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Analysis: Inaccurate Ireland's game plan struggles to break down Italy

We take an in-depth look at Ireland’s shortcoming against the Italians yesterday.

AFTER STRAIGHTFORWARD WINS against Canada and Romania, Ireland were finally tested at the World Cup yesterday by a fierce, intelligent and powerful Italian side.

Joe Schmidt suggested after the game that Ireland had approached the game in a somewhat complacent manner after the facile victories in their two opening games, and a lack of mental sharpness was certainly evident in an error-strewn performance.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt has plenty of faults to pick out from Ireland's performance. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

While Ireland have previously shown that they are a far better team than the one at Olympic Park yesterday, it is somewhat concerning that they have struggled in their two most recent games against top-tier opposition, England and Italy.

That said, it would be hugely surprising if Schmidt’s side don’t react in a positive manner and deliver a far more accurate performance against France on Sunday in Cardiff. The Kiwi head coach would have preferred a bonus-point win against Italy of course, but he will welcome the focus a poor performance yesterday will bring to the training week.

Ireland will have a clear understanding of exactly where they need to improve for the French game and the individuals who underperformed at Olympic Park will have little need to be motivated.

Changing shape

After the expansive, pass-heavy game plans Ireland used against Canada and Romania, they were narrower in attack versus the Italians. We saw very few examples of the rugby league-style shapes that Ireland used in those first two wins, with far more basic one-off carrying and a focus on the inside pass instead.

There were a handful of examples of how effective Ireland can be when they do use their forwards as passers, as in the case below.

POM Source: World Rugby

Peter O’Mahony is a skillful player and Ireland often look at their most threatening in attack when he gets on the ball and makes good decisions. In the case above, O’Mahony is on second phase of a mapped-out attack from a lineout on the right.

The set-up is as simple as you can get, with Robbie Henshaw running a hard line short off O’Mahony’s left shoulder (red) and Johnny Sexton bouncing out the back door to provide the deep option (yellow).


O’Mahony takes the ball to the line, releasing the ball at the ideal time after Michele Campagnaro has bitten down on Henshaw’s decoy line and the break follows for Sexton. The out-half might reflect on a missed opportunity to pass to Dave Kearney on his left, but it would have been an difficult one to make in truth.

Ireland’s attack ends with three points from the tee after the Italians come offside in their desperation to recover. An effective early attack.

O’Mahony actually passed the ball more often than he carried it against Canada, a clear indicator of the game plan that day, but was used far more as a carrier against the Italians, as were all of Ireland’s forwards and the majority of their backs.

Instead of looking to stretch the Italians with more shape similar to that above, Ireland instead often focused on carrying closer to the rucks. Their frustrating handling errors made even that simple blueprint a struggle.

Error Source: World Rugby

Turning over ball is a recipe for disaster for any team and Ireland were stretched to near breaking point by doing so against Italy.

They scrambled well in defence on a number of occasions to rescue some worrying situations, but 14 turnovers of their possession will have been unacceptable to Schmidt.

There were a couple of forced offload attempts from Ireland that are likely to be highlighted in their review.

Earls Source: World Rugby

In the incident above, Keith Earls does superbly to break the line just before the half time whistle, but spoils the good work by offloading into touch.

There were examples of good offloading from Ireland in this game, particularly a pair from Henshaw, but the more forced efforts like we see above and below are certainly unwelcome in Schmidt’s world.

Earls 2 Source: World Rugby

In the incident above, we again see Ireland handing Italy a prime counter-attacking opportunity and the passage actually ends with O’Mahony making his incredible try-saving tackle on Josh Furno back in Ireland’s 22.

France will take chances like that one.

Inside ball

Inaccuracy and a lack of ball security repeatedly killed Ireland in this game, and certainly affected how their tactics developed over the course of the 80 minutes. The second half saw Ireland hone in short inside passes as a primary attacking play.

Inside Ball Source: World Rugby

The example above comes on the second phase of another pre-planned lineout attack early in the second half and shows exactly the space Ireland looked to attack on a number of other occasions.

We can see in this case how Jamie Heaslip and Henshaw attempt to subtly block Furno from folding over to the left side of the attacking ruck.


The Italian lock does superbly to fight through the Irish pair blocking him and it’s absolutely essential that he does so. If Furno doesn’t get through the block, Bowe will break clean through.

Watch the clip above again and note how Sexton, Earls and O’Connell are all pre-empting the break, attempting to get through the defensive line to offer support for Bowe if he does cut through. But for Furno’s effort, the try was on for Ireland.

While the above example is a mapped-out set-piece play, Ireland also looked to target this space in phase play too.

Phase Source: World Rugby

The incident above is again typical of Ireland’s inaccuracy and poor execution against Italy.

With the Italians quite often limiting their breakdown competition to keep bodies on their feet, stacking the line and therefore filling the pitch, there was more limited space for Ireland to attack on the outside edges than in the previous two games.

One of the ideas as a response to that Italian defensive strength was to look for inside passes to catch out lazy or unfocused defenders around the fringes, or any Italians dropping off their hunger as they hunted across the pitch.

Inside Passes Source: World Rugby

There is some success for Ireland with inside passes above, again from set-piece, as they first make their midfield strike with a popped pass from Henshaw to Dave Kearney.

The decoy line from Earls on second phase is superb as he takes two Italian defenders out of the game. It’s also worth noting how Murray gets ahead of the ball as he again expects the linebreak from outside.

Campagnaro adjusts wonderfully well not to bite in on Sexton – could Sexton have drawn him in more? – and pirouettes to tackle Peter O’Mahony before he can link with Murray. A couple of phases later, Murray pops inside to Bowe unsuccessfully and the Italians regain possession.

Some nice work initially from set-piece by Ireland, but a simple lack of accuracy thereafter, it was the story of the evening in many ways.

It will be fascinating to see how Ireland attack against the French in Cardiff, and it would be a surprise not to see them using some of their rugby league shapes in phase play to really ask questions of les Bleus‘ ability to decision-make on the move in defence.

The inside pass will also remain a part of the armoury against a strong French defence.

Heaslip Source: World Rugby

While much of Ireland’s rucking was as effective as it always is, their poor performance extended into that area at important times too.

Above, we see Heaslip driven off the ball by the feisty Leonardo Sarto for a turnover of possession. The number eight will be frustrated to look back on the incident, while Simon Zebo and Mike Ross might ask if they could have made it across to the ruck earlier.

The ruck is Ireland’s beating heart, without clinical effectiveness in this department they won’t have a chance against the French.

Filling the line

Ireland love to compete at the breakdown in defence, often leaving them short a defender or two in the frontline. Nonetheless, there were times when Italy managed to stretch Schmidt’s side a little too easily by passing to the touchlines.

Lots of those occasions were after the sloppy turnovers from Ireland that we’ve already mentioned, but defence specialist Les Kiss might look at other examples where his players could have shown greater reactions and work rate.

Fold Source: World Rugby

Italy don’t actually attack wide in the example we’ve chosen here, but it does highlight what is an occasional issue for Ireland.

The Italians have hit up in midfield and Ireland are slow to fold around the corner and number up ideally. Heaslip can be heard calling for Ross to fold over to the right, but the tighthead only reacts to the communication after Edoardo Gori has sniped.


When we freeze the frame, it’s more apparent how many players Italy have out on their left side of the ruck and they quite probably could have exposed Ireland even more if Gori had hit out-half Tommaso Allan.

Kiss will demand that his players work hard at all times in defence, as is generally their habit, in order to limit the opportunities for France to cut them in the wide channels. Philippe Saint-André’s side love moving the ball to width and Ireland’s defenders will need to be highly focused on numbering up well on either side of the ruck.

Silly penalties

Perhaps the biggest indicator that Ireland aren’t at their best is when they concede easy penalties to the opposition. There were a total of 10 against the Italians and it’s something that will not be ignored in the coming training week.

France have discipline issues of their own, but Schmidt is famously strict in terms of Ireland giving up penalties.

PEN Source: World Rugby

In the example above, Heaslip can’t resist the temptation to scoop the ball back on Ireland’s side when he’s not in control of his body weight. It’s needless on phase five of the attack and with Ireland’s defence in good shape, Italy scoring an easy three points.

Trust the system, be patient and make better decisions.

There were other types of offences for Ireland, including a failure to roll away and tackling lineout catchers in the air, and captain O’Connell got particularly frustrated with referee Jerome Garces in the second half.

Ireland will need to be squeaky clean against the French next weekend, with Nigel Owens on the whistle and Wayne Barnes and Leighton Hodges his assistants.

More from the maul

Ireland’s maul didn’t have a strong outing against Italy in Olympic Park and it’s another area where Schmidt’s men will need to make a major improvement ahead of the weekend.

The maul is a key scoring weapon for Ireland, as well as a base for some of their exits out of their own half, but Italy coped very well with it in the first half particularly.

Ireland actually improved here after introducing a number of replacements in the pack, including the introduction of Devin Toner, but it’s a collective issue rather than down to individuals.

Maul Source: World Rugby

In the instance above, Quintin Geldenhuys does superbly to fight his way through the middle of the Irish maul and get on the ball to force the turnover, but Ireland will analyse their own shortcomings.

Sean O’Brien and Ross will feel they could have had a greater influence on the Italian lock as he forces his way beyond them and onto ball carrier Rory Best. There were two other similar occasions where the Irish maul lacked solidity at the front, with Italians squeezing their way through towards the ball.

While the man at the tail of the maul gets credited with the try when Ireland are successful from close range, for example, the players at the front are by far the most important men.

From the lineout catcher to the lifters who brace to take the impact on the frontline, Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby will be looking at this area in some detail with his players before they face France.

Mixed kicking

Ireland kicked the ball from hand 43 times against Italy. It’s a greater figure than against Romania (36) but it’s actually the same number of kicks as Ireland had against Canada in their World Cup opener.

A huge number of Ireland’s kicks came in the closing 30 minutes, as they completely shifted their game plan to a focus on making Italy play out from deep inside their own half.

Scrum-half Conor Murray was tasked with doing the majority of the kicking in the second half, and he launched 17 kicks in total yesterday.

Again, the idea behind the tactics – that Ireland’s attack with ball in hand was not proving to be effective and they therefore needed to dominate territorially – was sound, but the execution was decidedly mixed.

BOX Source: World Rugby

The outcome in the example above is a success, as Bowe chases Murray’s kick and wins a penalty for obstruction by the Italians. However, there were many other unsuccessful instances where Ireland’s kicking accuracy was wayward or the chase didn’t get off the ground to pressurise the fielding player.

Bowe did have some notable aerial wins on the right wing, but this is another area where huge improvement is needed from Ireland. The kicking game will be essential against les Blues and the likes of Murray and Sexton will need to be at their most accurate.


Explaining away this performance as a perfect wake-up call before playing the French won’t be acceptable for Schmidt. The Kiwi head coach will be ruthless in identifying his players’ shortcomings and the failings of his own game plan in cutting Italy apart.

There certainly is a kernel of truth in the argument though and it’s better that Ireland were made aware of a slight complacency in this fixture than a week later in Cardiff.

They are now tuned to the intensity needed for a genuine World Cup test and their motivation will peak after this disappointing display. If Ireland don’t improve across the board in all aspects of the game, they will be facing into a quarter-final against New Zealand.

There won’t be panic from Ireland, but Schmidt is likely to encourage just the right amount of desperation his players will need to counter the threats France pose. Expect to see a very different performance from Ireland, individually and collectively.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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