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Analysis: Ireland's defence holds up in brutal battle against Wales

We pick apart the defensive performance from Joe Schmidt’s men in Dublin yesterday.

WE’RE GOING TO hear plenty more about the physical toll of Ireland’s draw with Wales in the coming days, but the focus is entirely justified.

Yesterday’s Six Nations match in Dublin saw a huge amount of ball-in-play time, which obviously means greater demands on the players’ bodies and, therefore, a longer recuperation period for many of them.

Wales’s George North and Jonathan Sexton The collisions were huge in Dublin yesterday. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

In total, Ireland’s meeting with the the Welsh saw a ball-in-play time of 42:51, which is extremely high.

To put it in context, the highest ball-in-play time at last year’s World Cup was 45:21, when South Africa met the Welsh in the quarter-finals. The second-highest total in that competition was 41:55 and also involved Warren Gatland’s men, this time when they played Fiji in the pool stages.

It’s no accident or coincidence that the Welsh are involved in many games where the ball is in play for a long time; rather it is often part of Gatland’s attacking strategy.

Wales have deep-rooted confidence that their fitness and conditioning is better than anyone else’s and they often look to ensure the ball stays in play and that the opposition is forced to defend for long passages.

Yesterday, that meant Ireland had to make an enormous amount of tackles as Gatland’s men remained steadfast in their belief that Ireland would crack.

Joe Schmidt’s side, currently minus a full-time defence coach, had to make 170 tackles yesterday, which is 22 more than they had previously ever made in a Six Nations fixture under the Kiwi.

General View tackle Keith Earls smashes Tom James in the second half. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Ireland were certainly stretched by the Welsh attack at times, particularly in the wide channels, but overall there will be pleasure taken from the fact that Gatland’s side failed to manufacture a single clean linebreak against the Irish defence in Dublin.

Schmidt’s side did concede a try from a close-range scrum, something that will have been reviewed in detail already, but that was perhaps more of a set-piece issue than a defensive problem.

Regardless of the relatively positive return – a contrast to the dark defensive day against Argentina at the World Cup – Ireland will certainly be aware that France will look to test their wide channels again next weekend.

Early scare

The vast majority of teams Ireland have faced in recent times have looked to those outside edges as a weakness. It’s something that has been analysed across the board, and we saw how Argentina dismantled Ireland in the opening quarter at the World Cup by focusing there.

Even in the Italy pool game at the World Cup, there were several examples of the Italians having targeted that area. Therefore it came as no surprise to see Wales go to width early in yesterday’s game.

Fortunately for Ireland, they made a poor decision when they got there the first time.

The above action comes immediately after a big aerial win for Dan Biggar over Simon Zebo from Biggar’s own garryowen, something that Ireland knew was coming their way but were spared more of by the Welsh out-half’s early injury.

Losing a ball in the air often means disorganisation in defence, as players retreat from in front of the ball and then look to set themselves, and Ireland are very nearly caught out here.

There is narrowness in Ireland’s defence, as well as a front row forward on the outside edge. Only a poor decision from George North prevents what quite possibly should have been a sixth-minute try for the Welsh.

McGrath Fold

At the very beginning of the phase, we see Jack McGrath folding from Ireland’s left-hand side of the ruck to over to the right. Many defensive systems in this situation would call for McGrath to join that right-hand side on the inside shoulder of the ‘A’ defender, in this case Tommy O’Donnell [scrum cap above].

That in turn allows O’Donnell to shuffle out the line, even just one lateral step, therefore prompting everyone else in that defensive line to do the same and increasing the line’s width.

Other teams ask folding players to push the ‘B’ defender [Jamie Heaslip here] but the point is that McGrath needs to give himself a realistic chance of getting into the frontline to add a body and allow Ireland greater width.

McGrath Fold.1

Whatever Ireland’s defensive system is, it most likely doesn’t call for McGrath to be in the position above as play begins to unfold. Essentially, he’s out of the game behind that frontline and is unable to add anything in the shape of linespeed or width for Ireland.

The scramble situation created by Biggar’s aerial win does make it difficult to organise, but Ireland might look for possibilities to fold more ideally as they moved forward.

Two pass - Six Defenders

Ireland’s narrowness here means that two simple passes – Alun Wyn Jones deserves credit for throwing the second – remove seven defenders from the game in a flash.

We must look at the outside edge of Ireland’s defensive line in this instance too. One of the issues for Schmidt’s side against Argentina at the World Cup was that front row forwards got caught out towards the edge of the defensive frontline.

As a general rule, teams want their least agile, slowest defenders closer in to the ruck, with those possessing the sharpest footwork and pace on the edges.

CJ:Besty?

Ireland have a bank of forwards in the frontline here, but even a switch between CJ Stander [red above] and Rory Best [yellow] would leave them a little better set up. Again, the Biggar take in the air makes it demanding to react and organise swiftly, but it’s a simple manoeuvre to get a more agile defender further out the line and vice versa.

Even if that had occurred, Ireland would have remained in a poor defensive situation. When the ball arrives in North’s hands, it looks bleak for Ireland.

North Decision

If North can fix Best even in the slightest, he has Jonathan Davies outside him to fix Andrew Trimble and free Tom James along the touchline. Taulupe Faletau is trailing in from behind to add an extra attacking body, and Ireland have no sweeper in behind.

Post-match, Schmidt stated that teams “can get away with” being narrow against the Welsh, and this is perhaps what he means. If North does the simple thing well here, Ireland are a try down after just six minutes of play.

North Decision.1

Instead of fixing and passing, or even just passing early and trusting that Best won’t have the pace to cover across, North tucks the ball into his right hand and backs himself. While the Northampton wing does make yards with the ball, Davies’ exasperation at not receiving the pass is clear in the image above.

A genuine let off for Ireland.

Try-saving wings

Wales continued to look to the edges when they got into good attacking positions, with the below example occurring within the same passage of possession as the one above.

This game certainly did not see the Welsh depart from their more traditionally direct tactics but, as with this fixture last year in Cardiff, they looked to the width in the latter stages of multi-phase attacks, especially in the first half.

Here, they use their depth – which has always been a feature of this team – to ensure that they have a chance to shift the ball to fullback Liam Williams.

Welsh Depth

Ireland are as aware as ever of that Welsh depth and look to counter it by getting up hard off the defensive line. That does, however, leave Keith Earls [red circle below] relatively exposed on the edge as he shoots up to prevent a short pass from Davies to North.

Earls Shooter

Instead, Davies floats the pass over Earls’ head to Williams and the instant impression is that Ireland are under major stress. There is absolutely an element of that, and no team likes to be stretched to this extent, but Ireland react well.

They have a solid safety net in place, with fullback Simon Zebo [yellow circle above] pushing up towards the line wide on the left and Conor Murray [red arrow] sweeping across in behind to cover too.

Rather than Murray having to hammer up into the line to make a try-saving hit, Earls reacts wonderfully well, one act in what was an excellent defensive performance from him overall yesterday.

Earls Under Fend

His good footwork and burst of acceleration allows him to turn swiftly, and he works hard to get back and halt Williams, with Zebo assisting the tackle. Earls does particularly well to get in low and firm under Williams’ fend attempt to help prevent the score.

The rearguard emergency is not over for Ireland, however, as the Welsh very nearly score again just two phases later, this time denied only by a magnificent Andrew Trimble hit.

Again, Ireland’s lack of width is alarming but there are balancing circumstances. The phase above begins with Ireland targeting a turnover that they feel is very much on, meaning they flood three bodies towards the ball in an attempt to steal it.

However, the Welsh perform wonders to retain possession and we can see below how Johnny Sexton understands that Ireland are now going to be short bodies in the line, as he indicates to Murray to fold around to the right side of the ruck.

Commit Ruck, Sexton Knows

It’s just too late for Murray to get up and allow Ireland’s defenders to shuffle out to greater width, and the Welsh move the ball wide behind one of their characteristic screens, with Jamie Roberts throwing a long pass to Luke Charteris.

The misfortune for Wales is that it is second row Charteris in that position, the lock being one of the weaker handling players in the team.

Charteris Catch:Pass

On this occasion, the need to draw and then pass is even less. If Charteris can get the ball across his body to Alun Wyn Jones within a step then the try looks very much on. However, the Racing 92 man takes two steps before passing, opening the window for Trimble to make his marvellous hit, utterly closing the door on the try as he does so.

The Ulsterman has always been excellent in these situations, proactive and aggressive. Rather than sitting off and drifting back away from Jones, Trimble gets into his face to make the spot tackle.

Trimble Right Arm Up

There is intelligence in the way he leads up with his right arm high, looking to block any potential pass in the process of making his hit.

Ireland’s wings only grew from these first involvements, as they largely made good reads in defence and followed through with aggressive contact.

Again, the above is almost trademark Trimble as he hammers into the hit with a firm left shoulder and then looks for the choke tackle turnover. His footwork before the contact is sharp, after he initially looks as if he wants to hammer all the way in on the Welsh midfield, re-reads the situation and adjusts.

The above clip also demonstrates the connection between Ireland’s first-choice centre pairing in defence.

Centres Connected, Post-Set Piece

They move well as a unit here, appearing to be almost in sync with their stride and certainly working hard to hunt across from the inside.

Trimby Hits, Centres There

Though it’s Trimble who initiates the contact, both midfielders are in around the tackle zone too, a common feature of their play. Indeed, these early phases off set-piece – when Ireland naturally have their backline in one piece – are rarely worrying for Schmidt’s side due to the strong work of Henshaw and Payne.

Roberts and Davies had excellent games and made some big yardage and huge hits, but the Irish pair were more than capable of standing up in that battle. All in all, it was wonderful midfield contest.

Over on the other edge, Earls remained equally as alert to danger in the wide channels for Ireland, as demonstrated below.

Again, Wales want that wide space but Earls gets up ahead of the line to shut down the passing option for Justin Tipuric, forcing him to duck back inside.

Ireland begin the phase with an extremely solid back of defenders off the ruck in the frontline. Earls is a step or two deeper in case of a kick, but also with license to shoot up and shut down a passing option. In behind, Trimble has filled the sweeping role.

Solid Bank, Go Around Us

Ireland are showing Wales a really solid wall of defenders, while also showing them outside space, asking them to take the risk by passing out there and having a go. It can be risky at times, but Ireland grew in defensive confidence greatly as this game progressed.

On this occasion, Earls’ forward movement on the edge was enough for Wales to rethink their search for width.

Building belief

Despite the gilt-edged opportunities, Wales failed to come away from their opening two visits to the Ireland 22 with any points. Ireland did appear to build belief from that fact, exemplified by an increased willingness to target the ball post-tackle.

The above turnover penalty comes on the third Welsh visit into the green zone and it’s another mental blow for the visitors early in the game.

Nathan White is the man to bring Faletau to ground and Henshaw immediately senses his opportunity. He does well not to become a genuine assist tackler by wrapping Faletau up, instead just sliding his hands over and beyond the tackle to show referee Jérôme Garcès that he has a clear release.

Clear Release, Whitey low

As he clamps onto the ball, Henshaw is clever in how he positions his body weight, kneeling much of it into Faletau and White on the ground.

Henshaw Kneels On Bodies

That allows Henshaw to stay in the fight for long enough to draw the penalty from Garcès for Faletau’s failure to release. Technically, Henshaw must be in full support of his own body weight of course, but at high speed in a Test match on one viewing, the picture looks good to the referee and the penalty comes.

Along with an increased effort at the breakdown, Ireland began to act more intelligently on that outside edge of their defence in phase play too, as we see below.

Stander and Best are the two outside defenders, as with the earlier example, but this time they do swap roles just before the phase of attack begins.

Swapping

That simple shift inside by Best means Stander can use his greater pace to laterally cover the big space outside the edge of Ireland’s frontline. They do give up lots of ground but that’s certainly a better-case scenario that Best being beaten by Davies in a one-on-one duel.

Stander gets Davies’ excellent fend into the face, but does well to slip down onto his right leg as Sexton assists in the tackle.

Transition

Defence is never just about preventing the other team from scoring. The best teams view defence as an attacking weapon, an opportunity to win the ball back and strike when the opposition is at their least organised.

In that regard, we saw some encouraging signs from Ireland on turnover possession. Early in the game, they swept out of their 22 after McGrath expertly forced the ball out of Gareth Davies’ hands.

Instantly, Ireland switch into an attacking mindset. Wales are ragged, with no defensive structure and opportunity beckons. Devin Toner lurches upfield and we see a beautifully aggressive clearout from Best on Roberts.

Best

Best is aware that his backs can do damage here with quick ball and he blasts Roberts to deck, removing a defender from play.

The Irish backs are all turned on to the chance and we see the ball shifted wide, with some particularly intelligent play from Sexton almost allowing further progress. As ever, the Ireland out-half stays alive after his own pass.

Sexton

Sexton is ahead of the ball as Zebo accepts the pass from Henshaw, scanning upfield to assess what lies ahead and already thinking of his second touch in this phase of play. He works hard to get to Zebo’s inside shoulder, but the offload doesn’t come.

Offload?

It’s brilliant defensive work from Faletau, who was as strong as ever for the Welsh, to bring Zebo to ground, before his teammates work back and manage to disrupt the Ireland possession.

Nonetheless, it’s positive to see Ireland function with this mindset of turning a defensive turnover into a try-scoring chance.

Indeed, Ireland’s only try of the game stemmed back to their ability to transition well, as Tommy O’Donnell pounced on a Welsh error and Sexton followed up strongly.

The collective reaction from Ireland to the turnover stands out here, as they break upfield on the chase after O’Donnell hacks the loose ball forward.

Ireland Working Harder

Directly after 17 phases of that energy-sapping Wales attack, it’s a strong effort from Ireland to pressure the ball immediately and Sexton’s work-rate is especially impressive as he wraps Davies up and drags him further into the Welsh half.

Sexton WR

The turnover is completed by Sexton as the contest goes to ground and Ireland pounce again. Four swift phases later, Henshaw fires a kick deep behind the Welsh line to find touch in the left corner to ensure an 80-metre gain for Ireland in the space of 35 seconds.

Toner follows that good work up with a strong block of Davies’ attempted clearing kick after the ensuing lineout.

That intervention from the lock, having pushed Best out of the ‘A’ position close to the ruck, was vital as it promoted a panicked clearance to touch from Rhys Priestland only moments after his spill up in the Ireland 22.

Ireland very nearly scored from that attacking lineout, and then did so from the very next scrum after Stander was held up over the tryline.

Conceding

Ireland did, of course, concede one try to the Welsh, although it came directly from a set-piece. We will look at the Irish scrummaging effort in a separate piece this week, but the issues in that department certainly contributed heavily to conceding.

Ireland might reflect briefly on the circumstances that provided Wales with their five-metre scrum, even if they were rather difficult.

The sheer quality of Davies’ grubber is perhaps the most important thing of all here, as he forces the ball beyond Trimble and right down towards the Irish tryline with a classy touch.

Tipuric’s chase is hungry, while Trimble appears to be moving relatively slow. The Ireland wing is highly fatigued here, after covering quite some distance during this passage of play, which comes after a hugely taxing opening 33 minutes.

On the 32:43 mark, the Ulster wing sprints 60 metres upfield chasing a Sexton bomb, then works back into the Ireland defensive line wide on the left on the Welsh 10-metre line by the 32:57 mark. By 33:21, he has returned to that deep position wide on the right but is understandably struggling as Davies kicks behind him.

The accumulative fatigue makes it difficult for Trimble to get out of the trouble he finds himself in, while Zebo is not a genuine option to pass to after he has worked across from covering space wide on the left. Wales win the scrum and fire up their power.

Three scrum penalties later, the Welsh drive off to the left, taking openside O’Donnell with them as he looks to aid the Irish scrum resistance. The ball squirts out to Faletau’s right and he reacts before O’Donnell can.

The movement of the scrum across to the left leaves a big gap between O’Donnell and Sexton, allowing Faletau to scoop the ball and burst into the space.

Try.1

Sexton looks to slow him as O’Donnell reacts but it’s too little too late for Ireland, even if it takes a dexterous finish from Faletau to seal the deal. O’Donnell might feel he could have reacted earlier, but the nature of the scrum – and the need for Ireland to deal with the set-piece first – complicates the matter.

Similarly, number eight Heaslip has no hope of providing cover or assistance in the tackle with his head buried in the struggling scrum, one of the areas of concern for Ireland ahead of the trip to Paris.

Fronting up, looking for reward

The Welsh enjoyed a 55% share of possession in the second half yesterday and shifted to a more direct approach with the apparent aim of fatiguing Ireland even further through contact.

The pace slightly dissipated from the game as Gatland’s men felt the pace too, however, and Ireland defended well for long periods.

The above passage comes during a 13-phase defensive effort from Ireland that ended with a poor Priestland drop goal attempt, and highlights one of the periods where Ireland felt they should have had more reward from Garcès.

Stander is the first man to have a bite at the turnover, but the French referee is not convinced.

CJ Phase 10

Many referees will view the above position as evidence of the attacking team holding on, but Garcès was unmoved. In reality, Stander has his hands on the ground ahead of the ball before he clamps directly onto it, supporting his body weight, so Garcès is justified in not rewarding him, though Ireland clearly disagree.

On the very next phase, Heaslip feels he has done enough to draw the whistle, but again Garcès is unswayed.

Heaslip Phase 11

It’s borderline again, as Heaslip gets his hands on the ball at almost exactly the same time as Charteris makes contact with him. Garcès views it as a ruck and does not reward Heaslip for having his hands on the ball.

Nonetheless, it’s a sign of the Irish resistance and fight in defence, with Earls producing a shuddering hit on James on the very next phase. Discouraged by that aggression, Wales opt for an unsuccessful  37-metre drop goal attempt two phases later.

A small victory for Schmidt’s men.

There were glimpses of narrowness from Ireland’s defence again in the second half – most notably when Scott Baldwin knocked on with numbers outside him [though Murray was sweeping well] – but the game was largely fought in those narrow channels as the final quarter arrived.

The standout passage of Ireland defence was the 28-phase effort that ended with a turnover and then, cruelly, a swift penalty against the home team after a brilliant piece of rucking by Sam Warburton.

The clip above shows some of the standout moments in that passage, beginning with the muscular opening thrusts from Wales off the lineout as they sent the mountainous North and Roberts hammering into Ireland’s defence.

Having made those first 20 metres or so with seeming ease, Ireland’s defence clicked into life as the phase count rose. The next portion of the clip shows Heaslip working hard to make a second impact on phase six of the defensive stand.

Heaslip WR

The number eight is the tackle assist as Henshaw goes low on Roberts, whose power leaves Heaslip in the position above. Rather than accept his contribution as complete, the easy option, Heaslip works back to his feet to counter ruck.

Heaslip WR.1

Heaslip manages to slow the ruck, in turn allowing his teammates to re-set the defensive line, while also drawing in Welsh bodies to leave them with fewer numbers in their attacking set-up on the next phase.

The next portion of the clip at the top of this section shows replacements Donnacha Ryan and Tadhg Furlong hammering into a tackle on phase 19, with the Welsh have eked out more yardage.

DR and TF Hit

This is about pure contact as Tomas Francis arrives around the corner to carry far too high, with Ryan and Furlong punishing him to eat back some of the lost ground. In circumstances like this, in a game of this nature, the bench is key and the impact here is vital.

A phase later, Sexton typically goes after the choke tackle turnover.

Choke

Replacement back row Rhys Ruddock rows in behind him, but the initial upper body strength from Sexton is notable as he drags Davies up away from the ground. The Welsh centre does manage to get his knee and leg to deck, however, meaning a ruck is created by a complete tackle.

Sexton is livid at not getting the maul call from Garcès, but even still it’s a valuable act in utterly slowing the pace of the Welsh attack and handing momentum further back towards Ireland.

As we see in the final portion of the clip above, Heaslip is the man to get hands to the ball for what appears to be the ultimate relieving turnover, but Wales don’t give it up as a lost cause.

Warburton Pen

After Ireland’s defensive excellence, there is some superb play from the Welsh captain Warburton, who drives right through Toner, the guard, and takes McGrath with him, creating another turnover situation and leaving McGrath unable to roll away.

Agony for Ireland after their huge effort, but typical of this immensely hard-fought battle.

Closing act

Sexton dragged himself through a heavy clatter to the back of the neck while tackling North to level the game for Ireland soon after, but there was still time left for the Welsh to come at Ireland.

Schmidt’s men were up to the task again.

Continuing the theme of defensive impact from the bench, Sean Cronin powered into the above hit on Roberts – with Ruddock providing support – to quieten the brilliant centre’s big influence on proceedings.

Payne was heavily present in the closing passages too, first drifting hard across the pitch to initiate a choke tackle turnover wide on the left aided by Trimble.

He then forced the above knock-on to end Wales’ final attempt to burst into the Ireland half, having worked hard once again to get across the pitch to the tackle zone.

Backing it up

Given the aforementioned and to-be-oft-repeated physical toll Ireland suffered in yesterday’s clash in Dublin, there are likely to be changes made to the starting XV for Saturday’s meeting with les Bleus.

Sean O’Brien is sure to add to the physical edge for Ireland, while Donnacha Ryan could bring energy from the off in the second row. A change at tighthead seems probable too, with Tadhg Furlong offering mobility but the recovered Mike Ross giving Ireland scrum assurance against Eddy Ben Arous.

Regardless of personnel, Ireland will feel they have set a defensive standard for themselves in recovering from the Argentina disappointment to ensure a powerful Welsh team made zero linebreaks against them.

There were worrying moments on the edges of the Irish defence again, and Schmidt has already pointed to the need for Ireland to address that before facing a French side that will play with width. They cannot rely on their wings to make the big reads every time.

Schmidt’s men had the best defence in the Six Nations in both of the last two trophy-winning seasons and, despite the departure of Les Kiss and the forced delay in Andy Farrell’s arrival, yesterday was a positive start.

Gatland put it best in summarising the words of his own defence coach before this year’s competition even began.

“Something Shaun Edwards talks a lot about is that defences win trophies and championships.”

Schmidt wants his side to live by those words.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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