THERE WERE EIGHT tries for Ireland on Saturday and while it’s easy to write them off as meaningless, coming as they did against Italy, there were encouraging signs for Joe Schmidt ahead of the clash with Wales in two weekends’ time.
The try that will possibly have pleased Schmidt most was the first Jacob Stockdale score, particularly given how closely linked it is to Ireland’s main problem against the Welsh in recent times.
Ireland have struggled against the Welsh defence in phase play since 2015, with Warren Gatland’s side being comfortable racking up huge workloads in their defensive sets.
Think of those epic Welsh passages of defence in 2015 in Cardiff, the 16-16 draw in Dublin in 2016 or Ireland’s inability to score a try against Gatland’s men last year in a 22-9 defeat.
Under Shaun Edwards, the Welsh defensive work rate is off the charts, while their tackle technique is accurate and their linespeed is very aggressive. Their discipline in defence is excellent too – they conceded just two penalties against England last weekend despite making 200 tackle attempts.
We will take a closer look at the Welsh defence before Ireland’s clash with them on 24 February, but it’s important to underline that Schmidt’s men have very often had problems converting pressure inside the Wales 22 into scores.
It’s not hard to drag up memories of Ireland battering at the Welsh line with one-out ball carriers and getting no reward, so it’s clear that a tweak in approach has been needed.
We saw that England relied on a beautiful Owen Farrell grubber kick, and then a brilliant bridge pass from the inside centre and a gorgeous Joe Launchbury offload to break the Welsh defence for two Jonny May tries last weekend.
Ireland are likely to need something different too, which is what makes the first Stockdale try encouraging for them.
The use of forwards as passers has grown throughout during Schmidt’s Ireland reign. When they won their back-to-back Six Nations titles in 2014 and 2015, only 12.5% of their total passes were made by forwards.
That has risen gradually over the years, however, and in the November Tests last year the figure hit 17%, while Ireland’s forwards made 21% of their team’s total passes against Italy on Saturday.
Stockdale’s first score against the Italians is a fine example of how effective a simple forward’s pass can be, particularly in getting over the tryline.
In this instance, Ireland have had no success with their five-metre lineout maul, Italy defending it well, before Peter O’Mahony splinters off to the right for a carry that takes him to within three metres of the tryline.
CJ Stander offers himself up for a one-out carry next, before Jack McGrath picks and jams with Andrew Porter latching on and O’Mahony taking out the assist tackler.
While there is no doubting the hunger in Ireland’s ball-carrying here, we have seen them in similar situations many times before, when they have opted to continue hammering on the brick wall and looking to eke their way over the tryline.
That has worked at times, of course, but on this occasion they look to unlock the door instead of continuing with the route-one approach.
Devin Toner is at first receiver when Kieran Marmion fires off his pass to start the next phase and so often we have seen an Irish forward carry in this position.
This time, Ireland’s shape around Toner [who is circled in red below] gives him options.
Toner can carry himself obviously, but he can also tip on a short pass to Rory Best [blue] on his shoulder or pass out the back of Best to Joey Carbery [white].
The Italians are clearly expecting another narrow carry and we can see that Tommaso Benvenuti is biting inwards towards Toner and Best [as indicated by the yellow arrow above].
Toner swivels and releases the ball out the back to Carbery and we see more evidence of Ireland’s good shape.
Carbery [circled in red below] again has options.
Bundee Aki is running a hard, flat line off Carbery [indicated by blue above], while Stockdale [white] is bouncing out the back of Aki to offer Carbery the option of throwing a screen pass.
As Carbery opts to go out the back again to Stockdale, we can see below that Aki has got a slight nudge onto Italy’s Matteo Minozzi [blue circle below].
Aki’s work ahead of the ball is just enough to prevent Minozzi from getting through and scragging Stockdale.
Outside the Ulster wing, we can see how Rob Kearney’s running line [red above] echoing Stockdale’s angled run draws the next Italian defender, Jayden Hayward, up onto him [yellow] and creates the hole for Stockdale to accelerate into.
From Italy’s point of view, this is very poor defending – as for other tries – but Ireland will take encouragement from their execution so close to the tryline.
The key is Toner’s simple link pass, while the attacking shape that has been built outside him is far better than what we saw from Ireland against France.
As importantly, the clip above shows us how well positioned Carbery and Stockdale are, both remaining hidden and timing their darts to the outside until the very last moment.
That timing makes it far more difficult for defenders to make a good read and against Wales’ aggressive linespeed, it could be essential.
This was one of eight passes from Toner against Italy, while O’Mahony also had eight, Best, Dan Leavy and Jack Conan had seven, Iain Henderson five, and the replacements forwards contributed another eight between them.
While it seems unlikely that Ireland’s forwards will make a similar number or percentage of passes as they did against Italy in each of the three remaining Six Nations games, their increasing confidence is a positive for Schmidt.
When his side are hammering against the brick wall that is Wales’ defence close to the tryline, can they trust their skills, find their shape and execute under far more pressure to unlock the door?
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