LEINSTER FANS ARE likely to fondly remember Cian Healy’s try against Clermont in their 2012 Heineken Cup semi-final, when a stunning Joe Schmidt strike move opened up the Top 14 side and allowed Rob Kearney to feed the loosehead for a crucial score.
Leinster’s ‘power play’ from a lineout platform caught Clermont completely off guard and the sheer effectiveness of it has meant that Schmidt has kept it in his playbook ever since.
Importantly, Schmidt has developed the set-piece strike over the course of recent seasons, adding small tweaks that paint a slightly different picture for opposition coaches and analysts.
We have seen many other teams – including Munster, Ulster, Exeter, and Scotland – use very similar power plays in recent years, although we had have been reliably assured that it was formed in the mind of the Ireland head coach.
In early 2012, against the Cardiff Blues, Leinster brought out the move to superb effect [thanks to David Cahill for bringing this to our attention].
Rob Kearney was the man to score and it wouldn’t be the last time he did so with this move.
While other teams have adapted and mimicked the move – and possibly even created it themselves – it’s fair to say that Schmidt has driven it on and continued to develop more than anyone else in recent years.
Dipping into the archives, it’s worth taking a look at Leinster’s fantastic score against Clermont – having tucked the play away for a number of months.
We know how important lineout platforms are to Schmidt’s sides, but the set-piece very nearly lets Leinster down before they really get started in this instance.
Leinster use a full seven-man lineout just beyond the Clermont 10-metre line, but Nathan Hines almost picks off the throw to Leo Cullen.
The ball lands into the grateful hands of Mike Ross, who locates scrum-half Isaac Boss and Leinster can play.
Boss hits out-half Johnny Sexton, who in turn skips Gordon D’Arcy to Brian O’Driscoll.
O’Driscoll dummies a pass to D’Arcy, who moves across behind him, but O’Driscoll’s intention is always to carry.
Designated to resource the ruck for Leinster are Sexton, Sean O’Brien and Ross, coming from the tail of the lineout.
Already, we can see Boss indicating that he wants ball carriers around the corner, to his right.
However, that’s a decoy motion from Boss, with Leinster intending to bounce back against the grain and attack to the left of the ruck.
Waiting to the left for a pass from Boss is a bank of four Leinster forwards, apparently set to carry the ball.
Richardt Strauss is the target, with Shane Jennings and Cian Healy to his left, while Brad Thorn is on his inside shoulder.
Boss passes to Strauss and immediately darts on a loop line in behind the hooker.
There’s already quite a bit of reading for Clermont’s defenders to do in this case, but the real Leinster aim on this second phase is to strike just to the left of the ruck.
Boss’ looping line around Strauss is a decoy, with the Leinster hooker instead turning back infield towards the ruck and making an inside pass to the late-arriving fullback Rob Kearney.
As we can see above, Kearney’s ‘hidden’ running line starts on the right-hand side of the ruck and he has to time the run perfectly in order to maintain the element of deception and, alternatively, not overrun the ball.
As we see below, Kearney just has to slightly chop his feet and slow his stride as he gets towards the gainline, ensuring he doesn’t get beyond Strauss before the pass arrives.
In quite a bit of traffic and with Thorn blocking off his line of vision to Kearney, Strauss does very well to time his release and hit the fullback.
The pass may travel a hint forward, but in moments of ingenuity like this we must give the benefit of the doubt to the creators.
While all of that is happening, it’s important to note the role of the players further to the left for Leinster.
We can see Jamie Heaslip and Luke Fitzgerald holding width for Leinster on the left touchline, ensuring that Clermont cannot condense their defence in closer to the ruck, and these wide roles are as important as any others in this power play.
Without Heaslip and Fitzgerald being in these positions, Clermont could tighten up closer to the ruck, getting more bodies in that area and closing off the opportunity.
Boss, meanwhile, gets a shoulder to the face from Jamie Cudmore for his troubles after running his dummy loop line – another job well done.
The key to this Leinster play is dragging the Clermont pillar away from the edge of the ruck, therefore creating space for Kearney to flood into.
And that’s exactly what occurs, as Elvis Vermeulen is attracted away from the pillar position by the combined effect of the numbers in Leinster’s bank of forwards and Boss’ looping line.
The space is opened for Kearney, but Sexton, Ross and Leo Cullen – who was the fourth arrival to the ruck area – ensure that there is not going to be any safety catch for Clermont’s defence.
With Leinster bouncing back to the left, they anticipate that one of Clermont’s defenders from the right-hand side will attempt to fold across to the left in order to provide back-up.
However, Ross and Cullen are both on their feet creating something of a wall just in behind the ruck, while Sexton actually bumps Clermont openside Alexandre Lapandry twice, ensuring that he has no hope of folding across late and scragging Kearney.
It’s important attention to detail, even if Lapandry might not have made it across in time.
With Kearney breaking the Clermont line, we see Healy and Jennings [circled in white below] reacting superbly, having anticipated that bust of the defence, and they are in ideal support positions, allowing the fullback to feed the loosehead prop to score.
We have also circled Sexton and Fitzgerald in red below, with the out-half following up his nudging of Lapandry by taking off upfield to offer inside support, while the left wing shows his pace to get to Healy’s outside shoulder, providing yet another element of support.
Over on the right-hand side of the ruck, largely out of shot, we shouldn’t forget that D’Arcy and right wing Isa Nacewa have roles to play in this try.
Even if they are not directly getting onto the ball, their presence on the right interests defenders and holds them in place in that area of the field.
In Schmidt’s power plays, everyone has a role to fill. When it all comes together – as in this case – it’s a beautiful sight and an utter thrill for the players involved.
Moving into the international arena, Schmidt has naturally created more and more set-piece plays for Ireland to use, but the dummy loop bouncing back against the grain soon popped up in their attacking play.
Crucially, Schmidt had pushed the power play forward and developed new layers of complexity for the defence to deal with.
Below, we see Kearney’s try against England in the 2014 Six Nations, Schmidt’s first in charge.
Firstly, we can see that the lineout set-up for Ireland is different here.
Whereas we had a ‘full’ seven-man lineout in the Leinster example, Ireland have a six-man lineout in this instance, with Chris Henry out in midfield and scrum-half Conor Murray starting at the front of the lineout.
Heaslip is at receiver for Ireland, whereas scrum-half Boss filled that position in the Leinster example.
As soon as Rory Best throws the ball, Murray and Heaslip are in motion.
Murray arcs out from the front of the lineout, ready to accept the ball from jumper Devin Toner, while Heaslip drifts away from the lineout, making sure not to break the 15-metre line before Toner has actually popped to Murray, thus ensuring the lineout is over.
Heaslip carries the ball, running at England’s first defender out from the lineout.
Tasked with hitting that first ruck are Henry, coming from the midfield, and tighthead prop Ross, who has started at the back of the lineout.
Again, this is the kind of ‘role’ we always hear Ireland talking about. In this case, Ross and Henry’s roles involve resourcing ruck number one.
Henry is the ‘right barrel’, Ross is the ‘left barrel’ – ensuring they get a good clean across the width of the breakdown – and then Dave Kearney arrives in as third man, the ‘safety,’ who provides back-up in case England counter.
Coming around the corner, Toner is the next designated carrier.
We can see below that he has Peter O’Mahony and Paul O’Connell in close support behind him, their role being to resource the second ruck as those two ‘barrel’ players.
Toner makes a positive carry into the tackle of Chris Robshaw and we see O’Mahony pushing Joe Launchbury as he attempts to step around the breakdown.
Ireland’s plan is to bounce back against the grain on the next phase – third phase, rather than second phase – and pass left.
Again, the intention is to draw the pillar defender on that side of the ruck away and open up space, but O’Connell knows his role is not complete just yet.
The camera angle from behind the posts gives us a better idea of what O’Connell does as Murray is passing the ball back to the left. His role is similar to what Sexton did in the Leinster example.
O’Connell gets beyond the breakdown and blocks Launchbury, England’s left pillar from moving back across to the right side.
When Launchbury fights through the initial block, O’Connell actually reaches out to grab the England lock.
We can see how narrowly Launchbury misses out on getting a hand to Kearney, and he almost certainly would have without O’Connell’s intervention. Illegal but done just about subtly enough by O’Connell.
We can see above that referee Craig Joubert’s line of vision is momentarily blocked by Heaslip and Dylan Hartley in front of him, and with little reaction from Launchbury, O’Connell is in the clear.
As for the content of the dummy loop play, the premise is familiar to us, with lots of importance movement and some differences to the Leinster example.
Tighthead prop Ross gets around the corner to the right of the ruck here, looking to lure England into thinking that Ireland will play another phase in that direction.
Meanwhile, Sexton is bouncing back to the left-hand side, while fullback Kearney is covering huge ground to come all the way from wide on the right to hit his line just to the left of the ruck.
It’s also worth noting that Best and Dave Kearney are holding width to the left, attracting English defenders’ attention in the 15-metre channel as Ireland bounce back.
The presence of Best and Kearney out there is vital when combined with the change of direction from Ireland and the running line of Sexton, coming back onto the left-hand side of the ruck at threatening speed.
All of that lures England fullback Mike Brown into immediately reacting with a big effort to sweep across to England’s wide right channel, as he presumes Ireland are going to shift the ball to that width.
When Kearney bursts through the English frontline defence, we see that Brown has over-run the linebreak and with Kearney swerving towards the posts, Brown has too much space to make up.
Before that occurs, we get the ingenuity of the inside pass.
Again, there are multiple distractions for the English defenders.
Murray loops around Heaslip, while Sexton and Henry run threatening lines to Heaslip’s outside shoulder.
The Ireland number eight, however, is looking for that pass back to the inside, and he does superbly to step off his left foot and engage Hartley, England’s pillar defender.
It’s superb play from Heaslip to buy a second to allow Kearney to arrive at full speed and break the line, but we also see how England have been pulled out of shape by all of the aforementioned decoys.
They get too wide of the ruck with their pillar, A, B, C defenders – the first four out from the ruck – and that forces Hartley to engage with Heaslip, instead of holding position at pillar and guarding against any late pass back inside.
Ireland’s execution, meanwhile, is perfect and Kearney scythes through with Sexton – always working ahead of time – offering a possible passing option for him in behind the English line in case he can’t beat Brown.
We jump forward to the 2015 Six Nations and the defeat to Wales in Cardiff, when two failed attempts to crack Warren Gatland’s men with strikingly similar moves came up just short.
Above, we see Ireland use the dummy loop strike and again there has been development, with Ireland launching off a midfield scrum in this instance and then attempting to strike from wide on the left.
On this occasion, Robbie Henshaw is used as the strike runner but, as we showed at the time, Ireland’s ruck detail just lets them down and what would almost certainly have been a try is prevented by Jamie Roberts.
In the same game, Ireland use the power play off lineout, but this time from the right.
Again, it’s familiar to us, even with some elements slightly shifting.
Ireland’s inaccuracy in execution costs them, as they isolate Alun Wyn Jones but fail to seize the opportunity. Simultaneously, the Welsh lock makes a superb read to deny them the linebreak.
To the 2016 Six Nations clash with France, and again we see a scrum version of the play from Ireland.
Henshaw drops off but the French manage to evade any potential Irish blocking at the ruck and smother the Ireland centre.
Later in the game, Ireland’s lineout attack from the right sees them strike with Kearney on third phase.
Symbolically on a frustrating day for the Irish attack, Les Bleus just about prevent Kearney from making a clean bust of their line, with Sexton offering support in behind the line. A loose offload and the opportunity is gone.
These examples show how much of a fondness Schmidt’s Ireland have for this play, involving the dummy loop and inside pass.
When we saw Scotland run their own version of it – below – against the French in round two of this year’s Six Nations, we had a feeling Ireland might wheel it out again at the Aviva last weekend.
Current Scotland boss Vern Cotter was, of course, Schmidt’s head coach during his time with Clermont and was still in charge of the Top 14 side when Leinster cut them open in 2012.
Five years later, Cotter’s Scotland are using something similar.
Last weekend in Dublin, we only had to wait until the fifth minute to see Schmidt’s dummy loop play put into action and, once again, there was a slight tweak to change the picture for the defence.
The tweak on this occasion was that Ireland took an extra phase before employing their dummy loop, getting further across the pitch than we have seen from the lineout platform before.
Ireland start with a full seven-man lineout on the left, Heaslip popping the ball down to Murray from a jump at the front.
Murray hits out-half Sexton and he finds Henshaw to carry up to the gainline, with Garry Ringrose, Simon Zebo and O’Brien designated to resource the first ruck [is it actually a ruck? Let's not go there for now!]
Around the corner comes CJ Stander to carry, with Heaslip, Toner and then Donnacha Ryan following in to clear French bodies.
Whereas before, we would have seen Ireland strike back to the left on third phase, they take another carry around the corner on this occasion.
Coming all the way around from the initial lineout, hooker Best carries third-up, with props Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong in close support to ruck, while Heaslip gets across to as the third man onto the scene.
Now, Ireland are finally ready to bounce back to the left and strike with their dummy loop play.
As always, the work at the ruck is going to be crucial, and we can see that McGrath and Furlong have both worked immediately back to their feet to get into blocking positions in front of the ruck, with Heaslip joining them.
The trio of Irish forwards essentially create that wall in between France’s left pillar, Cyril Baille, and the other side of the ruck.
That means Baille cannot fold across to get to the inside shoulder of France’s right pillar, Kevin Gourdon, as Ireland bounce back against the grain.
Before that happens, we see Ireland looking to sell another phase around the corner to the French defence, with Toner and Ryan working across to that side of the pitch.
Scrum-half Murray briefly points to the right, calling for another carry to that side, but Ireland are all clear that they are striking back to the left on this fourth phase of attack.
Again, Kearney is the strike runner for Ireland.
It’s that familiar hidden running line coming across behind the ruck and arriving late onto the inside pass.
This time, Sexton is not going to bounce back to the other side of the ruck, however. Instead, he goes straight through the French defence, hoping to link with Kearney on the other side of the gainline.
Ireland are fully set to strike, but their execution lets them down.
Stander plays the hub role in the dummy loop this time, accepting a pass from Murray and then turning back in towards the ruck to find Kearney.
Stander succeeds in attracting Gourdon away from the pillar position, opening up the space for Kearney to run into.
With the rucking players doing a fine job of closing off Baille’s access in folding across, there is now clear space for Kearney to burst into.
However, as we can see from the clip above, Kearney stumbles to ground instead of breaking through for Ireland.
The fullback briefly loses sight of the ball as he passes in behind referee Nigel Owens, who is unfortunately placed from Ireland’s point of view. On top of that, Stander’s pass is just an inch too low for Kearney to gather in ideally.
Coaches talk about the ‘fine margins’ so often, but Kearney’s stumble costs Ireland what would likely have been a try early in this meeting with les Bleus.
Gourdon reacts late to the inside pass and appears to get to Kearney, but had the Ireland fullback gathered cleanly, he almost certainly would have cut through a despairing left arm tackle effort.
While Baptiste Serin is in behind the French defensive line, we can see that Sexton and Murray have both worked through the defence to offer support that would allow Kearney to either pass or offload.
We see the exasperation of both Murray and Sexton, throwing their hands out in frustration as Kearney goes to deck instead of breaking through.
Instead of at least cutting through the French defence and stretching them to a high degree, or quite probably scoring directly on this phase, Ireland are forced to recycle and they lose their shape in attack with players out of position.
Louis Picamoles wins a breakdown turnover three phases later, as Ireland react poorly to the failure of their pre-planned power play.
Determined to force the point, Ireland attempted almost exactly the same four-phase move in the 35th minute.
Off another seven-man lineout, Best throws to Toner in the middle and Ireland go off the top, Murray and Sexton finding Henshaw to carry in midfield.
Ringrose, Zebo and O’Brien again resource the ruck.
On second phase, it’s Heaslip – not Stander – who carries on this occasion, with Stander and Ryan providing the ruck support.
Toner is not present this time, instead working his way around the corner towards his fourth-phase decoy position.
Best is the carrier on third phase to the right again, with Furlong and McGrath in support, joined by Stander – who has swapped roles with Heaslip.
Again, Ireland look to close off Baille’s access to fold back across to the left, as we see above.
This wide angle also gives us a good idea of the animation Ireland are bringing further out from the ruck on the left.
Ringrose has his hands up, shouting for the ball, while Henshaw is clapping his hands in his bid to attract French attention. Out of shot towards the left touchline, Zebo is holding width.
All of this is planned to drag the French away from being bunched closer to the ruck.
Yet again, Ireland succeed in dragging the pillar defender – Rabah Slimani this time – out and create the space close to the ruck, as indicated below.
The hole is open for Kearney and this time he runs in front of referee Owens, who is indicating a penalty advantage for Ireland.
Heaslip again puts a slight delay on his pass, ensures Slimani is completely draw in, then releases the ball inside to Kearney.
France have recognised this picture, however, and react wonderfully.
Kearney breaks the line but three French defenders have pre-empted it at the final moment.
Guilhem Guirado drops out of the French frontline and tracks back in behind Slimani, Serin closes up from the backfield far earlier than before, and Baille fights harder to get beyond McGrath.
With Murray getting through the defence again, there is a very, very brief window for a possible pass or offload from Kearney in behind the French.
Murray is evidently expecting it and appears a little surprised it doesn’t arrive from Kearney, but the French reaction in defence is excellent and means any pass would bring potential risk of being picked off by Serin.
We can see that Sexton has got through the line from the right-hand side of the ruck, but he’s well beyond the ball and cannot offer support.
An excellent French recognition and resistance.
The premise in these two examples against France is essentially the same as all of the others we looked at – bouncing back against the grain, dragging the pillar defender away from the ruck, blocking the other pillar from folding, delivering a late pass back inside after running a dummy loop play, and having support players pre-empting the break.
The tweak from Ireland to change the picture is a small one, adding in another ball-carrying phase around the corner.
The first opportunity against the French would certainly have frustrated Schmidt and Ireland, given that they did almost everything right to create a linebreak and potentially score an important early try.
In the second incident, however, the French did well to understand what was happening and plug the hole even after Ireland had created it.
We will watch on with interest as Schmidt perhaps looks to tweak one of his old favourites again in the coming weeks and years.
His sharp tactical mind is forever working out ways of breaking down the opposition and, even though it doesn’t always lead to try-scoring success, Schmidt’s intellect continues to be a great weapon for this Ireland team.
- This article was updated at 9.47am on 2 March to add additional paragraphs about Exeter Chiefs’ use of a similar move and to correct ‘Duane Vermeulen’ to ‘Elvis Vermeulen’.
- The article was then updated at 10.24am, removing the paragraphs about Exeter, when the author was made aware that Leinster had used the move before that date. If anyone has earlier examples, please do get in touch.