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Analysis: Where did Ireland's 25 tries come from last year?

The importance of the lineout and scrum is as clear as ever.

Tries Analysis

TRIES REMAIN THE most valuable currency in rugby and after scoring 25 of them in their nine games in 2020, Andy Farrell’s Ireland will be aiming to increase their output in the coming weeks as the Six Nations springs back into life.

Ireland’s average of 2.8 tries per game last year was level with Eddie Jones’ England, who won both the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup.

France led the way with 3.2 tries per game, giving Farrell and his attack coach, Mike Catt, something to work towards. 

That said, Ireland’s try-scoring results are directly relevant to every member of their coaching staff.

Paul O’Connell must help Ireland towards having a world-class lineout and maul again, John Fogarty’s scrum must be in mint condition, Simon Easterby’s defence needs to deliver turnovers that can lead to tries, and Richie Murphy’s skills work has to leave the players capable of taking chances with their passing and kicking. 

Below is an illustration of the starting point of each passage of play that led to an Ireland try in 2020. Ireland are playing from right to left.

Tries

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This map instantly highlights how reliant Ireland have been on set-pieces in the opposition 22 as the platform for their tries.

Just four of their 25 tries last year started outside the opposition 22, with three of those coming in a hammering of Italy.

We will drill into this data further below, but Ireland’s ability to create try-scoring passages from further out the pitch is something for Farrell and Catt to work on.

Set-piece side 

The chart below details the possession platform for all of Ireland’s tries last year, with 84% of them starting at either a scrum or lineout. 

Last year, 66.5% of all tries in the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup originated from set-pieces, so Ireland are well above average in this sense. 

Platform

The lineout was the primary source for Ireland last year, with 52% of their tries beginning with their own throw [average 46.5%].

These statistics stress the enduring importance of a smoothly-functioning lineout as an attacking platform for Ireland.

Farrell’s side scored three maul tries last year, with one against Wales and two against Italy. New forwards coach O’Connell will be working to improve their strike rate from the maul.

Ireland’s overall lineout success percentage last year was 88%, which was above average for the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup, but several steps behind standard-setting England’s 92.5%.

Anyone who watched Ireland last year will also recall lost lineouts at crucial stages of games in key positions like the one below that led to an England try.

Try

There is lots of work for O’Connell to do at lineout and maul time but he will feel he has some skilled players to coach in these areas.

The link between Rob Herring and James Ryan at the lineout was an important one in 2020, with the Ulster hooker throwing to the Leinster lock for six of the 13 tries that Ireland scored from lineouts.

Below is a full list of the throwing and catching combinations for each of Ireland’s 13 tries from lineout platforms.

Lineout combinations:

Herring – Ryan: 6
Herring – O’Mahony: 1
Herring – Stander: 1
Herring – Roux: 1
Heffernan – Ryan: 1
Heffernan – Doris: 1
Heffernan – Beirne: 1
Kelleher – Dillane: 1

Herring had to highest lineout throw success of Ireland’s hookers last year at 93.5%, with Dave Heffernan at 90.5% and Ronan Kelleher at 73.5%. 

With second row Iain Henderson having missed much of Farrell’s first year in charge, it will be interesting to note whether the Ulsterman now resumes leadership of the lineout calling. Ryan often took on that duty last year.

As well as leaning on their lineout, Ireland also frequently struck for tries off close-range scrums, eight of them in total and all inside the opposition 22. 

That means a whopping 32% of Ireland’s tries started with their own feed into a scrum [average 19%].

Interestingly, however, Ireland didn’t score on first phase off a scrum at all, instead generally using it to launch their aggressive, direct ball-carrying game and grinding through phases to eke their way over the tryline.

Farrell’s men only scored one try on first phase from a lineout that wasn’t a direct maul score, when passes from Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw allowed Hugo Keenan to finish in the left corner against Italy. 

mike-catt-with-andy-farrell Mike Catt [left] would love to see some of his set-piece strike plays produce tries. Source: Brian Reilly-Troy/INPHO

Scoring from set-piece with detailed and well-rehearsed plays can give teams huge confidence and this is one area Ireland will be aiming for improvement in 2021. Catt would dearly love to see some of his strike plays result directly in tries.

The possession platform graph above also underlines the relative lack of tries Ireland scored in the ‘transition’ phases of the game – turnover or kick return attacks.

This has long been an area of weakness in Ireland’s game and it’s something Catt has surely been working to improve. There were glimpses of progress from Ireland in transition situations last year but they need to be consistently more dangerous.

Close-range threat

The chart below highlights again how Ireland have been reliant on platforms inside the opposition 22 for their tries, with 12 of their 25 scores last year coming from five-metre lineouts or scrums.

Try Range

84% of Ireland’s tries have started inside the opposition 22, which is massively above the average of 52% for all tries in the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup last year.

Catt and Farrell would likely point to passages of build-up play from deep that nearly produced scores or yielded penalties that allowed them to kick into the opposition 22, but clearly there is scope for improvement.

The Ireland coaches will take encouragement from the fact that their team remains effective from close range when they do secure the ball at the set-piece.

Returning ball-carriers like Dave Kilcoyne and Tadhg Furlong should help with their narrow, direct ball-carrying game, which includes a heavy focus on one-out passes and forwards picking-and-jamming close to the tryline.

Ireland scored five tries directly from pick-and-jams last year, including the Cian Healy effort below against Scotland in December.

PJ

Note Ireland’s clear structure around Healy here. Peter O’Mahony is set up on his inside, while Rob Herring and Quinn Roux are ready to ‘latch’ from the outside. 

Ireland consistently look to create mismatches close to the ruck in this manner.

The likes of CJ Stander and James Ryan very often lead the way with basic one-out carries off Conor Murray at scrum-half and that will continue to be part of their plan, as with every team.

But it has been noticeable that Ireland have been intermittently experimenting with slightly different shapes when running off their scrum-half, with one example below.

Stack

This ‘vertical stack’ involves Will Connors [7] running in front of Henderson [4] as a decoy and it’s successful in this instance as Georgia hooker Shalva Mamukashvili bites inwards onto Connors, leaving clear space for Henderson to charge into.

Having variety even with narrow attacks inside the 22 is important for Ireland.

Skip

In the instance above, Murray throws a simple skip pass beyond the most obvious ball carrier – Ryan – to Caelan Doris, giving the number eight more space and time on the ball. Doris’ surge lays the platform for the Healy try we saw earlier.

The most encouraging scores from close-range by Ireland last year involved more intricate finishing touches, as below against Scotland for what was the very first try of the Farrell era.

JS

This try did come with Ireland playing penalty advantage, meaning there was less ‘risk’ involved in the three-pass sequence that sends Johnny Sexton over.

Farrell’s side scored five tries on penalty advantage last year but it would make them a more dangerous attacking team if plays like the one above weren’t only reserved for those risk-free moments when they know they have a penalty to come back to.

Below, Ireland make a good decision to exploit the momentum gained by Josh van der Flier’s carry to flash the ball wide against Wales.

Wales

John Cooney skips the obvious ball-carrier – Devin Toner in this instance – before passes from Ross Byrne and Jordan Larmour allow Andrew Conway to finish.

While throwing chains of passes inside the opposition 22 can be very dangerous, leading to intercepts or ball-and-all tackles, Ireland will likely be pushing themselves to more consistently identify and exploit opportunities like the one above. 

Phases and timing

The chart below illustrates the phases of possession on which Ireland scored their tries.

Phase

32% of Ireland’s tries came on first phase, which is essentially on par with the average of 33% for all tries in the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup last year.

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The graph above shows us that Ireland generally either score in a flash or have to grind through hard-working passages of six or more phases to bag their tries. 

Ireland went as high as 14th phase for one of their tries last year, Andrew Porter driving over from a few metres out for a late consolation score against England in the Six Nations. 

Below, we see a quarter-by-quarter breakdown of when Ireland scored their tries in games.

Try Timing

Ireland’s final-quarter peak, which is slightly above average, was boosted notably by four tries after the 60th minute in their big win against Italy. 

Most teams put a major focus on the ‘championship minutes’ just before and just after half-time, when tries can be major psychological blows to the opposition, so Ireland will hope to improve their rate of scoring in those periods. 

Attacking kicks 

Kicking didn’t feature very prominently in Ireland’s try-scoring in 2020 but there were a couple of encouraging signs during the autumn campaign.

Murray produced a sublime long grubber kick for Keenan to finish a turnover try against Italy that started inside Ireland’s 22, while we also saw Billy Burns teeing up Jacob Stockdale’s consolation score against England with a delightful chip.

JS

Earlier in this game, Ross Byrne’s grubber kick should have resulted in a Chris Farrell try, and these examples should serve as encouragement for Ireland to further pursue such tactics in 2021.

In their most recent game against Scotland, we saw another clever use of penalty advantage for a planned attacking kick by Sexton that caught the Scots off guard.

Earls

Keith Earls is the man to dot down here on the back of the smart play from Sexton and Henshaw.

Again, the element of surprise that Ireland throw at Scotland here is crucial and the hope is that this kind of play won’t only be limited to penalty advantage or for late consolation scores.

Assist leader 

Scrum-half Murray provided more try-scoring passes than any other Irish player in 2020, while also delivering the aforementioned kick for Keenan’s try against Italy.  

Murray’s total of six assists had him firmly out in front in this area. Scrum-halves do tend to provide many scoring passes as teams finish from close-range, so it’s little surprise that the Munster man led the way.

CM

Still, his decision-making was strong at times in 2020. Above, Murray opts to fire the ball beyond Larmour to Henshaw for the centre to finish powerfully.

One thing Catt and Farrell will keep asking for more of from the in-form Murray is a ball-carrying threat around the fringes.

6 assists Conor Murray

2 assists Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony

1 assist Jordan Larmour, Robbie Henshaw, Hugo Keenan, Caelan Doris, Billy Burns, Chris Farrell, Jacob Stockdale.

Top try-scorer

24-year-old Keenan had a positive first Test campaign with Ireland last autumn and scored three tries in that window to leave him as Ireland’s top try-scorer for 2020.

The Leinster man is favourite to wear Ireland’s number 15 shirt in this championship following his excellent recent form.

HK

Otherwise, there was a large spread in Ireland’s try-scoring as 17 other players dotted down for Farrell’s side, which did feature plenty of chopping and changing given the strange year that 2020 was.

3 tries Hugo Keenan

2 tries Keith Earls, Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, Cian Healy, Jacob Stockdale

1 try Jordan Larmour, Tadhg Furlong, Josh van der Flier, Andrew Conway, Andrew Porter, CJ Stander, Will Connors, Bundee Aki, Dave Heffernan, Quinn Roux, James Lowe, Billy Burns.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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