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Analysis: How Ireland's defence adapted after harsh English lessons

Defence coach Andy Farrell would have been pleased to see his side concede only one try.

THE HOME DEFEAT to England on the opening weekend of the Six Nations was a tough pill for Ireland to swallow for many reasons.

Chief among them was a poor defensive performance that saw England score four tries – albeit one of those was an intercept as Ireland desperately searched for a way back into the game late on.

Andy Farrell with Gregor Townsend before the game Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell with Scotland's Gregor Townsend. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Against Scotland last weekend, defence coach Andy Farrell had cause to be far more satisfied.

Ireland did concede one try but that was also an intercept score, Finn Russell picking off a Joey Carbery pass to tee up Sam Johnson.

Otherwise, the Scots – such a threat in attack – were left frustrated. They might have hoped to enjoy similar success to England with their kicking game, but the return of Rob Kearney and a tweak to the Irish backfield defence limited those opportunities.

Scotland’s deficiencies – handling errors and lateral attack on occasions – were an important factor in this improved defensive display, but the pressure Ireland put on the hosts played into that.

There is still scope for improvement in Ireland’s defence but limiting the Scots to one try was a step in the right direction. 

14+1 to 13+2

As we discussed after Ireland’s defeat to the English, the kicking class from Eddie Jones’ team outsmarted Joe Schmidt’s team and took advantage of their backfield defence.

Ireland made a slight tweak against Scotland that largely prevented similar damage.

In the moment below against England, Ireland have both their wings high up the pitch – Jacob Stockdale is fully committed to the frontline wide on the left.

Scrum-half Conor Murray is also in the defensive frontline – rather than sweeping behind – and that leaves fullback Henshaw covering lots of space in the backfield.

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Henshaw is out of shot, so it may help to take an overview of the situation from above. 

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What we’re seeing here is, essentially, a ’14+1′ defensive system.

That means 14 defenders spending most of their time up in the frontline and only one – in this case Henshaw in the 15 shirt – constantly remaining in the backfield.

We can see that Earls [14] has dropped slightly off the frontline, without fully committing to the backfield.

Ireland’s wings, in this case, are expected to help out in the backfield, making reads as to whether they believe the opposition will kick or run – as in an earlier case like the one below.

Earls

In the example above, Owen Farrell launches a contestable kick [white] wide to Ireland’s left, with Earls [red] reading the England out-half’s body language early and dropping off the frontline to field it.

It’s been a demanding job for Ireland’s wings making these reads in recent times, as Earls explains:

“It’s become massive now as wingers. We’re trying to read body language, we’re trying to close hard [if the opposition attack with ball in hand], trying to stay back [if they kick]; it’s just all becoming a feel.

“It was getting to the stage where we were well able to read 10s, but I think 10s are starting to read us a lot better now and there’s no better man than him [Farrell].

“It’s not black and white anymore that I’m going to stay back, I’m a winger. We play high as a team so I’m going to stay up.”

So, in our example at hand below…

Earlss

… Earls is high and ready to shoot up if England attack with ball in hand on his wing, but he’s also giving himself some scope to turn and work back if he can identify an impending England kick into the backfield.

With lots of defenders in the frontline, Ireland have bodies in place to make tackles and they do so until England kick through Farrell [indicated in white below], with Earls [red] having shifted fully up into the frontline, worrying about the passing attack out to that touchline.

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Farrell’s perfectly-weighted grubber kick rolls close to the touchline without finding touch, and while Earls does turn to retreat, it means Henshaw [yellow below] now has to sprint backwards and across to retrieve the ball.

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As we discussed post-England, Henshaw gathers the ball in a relatively unfamiliar situation and misses touch, launching a passage that ends with him slicing his kick all the way over on the left touchline, in turn leading to Elliot Daly’s try for the English.

The shots above illustrate to us just how much ground fullback Henshaw has to potentially cover in the backfield if England do kick.

So, what changed against Scotland?

We can see a similar defensive position in the shot below, but Ireland’s defensive picture is different.

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This time, Ireland have 13 players in the frontline and two in the backfield, forming a ’13+2′ system.

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Stockdale [11] is sitting in the backfield with Kearney [15] in this instance, ensuring Ireland have greater coverage in the backfield.

With Murray [9] in the frontline, Ireland still have plenty of defenders on their feet to bring linespeed. 

With Scotland running out of ideas in their phase play, Peter O’Mahony makes an aggressive strip of the ball as he and Cian Healy combine in a tackle on Josh Strauss.

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This is a big success for the Ireland defence, with their backfield cover not leaving them open to a kick and the frontline still able to bring turnover-producing aggression.

That said, Ireland’s 13+2 set-up did leave them susceptible to the expected width of Scotland’s attack at times.

Below, we see Ireland set up with two players occupying the backfield again.

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Again, an overhead view of the scenario may help.

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This time, it’s scrum-half Murray [9] who is positioned in the backfield to provide Kearney [15] with additional cover behind the frontline.

Murray spent large portions of the game against Scotland in this kind of position, particularly after Ireland kicked. 

He has done that previously – even against England at times – but his backfield position was far more consistent in this game than a week previously.

Ireland’s relatively narrow frontline defence invites Scotland to attack wide on the right as they do in this case, shifting the ball all the way to Sam Johnson [12] on the touchline.

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That draws Kearney [yellow above] up from the backfield to ‘close the gate’ on the edge, and Johnson grubber kicks ahead. 

But Murray [blue below] has time to sweep across and gather the grubber kick.

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Murray beats Blair Kinghorn to buy his retreating team-mates more time, before Dave Kilcoyne makes a superb carry to provide the platform for Murray to box kick clear to touch.

Had Murray not been positioned in the backfield, this may have been a far trickier situation. That said, Murray being positioned in the frontline may have prevented Scotland from threatening along the right touchline in the first place – there is a balance in these things.

In general, Ireland got the balance right to prevent the Scottish attack doing great damage with their kicking game. 

There were, of course, times when Ireland had to scramble or weren’t able to get additional backfield coverage – turnovers being a prime example – but overall fullback Kearney’s life was made easier by Ireland’s tweaks to provide him with more support. 

Throughout the visit to Murrayfield, Ireland’s defensive alertness and ability to scramble was superior than had been the case against England.

Inside the 22

Scotland didn’t enjoy a great deal of possession inside the Ireland 22, with Simon Gleave of Gracenote Sports’ analysis showing just four entries, all of those coming in the first half.

Those four entries included the intercept try and an odd decision to attempt to catch Ireland off guard by tapping a penalty from five metres out.

Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan react superbly to Russell’s tap, hammering Strauss in a dominant double tackle.

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On the second phase, Scotland look to set-up an in-play maul – as they also did against Italy in round one – but the rabid linespeed of O’Mahony [red below] forces Ryan Wilson to lose the ball forward.

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Frustratingly for Scotland, O’Mahony should have been in the sin bin for deliberately killing the ball with the Scots moving forward, giving up the penalty that Russell tapped but surprisingly not even being warned by referee Romain Poite.

This was a major win for Ireland in defence, but the Scots did have one extended passage of attack in Ireland’s 22 just before the half-time break. 

Farrell’s defensive charges stood up superbly again.

Joey Carbery, who defended very well after replacing Johnny Sexton, begins the passage with a low tackle on Tommy Seymour directly from the five-metre scrum, Murray assisting.

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This close to the tryline, Ireland stack 14 into the frontline at all times, with Kearney hovering in behind at times and joining them at others [there being far less kick space to cover].

Sean O’Brien and Keith Earls combine for a particularly explosive hit on Josh Strauss on fifth phase, winning metres for Ireland.

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Ireland double tackle ferociously and also compete at the breakdown repeatedly, with nine different jackal attempts over the course of this 27-phase passage of defence.

O’Brien is the man to go on the hunt for the poach in the instance below.

Jackal

Scotland, to their credit, retain possession and eventually chisel out on opportunity wide on Ireland’s left-hand edge. 

Ireland’s defensive review may identify their failure to ‘fold’ around from the right side of the ruck on the phase before, leaving them slightly exposed on the left.

As Johnson releases a pass out the back to Russell, we can see that Carbery [white below] has worked beyond Johnson and is in position to cover across onto Russell.

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But Murray [blue] is keen to pressure the ball and commits in onto Russell too, leaving Ireland numbers down on the edge.

Russell skips a pass beyond Kinghorn to Huw Jones and it looks like a prime try-scoring chance for Scotland.

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Jones has Seymour on his right but Kearney manages to make life difficult for the Scotland centre.

Rather than sitting off Jones…

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… and hoping that Stockdale has enough pace to cover across onto Jones, Kearney is aggressive.

He instead turns back in and suddenly accelerates at Jones…

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… putting the Scotland centre’s passing skill under pressure.

Jones, having ever so slightly delayed his pass in the hope that Kearney would sit off, now delivers a pass without enough power in it.

Seymour has also overrun the pass, expecting it earlier, and now has to check to gather the ball…

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… giving Stockdale enough time to work across from the inside and make a superb try-saving tackle on Seymour.

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On the next phase, Scotland drop the ball, allowing O’Brien and Quinn Roux to flood onto it and earn a turnover for Ireland.

From being under intense pressure, Ireland get to the half-time break leading 12-10 and after landing a major psychological blow against Scotland by denying them here.

Clearly, the Scots will feel this was a blown opportunity and justifiably so. But the scramble from Ireland, Stockdale and Kearney in particular, deserves its share of the credit.

What looked a near-certain try was prevented by Kearney’s proactive defence and Stockdale’s last-gasp effort.

Over the preceding 26 phase, Ireland’s work-rate highlighted what was a much-improved defensive performance overall, the tally for tackle involvements [and jackal efforts] outlined below.

Tackle count in 27-phase passage of defence:

6 Jack Conan

6 James Ryan

5 Quinn Roux

Cian Healy

Sean O’Brien [2 jackals]

Bundee Aki [1 jackal]

Tadhg Furlong

Peter O’Mahony [4 jackals]

Rory Best [2 jackals]

Conor Murray

Keith Earls

Chris Farrell

Rob Kearney

Joey Carbery

Jacob Stockdale

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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