THERE’S ALMOST ALWAYS a little bit of history behind Joe Schmidt’s best set-piece strike plays.
We will see something innovative pop up in Ireland’s attack from a lineout or scrum and then it might go into cold storage for months, even years.
When Schmidt wheels it out again, it will often be slightly tweaked and even more effective.
We looked at one scrum example on this week’s The42 Rugby Show and Ireland’s Grand Slam-sealing victory over England today provided us with another gem.
The starter play that produced CJ Stander’s crucial second try for Ireland is an insight into the genius of Schmidt and the incredibly detailed functioning of his mind.
And it’s a play that Ireland had used only once before – against England in 2015.
“We played the identical move against England three years ago in Dublin and Robbie Henshaw went through and fell over,” said Schmidt. “He got ankle-tapped and Billy Vunipola managed to drag him down.
“They’re the only two times we’ve played it. Just the way they come up defensively, we felt it would potentially work again and the way they place their forwards. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.
“Sometimes you get double jeopardy. You think ‘they might do this, so we might to that.’ Then they think, we think… I give up then.”
Clearly, Schmidt didn’t give up on this play, so it makes sense for us to start back in 2015.
Ireland lead England 9-3 in the 38th minute of the Six Nations clash and have a lineout on the right, around 35 metres out from the English tryline.
The lineout set-up is a slightly unusual four-man formation, involving Jack McGrath , Devin Toner , Paul O’Connell  and Peter O’Mahony .
Toner moves to the front and with McGrath and O’Connell lifting, wins Rory Best’s throw cleanly…
… before landing back on the ground and popping the ball out of the lineout to scrum-half Conor Murray.
Murray takes two steps to his left and fires off his pass to out-half Johnny Sexton.
The ball travels through the tunnel created by the runs of wing Tommy Bowe  and flanker Jordi Murphy , travelling ahead of Bowe and behind Murphy.
Sexton arcs out to his left as soon as he receives the ball, and hits replacement back row Tommy O’Donnell with an early pass of his own.
The three central players below are Sexton , O’Donnell  and Robbie Henshaw .
Sexton passes to O’Donnell and immediately fades in behind and around him, running that extremely familiar ‘Sexton loop’ that Ireland are so famous for.
Henshaw runs a direct, straightening line outside O’Donnell and in front of Sexton.
What really muddies the picture for England is the fact that O’Donnell turns his back on them after receiving the pass from Sexton – suddenly hiding the ball from them, even if only briefly.
There’s a lot happening in the shot below just as O’Donnell releases his pass.
Sexton is arcing around O’Donnell on the loop play [red] and the intention in this Irish deception is to draw up George Ford and Luther Burrell [blue], the two Englishmen predicting that Sexton will get the ball back.
That part of the play is successful – with Sexton’s body language appearing to demand the ball back from O’Donnell. Sexton has his hands up and is likely shouting for the ball.
Henshaw is running that straight line just outside O’Donnell [green] and the Irish hope is that England flanker Chris Robshaw [circled in yellow] will commit to O’Donnell and leave the hole for Henshaw to run directly through.
The Irish set-piece attack intends to create a disconnect between Robshaw and Ford, and almost comes off.
As we can see above, Ford and Burrell [circled in blue] have bought Sexton’s dummy loop line and advanced beyond Henshaw.
After receiving the cleverly-disguised pass from O’Donnell, Henshaw accelerates into what looks like a clear gap [green].
But Robshaw manages to react and grab out at Henshaw’s right ankle…
… doing just enough to force Henshaw onto his knees briefly…
… and while Henshaw manages to regain his feet, we can see above that Billy Vunipola is straining to get back [red].
Henshaw accelerates once he’s back on his feet, but Vunipola is able to dive and tackle him from behind.
It’s case of very, very nearly for Schmidt’s clever set-piece play in this instance, one that involves his trademark deception in portraying a picture for England – the Sexton loop – and then striking unexpectedly in a different way.
There is no success in this case, but Schmidt simply stores this play away, ready to be used at a later date.
Three years on, with a Grand Slam on the line, Schmidt’s players roll it back out.
Coming into this game, Schmidt would have reintroduced the play into Ireland’s specific menu of attacking options from lineouts in this area of the pitch, roughly 35-metres out.
“We’d run that move a couple of times in training,” confirmed centre Garry Ringrose last night after Ireland’s 24-15 victory.
When Owen Farrell clears to touch for England, Sexton launches the move into motion by calling this play.
Three years after its first use, Ireland have slightly tweaked the individual roles and this time they’re attacking from left-to-right, rather than right-to-left, but the similarities are clear.
Cian Healy [1 above], O’Mahony , Iain Henderson  and James Ryan  form the four-man lineout.
As with Toner in the first example, O’Mahony starts facing the English lineout before turning towards Best’s throw as he comes forward to jump at the front.
The exceptionally springy O’Mahony makes an explosive jump and gets an excellent lift from Healy and Henderson, bursting into the air with England staying on the ground.
So explosive is the jump that Healy and Henderson actually lose control of O’Mahony but he does well to come back to ground and pop the ball off to Murray.
Murray takes two steps out to his right before firing off his pass to Sexton.
Again, the pass travels down a tunnel created by two decoy runners, although they are both now back rows.
Murray’s sharp pass goes behind Stander [8 above] and in front of Dan Leavy  to Sexton.
One little detail worth noting when the ball gets to Sexton’s hands is the ‘animation’ from Keith Earls wide on the right wing.
Earls knows better than anyone that he is not going to be getting the ball on this play, but he is looking to do whatever he possibly can to potentially distract some of the English defenders – waving his hand in the air in an animated manner.
His actions may not even have any effect, but Schmidt constantly pushes his players to add this extra layer of possible distraction and Earls has been a master of it throughout their Grand Slam success.
Intriguingly, there is a very different player in the role of the hub of the dummy loop play – which O’Donnell filled in 2015.
There aren’t many teams who would build a set-piece play that requires a subtle and skillfully-delivered blind pass around their tighthead prop, but then there aren’t many tighthead props like Tadhg Furlong.
Highlighted above, the Wexford man is in the role O’Donnell occupied in 2015.
This shot also gives us a clear illustration of what Schmidt means when he says “the way they place their forwards” with regards to England’s defence in this situation – where the four-man lineout means they have to defend in the ‘backline’ off a set-piece.
Generally speaking – and this is unfair to many intelligent players – forwards struggle more to make good reads in these situations, having to defend them far less often than backs.
Hooker Dylan Hartley and number eight Sam Simmonds are highlighted in blue above and they were the players Ireland are targeting.
They’re exposed in the midfield, with Stander and Leavy’s runs close in to the lineout having drawn England out-half Farrell up on them, leaving Hartley and Simmonds to deal with the loop play.
Ireland have added another layer of distraction for those defenders too – one of these slight tweaks Schmidt tends to make with his set-piece strikes.
Sexton runs his same loop line around and behind Furlong [red above], while Bundee Aki is straightening to Furlong’s outside shoulder [green], but we must note the additonal presence of Ireland left wing Jacob Stockdale .
Stockdale is bouncing out the back of the loop play on a similar line to Sexton and that just adds another level of deception for Ireland.
So, as Furlong turns his back on the English and draws in Hartley, we can see below that Simmonds has been lured out beyond Aki [blue] by the Sexton and Stockdale decoys in behind.
That means that Aki is scorching onto the ball and into a clear hole.
Furlong’s pass sends Aki clear [green below] after taking everyone by surprise.
We can see above that Farrell, having sprinted across from inside after initially being attracted in by Stander and Leavy, has tracked Sexton in behind, presuming the loop was on.
Again, Sexton having his hands up as if he’s about to receive the pass back from Furlong is essential – his own ‘animation’ helping to trick the English.
Instead of returning the ball to Sexton, Furlong’s delightful slipped pass to Aki cuts the defence open.
“Tadhg defies logic for a tighthead with how mobile he is and the deft skills he has,” said Ringrose post-match.
As Aki cuts through, his next key supporting players are already positioning themselves.
“I knew I was chasing on the outside of Bundee,” said Ringrose, whose line we can see highlighted in yellow above. Initially, he adds another layer of distraction for the English defence, before bursting through as support for Aki.
This is another element that was lacking back in 2015, when Jared Payne didn’t run the line that Ringrose does here.
Stander has continued his run upfield after screening Murray’s pass, and we can see him circled in red above, ahead of the ball and ready to link on Aki’s inside.
Earls, meanwhile, is still looking to add whatever he can [white above]. No one is even looking at him and Aki is in the process of breaking, but still he looks to distract.
Aki does superbly in behind the English defence.
He arcs out to his right [green] and the supporting Ringrose, ensuring that Jonny May [14 above] is lured across onto him as Anthony Watson  closes in from the right.
Once Aki is certain that May is committing towards him, he has the presence of mind to just slow his run ever so slightly – buying him a split second – and straighten back up as he dummies a pass to Ringrose [white below].
That dummy pass forces Watson to sit down on his heels [blue above] to mark up on Ringrose and now Aki has created a 2-on-1 against May.
He swivels suddenly to his left, opening his body up to the hard-working Stander.
Aki slips away his accurate pass to Stander just before he’s tackled by May and the number eight has the tryline in sight.
More than 10 metres out, Stander still has plenty to do.
Richard Wigglesworth sweeps across to tackle Stander around the legs, while the retreating James Haskell wraps around Stander’s waist as the English pair look to bring him to deck.
Stander demonstrates typically stubborn leg drive to propel himself forward another couple of metres before producing what Ringrose called “a very intelligent finish against the post.”
It shows great presence of mind from Stander to recognise the chance as his momentum takes him towards the padding on the left post.
After landing short [above], Stander re-adjusts his right arm as he bounces towards the post and although Haskell shifts his own right arm in an effort to prevent it, Stander dots the ball against the padding to seal the score.
It’s an excellent finish after Schmidt’s set-piece strike allowed Furlong to show his skills and Aki to demonstrate his ability to convert in behind the line.
Three years after Schmidt first introduced the play for the first time – and after it nearly worked in 2015 – Ireland rolled it out again in style yesterday.
The slight tweaks like having Furlong in the playmaking role and adding Stockdale’s line out the back were intelligent, while virtually every other player carried out their role better than in the 2015 version.
There were many other moments of importance over the course of the 80 minutes at Twickenham, but few underlined the genius of Joe Schmidt and his players’ ability to execute on his ideas better than this play.Source: Six Nations Rugby/YouTube
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