put in massive amounts of energy to restrict the French from scoring in that time, will rankle with Kiss, Schmidt and his players.

Even with that deficit of bodies, Ireland might look at ways they could have prevented another big gain wide on their left.

In to Out

It’s not a situation any defence wants to be in, and France do superbly to exploit it, but Ireland might reflect that they could have done more to limit the damage.

The system goes out the window here, and Cian Healy does well to burst from the pillar position to get out towards first receiver Lopez, but then the inside pass threat of Yoann Maestri makes him just sit back on his heels.

In turn, that means Sean Cronin is tied down on Lopez and the ripple effect means Peter O’Mahony is dragged inwards and Sexton is similarly forced to turn in and cover big Uini Atonio.

If Healy had been able to confidently move onto Lopez [did he get a call from inside to allow him to?], Cronin might have been freed to target Atonio or the hovering Bernard Le Roux, in turn meaning O’Mahony and Sexton could potentially have concerned themselves with the wide threat.

Just to underline, it’s a massively testing defensive situation played out in the heat of an international Test match and with a huge amount of fatigue in the players’ bodies and minds after almost 10 minutes reduced to 14 men.

With Ireland now scrambling, France can get two offloads away before the next ruck, which again provides a limited window for Ireland to organise themselves.

Signals

Healy and Marty Moore do their best to slow the ball down but Yoann Huget and Atonio carry out their rucking duties well, and Ireland realise the depth of trouble they find themselves in.

Above, we can see Sexton and Bowe signalling that Ireland need to get across and cover the right-hand side of the ruck, with both making moves in that direction. It’s too late at this stage, however, and one wonders if even one of those six defenders on the left [including the sweeping Conor Murray] could have made it across.

The fatigue has only built further, making it a huge ask.

Basta

France produce another intelligent attacking play to hammer the final nail in Ireland’s tryline coffin, running Bastareaud on a hard decoy line back towards the ruck, luring O’Connell and Kearney back inwards and away from the block of players behind the centre.

That leaves Payne in no man’s land, then forces Henshaw to bite in desperately in search of a man-and-ball hit to halt the attack.

Henshaw

Debaty shows excellent skills to catch, fix Henshaw for good and then pass to the thundering Taofifenua on the left. Straining to cover across, Kearney is never going to win that collision with the lock, instead looking to target the ball with his right hand.

The 130kg second row has more than enough strength and momentum to hold off the final challenge and bounce in for the score with a man outside to spare.

Lethal attack against a tired 14-man defence, but Kiss will have pointed out the errors in Ireland’s defence. There are always work-ons for this ambitious group.

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Murray Kinsella

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