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Analysis: Ireland's deception breaks down Scots for pivotal Sexton try

Andy Farrell’s side struck intelligently on penalty advantage for the only try of the game.

THE FINAL FEW metres can very often be the toughest of all.

We frequently see teams’ attacking qualities leaving them very close to the opposition tryline but the final blow can be very difficult to deliver.

With 15 defenders in the line, there is naturally less space. Those 15 defenders are usually coming forward with aggressive linespeed, so passing can be difficult. They’re tackling for their lives too.

The battle for inches can be brutal, ugly and often ineffective. Scotland came up empty-handed in this area in the thrilling endgame yesterday in Dublin, with Ireland’s hard-working defence leading to CJ Stander’s 78th-minute turnover penalty. 

jonathan-sexton-celebrates-scoring-the-opening-try-of-the-game-with-peter-omahony Ireland celebrate Johnny Sexton's try. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Andy Farrell’s team had their own frustrations in the Scotland 22 but they were able to manufacture the only try of the game in the first half with an intelligent play that has been utilised by a number of other teams.

This play essentially involves tricking the defence into thinking another heavy carry is coming but instead playing out the back of the forwards to the lurking scrum-half, who hopes to expose a mismatch wider out.

Below, we can see the Highlanders using the tactic in a Super Rugby clash with the Chiefs last May, having already battered at the Kiwi side for phase after phase.

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We can see above how Highlanders scrum-half Aaron Smith directs two forwards into position to the left of the previous ruck as he hangs in behind, doing his best to look like he’s not going to be involved.

But as the ball is played to Jackson Hemopo from the ruck, Smith gets into motion, accepting the pullback pass as he moves from right to left and then throwing a sublime double miss pass for James Lentjies to score.

This try comes at the end of a long passage of attack in the Chiefs’ 22, with this clever play finally getting them over the line, even if it takes a special pass from Smith to seal it.

In June against the Waratahs, we saw something very similar from the Highlanders, this time with the added layer of fullback Josh McKay running a decoy line and Smith passing out the back of him.

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While the Highlanders are playing from left to right this time, the set-up is exactly the same, with two forwards standing flat to the ruck as if to carry again, while scrum-half Smith lurks in behind and gets in motion after the ball is passed.

McKay’s decoy line is not well-timed and he’s not a convincing threat as Smith hits out-half Josh Ioane out the back, with Ioane, in turn, skipping a pass to inside centre Tei Walden running into a gap. Waratahs left wing Curtis Rona makes an excellent read and hit on Walden to prevent the Highlanders midfielder from breaking through.

It’s difficult to say who actually came up with this tactic but we’ve seen several teams using it in the past year, including Ireland, Glasgow Warriors, and a couple of other teams in Super Rugby.

Ireland’s try yesterday was not the first time they have utilised this set-up. As they chased a potentially game-sealing try in their clash with Japan at the World Cup, they found themselves battering at the Japanese tryline and attempted to make the final breach using this play.

Japan

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As we can see above, Iain Henderson [4] beckons for Andrew Porter [18] to get on his outside shoulder before James Ryan arrives in to play scrum-half, with Murray hanging back behind the ruck.

Instead of carrying, Henderson swivels to pass to Murray, who has suddenly come alive. Hooker Sean Cronin and centre Garry Ringrose run the decoy lines this time but, crucially, they are not convincing threats and Japan can drift off to pressure Joey Carbery in behind. 

There may have been scope for Carbery to shift the ball on to Rob Kearney but he felt it wasn’t the right option and instead tucks to carry. A phase later, Japan win a turnover penalty.

Ireland clearly weren’t discouraged by one failure on this play, however, and we saw it return to superb effect yesterday for Sexton’s try. 

The Irish try comes on penalty advantage and it’s clear that Farrell’s men had decided to use this tactic, or at least something very similar, when they earned that advantage deep in Scotland’s 22. Ireland are very good as pressuring defences into infringing as they batter at the tryline, so having plans for the penalty advantage is sensible.

We’re seeing a huge number of tries at the top level of the game being scored on advantage and Ireland’s mindset around using that advantage yesterday was notable – even aside from this particular example.

Scotland come offside in this instance and in the same second as referee Mathieu Raynal indicates the penalty advantage [yellow below], we see scrum-half Murray [white] turning to Sexton for confirmation that it’s time to do more than just pick and jam again.

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Ireland’s halfbacks are immediately on the same wavelength. 

As Ryan arrives over the ball at the ruck, Murray and Sexton are communicating for their forwards to set up to the left, while Sexton [red below] also speaks to Jordan Larmour wider out, calling for the Ireland fullback to run a hard decoy line.

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Ireland are patient in setting themselves up.

Having carried two phases before, Healy works back to his feet and around to the left to set on the inside of van der Flier. Meanwhile, Stander arrives at the ruck and pre-binds onto Ryan [yellow below], as if to ready himself for a latch on Ryan’s pick and jam. It just adds another subtle layer of deception as the Scots prepare themselves for a narrow attack.

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It’s also important to note above how Murray has his hands on his knees, as if resting while his forwards carry again. Sexton’s body language is similarly disinterested, the Irish halfbacks doing their best not to attract any attention.

As Ireland are setting up, the Scotland defenders further out from the ruck realise there is a major threat. We can see below how out-half Adam Hastings is beckoning for more width in the defence, as he screams, “Get the fuck out!” 

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Unfortunately for Scotland, there is no response and tighthead prop Zander Fagerson stays tight into the ruck. Really, Scotland needed an extra body or two to fold from the other side of the ruck here but there is poor urgency and defensive decision-making.

Scotland are exposed and Ireland are ready to strike.

Ireland’s deception works wonderfully, completely sucking in Scotland’s fringe defenders. Fraser Brown [red below] is worried about Ryan picking and carrying, immediately rushing onto the Ireland lock.

Nick Haining [yellow] and Fagerson [blue] are both intent on stopping Healy’s carry, with the tighthead bursting forward in a bid to hit him even as Hastings screams for more width.

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But Healy instead swivels and pops the ball back to Murray, taking a heavy shot into the back for his troubles.

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Ryan’s pass from the ruck has been the trigger for Murray, Sexton and co. as they get into motion with the second wave of the play.

Sexton drifts hard to his left [yellow below] as Ringrose [white] mirrors his captain’s line in a slightly deeper position.

Larmour’s running line [yellow] is pivotal to the success of the play.

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With the interior defenders having committed onto Ireland’s forwards, Hastings and Ali Price outside him are in real trouble.

Hastings has to worry about Murray’s running threat and so he sticks on the Ireland scrum-half [blue below].

Meanwhile, Larmour’s superbly-timed line drags Price inwards [yellow] as the Scotland scrum-half worries about Murray popping a short, flat pass to Larmour to burst through.

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That means Sexton is left completely free to accept Murray’s excellently-timed pass – which he delays slightly and then releases after a dummy pump – out the back of Larmour.

There is another Scottish defender further out in wing Sean Maitland [white below] but he has opted to remain wide in order to mark up on Jacob Stockdale, who is doing a good job of holding the width for Ireland out on the left touchline.

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Maitland will probably be disappointed not to have forced an extra pass from Ireland in this instance, but the damage had already been done by their failure to fold extra bodies onto this side of the ruck earlier on, then by Ireland’s clever deception close in.

With Price unable to readjust after being lured in by Larmour’s decoy, Sexton has a straightforward and untouched run in for a try that was clearly very satisfying.

“It was good work on the inside, the forwards ground out some yards there and once Scotland condensed, we had a chance,” said Sexton post-match. “Conor did brilliantly to delay the pass a little bit and a good line [by Larmour] just freed it up for me.

“It was a bit of a walk-in for me but some great work by the guys on the inside.”

Ireland’s intent to fully exploit penalty advantage in this game was very clear and this try was the perfect illustration of that renewed focus.

It also hinted that Ireland aim to continue to expand their means of finishing from close-range beyond their well-established method of relentless ball-carrying, latching, and aggressive clearing out close to the ruck.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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