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Analysis: How did Ireland dominate England in the Six Nations?

Exiting, discipline, the halfbacks, and a solid set-piece were building blocks for an impressive win.

IRELAND REMAIN ON track to retain their Six Nations title following Sunday’s 19-9 win over England in Dublin.

In this piece, we examine several of the factors that went into ensuring Joe Schmidt’s side enjoyed a dominant victory over Stuart Lancaster’s men. 

Jonathan Sexton and Paul O'Connell after winning a penalty Paul O'Connell and Johnny Sexton celebrate winning a penalty against England. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Exits

England spent just 41% of the game in Ireland’s defensive portion of the pitch, struggling particularly badly for field position in the first half as they had only 33% territory.

Their late flurry of attacking possession allowed them to balance out the numbers somewhat, but why was it that Lancaster’s side failed to achieve parity in terms of territory?

The most obvious reason was that Ireland exited their half with as much assurance as they have done throughout the last 18 months or so, kicking out of defensive zones and then making those exits ‘stick’.

By ‘stick’, we mean Ireland follow up the kick with a good chase to either win a turnover or put immense pressure on the opposition as they look to start an attack. Kicking out of your 22 is no use if you find yourself back in there tackling a phase or two later.

Source: RBS Six Nations

It’s worth watching the entire 30-second clip above as we get an ideal example of Ireland making an exit stick from the kick-off at the very start of the fixture.

England go deep to Simon Zebo on Ireland’s left-hand side, from where the Munster wing searches out a favourable tackle situation and enters contact. It sets up a ruck in the middle of the pitch, not an ideal area to exit from.

Ireland predominantly use Conor Murray’s box kicks to exit their 22, meaning it makes much more sense to kick from close to the touchline. It allows a more aggressive chase, as the chasing players have the touchline outside them as an extra ‘defender’.

Think of Murray planting a box kick down the middle of the pitch from the scenario below.

Exit.1

It would leave England fullback Alex Goode with the whole pitch to attack if he were to make a clean catch, and Ireland’s chasers would be far more exposed to being beaten as they hared after the ball.

Instead, Ireland are confident enough to play a phase away to the right to set up a better kicking scenario, Jack McGrath setting up the ruck after Johnny Sexton’s pass in this instance.

Exit.2

Murray now has a more ideal ruck to kick from, as well as having three chasers on their feet and ready to go after the ball in Jordi Murphy, Peter O’Mahony and Tommy Bowe [all circled above].

With the ball in the air and the deep-lying George Ford [red circle below] getting set to catch underneath, England manage to run some nice blocking lines [yellow] in front of their out-half, the intention being to impede Ireland’s chasers without conceding a penalty.

Exit.3

England did this quite well against Ireland, even if it didn’t appear to help their fielding of kicks a great deal. On this occasion, Bowe does particularly well to get past those tracking English players without slowing down too much and arrives in to make a strong tackle on Ford.

O’Mahony is next in alongside Murphy, the former recognising instantly that he’s not going to be able to get his hands on the ball for a potential jackal turnover, and instead looking to counter-ruck over the top of the pill.

Exit.4 Source: RBS Six Nations

Murphy is on the same wavelength, driving into the ruck too and then the ball runs loose out the side as Ireland’s pressure tells.

Devin Toner pounces to regain possession for Ireland and they are suddenly in a threatening attacking position with England’s defence scrambling to make its way back into position.

This incident highlights Ireland’s strong decision-making around the breakdown and ruck, as well as their general ability to exit defensive zones effectively. Move the initial kick from Murray [or Sexton] further up the pitch and you’ll often find similar results.

As in all their big wins since Schmidt took over, Ireland were superb at kicking out and then chasing those kicks down to either reclaim possession or force England to build an attack under intense pressure.

Scrum

The build-up to this game from an Irish point of view featured some concern over the prospects of what a powerful England scrum might do to Ireland. As it transpired, Schmidt’s side were rock solid in this area and struck something of a psychological blow with that stability.

England probably expected to milk more than one penalty from the scrum, as well as damaging Irish morale with their dynamism in the set-piece, but that simply didn’t occur.

Mike Ross provided Schmidt with yet another in a long line of strong performances at tighthead, again underlining why the Kiwi head coach retains such faith in the 35-year-old.

Rory Best and loosehead Jack McGrath were similarly impressive at scrum time as Ireland won six of their eight scrums, conceding one penalty for going to ground and one free-kick for an early drive.

Source: RBS Six Nations

The most enjoyable moment for Ireland’s scrum was probably the incident above, as they won a penalty of their own, although there were a number of excellent non-shifting efforts that provided Ireland’s backs a superb attacking platform.

Above, referee Craig Joubert penalises Joe Marler, saying the England loosehead is “not straight, not straight. Green dominance, stay straight.”

Ireland get a strong, cohesive first hit on the ‘set’ call here, typical of their uniformity at the scrum on Sunday. It means that Joubert views everything that follows through that prism of “green dominance.”

Scrum.1

On the tighthead side, Ross fights hard to get his feet into a good driving position as the ball is feed in, benefiting from Paul O’Connell and O’Mahony behind him putting in immense effort too.

Already in the image above, we can see Marler driving in and up at an illegal angle and giving Joubert all the cues he needs to penalise England. He allows the scrum to develop nonetheless.

O’Mahony shifts up from behind Ross to actually drive into Marler, something that is not allowed within the laws of the game [the flanker must have one arm bound on a lock’s body] and an offence for which Joubert could go against Ireland.

Scrum.2

As we have highlighted above, Marler’s bind is now on O’Mahony after the Ireland flanker slips up Ross’ back and into the England loosehead, but Joubert is only interested in Ireland’s forward momentum.

McGrath makes excellent progress against Dan Cole on the loosehead side, shunting the Leicester Tiger backwards and the scrum becomes a mess as Marler folds inwards, Joubert finally awarding the penalty as the set-piece disintegrates.

Ross gets a slap on the head from a fired-up O’Mahony for his efforts in staying straight and drawing the penalty from Marler, while the rest of the pack clearly enjoy the moment of dominance over England’s oftentimes-lauded scrum.

Breakdown

It was obvious to anyone watching the game on Sunday that Ireland caused havoc at the breakdown through the fierce competition of the likes of Best, O’Mahony, Murphy and Jack McGrath.

There may not always have been clear turnovers of possession, but time and again Ireland managed to make England scrap to retain their ball, slowing the rucks and allowing their defensive line time to turn the linespeed on.

Source: RBS Six Nations

We get a strong example above, as Robbie Henshaw makes a really good initial hit on Billy Vunipola and then Best gets in for a clean turnover without the need for a penalty to Ireland for holding on. Rare and wonderful!

First things first, it’s nice defensive contribution from Henshaw, who recognises the lack of a back door passing option for George Ford and focuses in on Vunipola.

Turnover.1

It’s a situation in which the England number eight regularly makes big yards, but Henshaw meets him with a firm right shoulder.

A lift of the left leg destabilises Vunipola and Henshaw gets the carrier to deck with Best already sniffing out the steal.

Turnover.2

O’Connell is involved in the completion of the tackle on Vunipola, but his post-tackle contribution is also important to the turnover. As we can see above, O’Connell is threatening over the ball and attracts the attention of second English arrival Cole.

Had O’Connell opted to leave the breakdown immediately, Cole would likely have slammed in on Best, perhaps aiding James Haskell in shifting Best away from the ball. As it happens, Cole is attracted to O’Connell and Best has enough strength to beat Haskell.

Ireland hunted in groups effectively in this game, whether it be as tacking-jackaling duos or a second player aiding the main turnover threat as O’Connell does above.

Ireland’s competitiveness at the breakdown was another reason England struggled to create try-scoring chances; they were simply cut off in the midst of attempting to do so on a number of occasions.

Up the other end of the pitch, one Robbie Henshaw poach after a smashing Sexton tackle on Luther Burrell ensured Ireland moved 9-3 ahead. Turnover threats everywhere.

Lineout

Again, the numbers reflect a job well done for Ireland in this area of the game, with 11 lineout wins on their own throw and just one loss. Three wins on the English throw point to the excellent competition from Ireland out of touch too.

We’ve spoken before about Ireland’s three leading lineout jumpers in Toner, O’Connell and O’Mahony, while Murphy filled in particularly well for Jamie Heaslip to win three balls in the air.

The quality of possession Ireland enjoyed from their attacking lineouts was superb and allowed them to run a number of interesting starter plays such as when Tommy O’Donnell slipped that clever pass to Henshaw for a half-break late in the first half.

Defensively, there were two huge moments in the opening period too, as Toner produced two steals of the English throw.

Steal Source: RBS Six Nations

The first, above, comes from an England lineout just five metres from the Ireland tryline and with the scoreline only 6-3 in Ireland’s favour. It’s as big a lineout steal as you’ll come across and prevents that powerful English maul from having a chance to score.

This steal has all the hallmarks of one built on a foundation of analysis, as Toner appears to be entirely certain that the throw will go to the tail.

Steal.1

There’s dummy movement from Dave Attwood and Haskell away from the tail of the lineout, the intention being to draw Toner back towards the touchline, but the towering Leinster lock stays rooted to the spot.

In front of Toner, O’Mahony makes a typically good read of the Attwood dummy, standing off and then turning back towards Toner to make a lift at the front of the second row.

Haskell has reversed towards the tail of the lineout in the meantime, with George Kruis coming from in front of Attwood around to lift Haskell at the front, but England are already beaten.

Murray gets a strong exiting kick away to safety beyond the 22, and up goes Toner again at the very next lineout for another steal on Dylan Hartley’s throw.

Halfbacks

Perhaps the most notable illustration of Ireland’s dominance was their halfback pairing, who were supreme on an afternoon when Ford and Ben Youngs struggled to get any foothold in the game.

Ford is still just 21 and will surely become a world-class player himself, but up against the most in-form out-half in world rugby, he had a quiet game.

Source: RBS 6 Nations/YouTube

The hit above was a memorable moment as the two out-halves came into contact [something that's quite rare despite the clamour around head-to-heads between opposing 10s].

Sexton missed the resulting penalty, so there was arguably little effect on the game, but it was certainly symbolic of two contrasting performances from the out-halves. Sexton stamped his dominance and control all over the game for 53 minutes, with Ford proving something of a bystander.

While Sexton contributed handsomely to Ireland’s much-praised kicking game, Ford had a number of shaky touches with the boot.

Source: RBS Six Nations

It might seems fussy to pick on the example above, but it typifies England’s failure to apply genuine pressure with their own kicking game.

This is an English free kick, meaning Ford can launch his garryowen under far less pressure than in open play; it simply has to be highly contestable, allowing the chasers to either get in the air and compete or smash the Irish receiver as soon as he fields the ball.

Neither of those things happen as the kick travels a hint too far up the pitch, meaning Zebo has time to move away from the point of reception and set up a favourable ruck for Ireland, who can immediately exit their defensive zone.

Source: RBS Six Nations

It wasn’t just Ford who was responsible for England’s kicking, however, with Youngs chipping in with four kicks in open play. The example above is similarly long though, again allowing Ireland far too comfortable a reception.

There were certainly poor kicks from Ireland too, but a far lower proportion of their kicking game was un-contestable, and Murray [17 kicks in total] and Sexton [9] showed clear superiority in this area.

Murray was also by far the more effective attacking scrum-half, although his side’s 59% share of the overall possession afforded him many more opportunities to run with ball in hand.

Furthermore, the territorial shortcomings of England’s that we mentioned before limited Youngs potential for running. Lancaster’s game plan dictates that Youngs only really snipes and tests the fringes of defences when England work their way up towards the opposition 22.

That didn’t happen too frequently against Ireland, leaving Youngs shorn of perhaps the most effective part of his game.

Discipline

One of the core components of Schmidt’s Ireland is a demanding level of discipline, and his side showed up well in this regard compared to England on Sunday.

We’ve heard several stories about Schmidt’s stringent training ground demands for discipline, even yellow carding his players at Carton House if they fall below his standards, and they remained in good shape against the English.

After a disappointing total of 11 penalty concessions against France last time out, Ireland were back on track with eight against England. In contrast, Lancaster’s side conceded eight in the first half alone, tacking on five more after the break.

England were particularly sloppy around the rucks, failing to roll away on a number of occasions, although Ireland played their part in ensuring referee Joubert picked up on each incident.

Source: RBS Six Nations

Watching the game live, the sense was that Haskell was extremely fortunate to avoid a yellow card for his infringement here, despite the incident occurring after just seven minutes of play.

Ireland are in a hugely threatening position within metres of the English tryline and Haskell fails to roll away.

It’s certainly a penalty, although we were perhaps a little harsh on Haskell on first viewing live at the stadium. His right leg looks to be trapped under Youngs after the scrum-half is cleared out by O’Connell.

Furthering the unlikelihood that Haskell is going to be able to roll away is a firm hand up over his head from loosehead prop McGrath underneath.

Roll Away.1

The Leinster front row is essentially aiming to hold Haskell on the ground, either to draw the penalty or, more likely, to ensure that Haskell cannot bound up and rejoin the defensive line.

‘If I’m trapped on the ground, then so are you,’ seems to be the thinking here. Even with that further qualification in place, it’s a frustrating penalty for Ireland as they are within inches of the tryline.

At a later stage of the game, Haskell is looking at 10 minutes in the sin bin.

There were other examples of Ireland ensuring Joubert was fully aware of England’s lack of discipline, as when scrum-half Murray fell over the top of Attwood, who had failed to roll away quickly enough after a tackle.

Murray Source: RBS Six Nations

Attwood is absolutely in a poor position above, but Murray could probably have avoided him if he had really needed to. The scrum-half is entirely within his rights to take the most direct line to the ruck without being impeded, however, and Joubert is quick on the whistle.

Sexton slots the resultant penalty and Ireland move 12-3 ahead.

This incident was typical of Ireland’s more streetwise nature in comparison with a callow England team. One of the things experience brings is a knowledge that giving away sloppy penalties loses international games, while Schmidt will continue to hammer that fact into his team in every single training session.

Work rate

Underpinning everything Ireland did against England was a huge work rate, that all-important factor that can make a poor game plan into one that leads to a memorable win.

Ireland combined an excellent game plan with a ceaseless desire to work hard, both with and without the ball, on Sunday. Despite missed tackles, time and again Schmidt’s players recovered and kept their defensive composure to work back into shape.

At ruck time, individual players had multiple involvements across the one passage of play, as with Simon Zebo’s three ruck hits in the build-up to Robbie Henshaw’s excellent try.

England, in contrast, appeared to lack energy on a big occasion, having shown such impressive zest and vigour in their win over Wales in round one.

Tactical acuity

This was a tactically astute performance from Schmidt’s side, as the same accuracy of their exiting game extended into much of their attacking kicking too, piling pressure on England in troublesome areas of the pitch.

Indeed, the tactics from Schmidt were typically well suited to the opponents, although it must be said that England gave a poor performance.

Joe Schmidt We can rest assured that Schmidt will not be getting carried away by this win. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The anticipated close-fought battle widely predicted pre-match didn’t transpire, and while Ireland deserve real credit for limiting England, the positivity must be tempered by the knowledge that Lancaster’s side were not at their best.

As ever, Schmidt will have identified many ‘work-ons’ for his players and will likely take them through some of the more disappointing areas of the display as they gather for the start of a training camp in Belfast tomorrow.

More than anyone, Schmidt knows his team have a way to travel yet.

Analysis: Robbie Henshaw’s try built on foundation of Irish work rate

Analysis: What the hell was Sean O’Brien doing to the England maul?

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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