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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 3 June, 2020
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Analysis: CJ Stander leads the way in Ireland's vicious ruck effort

Devin Toner and Jamie Heaslip were typically busy after the tackle.

Posted by on Wednesday, 3 June 2020

CJ STANDER MADE eight carries for Ireland last weekend against the All Blacks, averaging a gain of 1.8 metres per carry.

There were some vital contributions among them, but these are low figures for the Munster man in terms of carrying.

Prior to Chicago, Stander had averaged 15.4 carries per game for Ireland, or 17.1 if we remove the first Test in South Africa in June from the equation – Stander having been red carded after just 22 minutes of that contest.

CJ Stander celebrates winning Stander was ferocious at ruck time for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

So what was Stander up to against the All Blacks? There were a team-leading 14 tackles and three lineout takes among his workload, but perhaps of most value to Joe Schmidt’s side was the fact that Stander was busy obliterating rucks.

The 25-year-old’s turnover threat has been growing steadily in recent seasons, but this was the Test game where Stander demonstrated that he is equally as lethal when clearing bodies away from rucks in attack.

Stander’s efforts at the ruck were symbolic of the collective effort in this area of the game, which virtually never slips under Schmidt.

The Kiwi head coach is a firm believer in the sheer importance of the ruck to everything in rugby – as are most coaches – and he continues to place great demands on his players to deliver in this area.

The rucking performance against the All Blacks, like so many other aspects of the display, was world-class.

For anyone who has not read a ruck analysis on The42 before, it’s worth scrolling to the very bottom of this article now for an explanation of how and what we mark.

Toner towers

While Stander’s rucking performance stood out in terms of its sheer impact, Devin Toner was actually the leader for Ireland last weekend in terms of total numbers.

The lock got through a heavy 30 ruck actions, clearly leading the way in terms of second arrivals with 11.

DT Toner makes an effective contribution as second arrival.

Toner hitting a lot of rucks is nothing new for Ireland, of course. The former Castleknock College man has long since established himself as an excellent rucking player, with his best work generally done as the second or third arrival.

However, with Ireland’s pack lacking an out-and-out tighthead lock against the All Blacks, Toner stepped into the mantle of clearing bodies to an even greater extent.

His eight first arrivals included one dominant shot and a further six effective efforts, as the Leinster man helped to lead the challenge of providing Ireland’s attack with the quickest ruck ball possible.

Add in three lineout takes, his calling of the set-piece, three carries and seven tackles, and this was yet another high-quality performance from 30-year-old Toner.

Stander’s venom

With 27 ruck actions, Ireland’s blindside flanker wasn’t too far behind Toner in terms of a total figure.

Perhaps more important was the fact that Stander had eight effective contributions as first arrival, in which he had a team-leading total of nine. As second man in, Stander had two dominant clearouts and another effective marking.

CJ Stander wins a clean turnover for Ireland.

Even as third arrival, he managed another effective action, with his powerful leg drive proving important to each and every one of his determined ruck hits.

On the defensive side of the game, Stander also clearly led for Schmidt’s side, with his total of six contributions in this area including two crucial turnovers and a slowing marking.

While Schmidt may use Stander as more of a ball-carrying weapon against the All Blacks back in Dublin, the Munster man underlined that he is an increasingly versatile and rounded player in the Chicago victory.

Prop life

Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath have deservedly been garnering much praise for their displays against the All Blacks, and 21 ruck actions each stress that fine ruck work was a major part of their afternoon at Soldier Field.

Furlong is still only 23-years-old, while McGrath is just 27, meaning Ireland have an exciting propping pair to build with – as well as an ever-increasing pool of alternative options in the front row.

TF Furlong makes an effective clearout for Ireland.

The sheer mobility of both McGrath and Furlong was impressive against the All Blacks, as they choke tackled, chased kicks, and carried, while that attribute also extended into their rucking.

McGrath had a total of 11 effective actions across his ruck work, while Furlong had two dominant hits and eight effective markings in a vicious ruck display. The Wexford man even had a slowing effort on the defensive side of the coin, while McGrath had one defensive present.

With captain Rory Best offering up 19 rucking contributions – four of which were in defence – in between the props, Ireland’s front row was important to the overall quality of the ruck display.

The old reliable and the new blood

At this stage, it barely needs to be reiterated that Jamie Heaslip is a key cog in Schmidt’s Ireland machine. He carries, tackles, passes, mauls, jumps, lifts, communicates, and controls scrum possession to world-class levels.

His work rate is never anything but exemplary, and that is almost always reflected in the ruck numbers.

Jamie Heaslip celebrates winning Heaslip was excellent for Ireland again. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Against New Zealand, Heaslip had 28 ruck involvements, including a turnover assist and three defensive presents.

When Ireland were in possession, Heaslip had one dominant clearout, nine effective markings and 14 guard contributions as he helped to provide security to Ireland’s rucks. It’s a big workload, but it’s no surprise.

Despite having 24 fewer minutes on the pitch on Saturday, Josh van der Flier wasn’t too far behind Heaslip, a player he has always looked up to within the Ireland and Leinster environments.

The unfortunate Jordi Murphy made an impressive 17 ruck contributions before being forced off injured and was possibly on course to lead the entire team, before van der Flier entered the fray to produce 23 ruck actions.

There was only a single ineffective marking among them from van der Flier, who also added 13 tackles in a busy performance.

Unfortunately, we only got to see him carry once, but van der Flier’s role was to hammer rucks and bring Kiwis to ground. Job done.

Henshaw’s aggression

Saturday at Soldier Field brought a landmark performance from 23-year-old Robbie Henshaw in Ireland’s midfield.

He dominated the France game in last year’s World Cup pool stages, but this was almost certainly the best individual display he has delivered under Schmidt so far.

Henshaw Henshaw is dominant in clearing turnover threat Dane Coles.

There was his brilliant running line to score Ireland’s crucial fifth try, there were passes, a 92% tackle rate – including some statement-making hits – and some superb ball-carrying in traffic as he used his pirouette to beat defenders, but also a mountain of ruck work.

With 18 total involvements, Henshaw led the backs, with his two dominant hits laying down a marker, and four further effective clearouts showing exactly how much aggression Henshaw brought to the game.

He did have one ineffective effort as second arrival, but this was a classy rucking display from Henshaw, ensuring that his performance was a complete one.

Among the rest of the backline, Andrew Trimble [11] and Simon Zebo [12] were busy and effective at ruck time, as all players must be under Schmidt. Fullback Rob Kearney had contributions as well, providing more quality in an area of the game where his value can sometimes be under-appreciated.

While van der Flier made his presence felt as a replacement, the rest of Ireland’s bench players simply didn’t have many opportunities to slam rucks in the latter stages of the game.

As ever, Schmidt and his coaching staff will pick out the ineffective efforts – only six in total – in this rucking performance as they look for an improved performance against the All Blacks in Dublin in two weekends time.

But there must be contentment with this aspect of last weekend’s performance, as with so many other aspects of the 40-29 victory.

Top of the Pops

Below, we’ve listed the rucking involvements for each Irish player in the starting team and those who came off the replacements bench.

First arrivals

Ireland’s CJ Stander Stander was swift to the tackle zone. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

CJ Stander – 8 effective, 1 guard

Jamie Heaslip – 5 effective, 4 guard

Robbie Henshaw – 2 dominant, 3 effective, 2 guard, 1 present

Devin Toner – 1 dominant, 6 effective, 1 guard

Tadhg Furlong – 1 dominant, 5 effective, 1 guard

Rory Best – 3 effective, 1 guard, 2 present

Josh van der Flier – 4 effective, 1 guard

Rob Kearney – 3 effective, 1 guard, 1 ineffective

Jack McGrath – 3 effective, 1 guard

Simon Zebo – 3 effective, 1 guard

Donnacha Ryan – 1 effective, 2 guard, 1 present

Johnny Sexton – 1 effective, 2 guard, 1 present

Jared Payne – 1 effective, 1 guard, 1 present

Jordi Murphy – 2 effective

Andrew Trimble – 2 effective

Sean Cronin – 1 effective

Joey Carbery – 1 effective

Finlay Bealham – 1 effective

Second arrivals

Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner celebrate winning Toner was everywhere at ruck time. Source: INPHO/Billy Stickland

11 Devin Toner – 3 effective, 6 guard, 1 present, 1 ineffective

Jack McGrath – 6 effective, 3 guard

Jordi Murphy – 3 effective, 4 guard, 1 present, 1 ineffective

Jamie Heaslip – 1 dominant, 3 effective, 2 guard

CJ Stander – 2 dominant, 1 effective, 1 guard, 1 present, 1 ineffective

Josh van der Flier – 3 effective, 3 guard

Rory Best – 3 effective, 3 guard

6 Donnacha Ryan – 2 effective, 4 guard

Andrew Trimble – 4 effective

Simon Zebo – 3 effective, 1 guard

Jared Payne – 2 effective

Robbie Henshaw – 1 effective, 1 present

Conor Murray – 1 effective, 1 ineffective

Tadhg Furlong – 1 dominant

Ultan Dillane – 1 effective

Rob Kearney 1 effective

Cian Healy –  1 guard

Johnny Sexton – 1 present

Third arrivals

Rob Kearney and Tadhg Furlong celebrate winning Furlong cleaned up the bits and pieces. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

11 Tadhg Furlong – 3 effective, 6 guard, 2 present

Devin Toner – 3 effective, 4 guard, 1 present

Jamie Heaslip – 1 effective, 5 guard

Jack McGrath – 2 effective, 3 guard

Josh van der Flier – 5 guard

Donnacha Ryan – 2 guard, 2 present, 1 ineffective

Jordi Murphy – 2 effective, 1 guard, 1 present

Andrew Trimble – 2 effective, 1 guard, 1 present

CJ Stander – 1 effective, 3 guard

Simon Zebo – 2 effective

Rory Best – 2 guard

Robbie Henshaw – 2 guard

Rob Kearney – 2 guard

Cian Healy – 1 guard

Jared Payne – 1 guard

Defensive efforts

Ireland’s CJ Stander is tackled by New Zealand All Blacks’s Jerome Kaino and Joe Moody Stander is continuing the Munster tradition of breakdown competition. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

CJ Stander – 2 turnovers, 1 slowing, 3 present

Rory Best – 4 present

Josh van der Flier – 5 present

Jamie Heaslip – 1 turnover assist, 2 present

Johnny Sexton –  2 present

Simon Zebo – 2 present

Robbie Henshaw – 2 present

Tadhg Furlong – 1 slowing

Jordi Murphy – 1 present

Jack McGrath – 1 present

Donnacha Ryan – 1 present

Conor Murray – 1 present

Rob Kearney – 1 present

Finlay Bealham – 1 present

What we’ve looked at

For the purposes of this article, we’ve studied and noted every single action by Ireland’s players at the breakdown and ruck against New Zealand last weekend, both in attack and defence.

Just to clarify, when we refer to the ‘breakdown’ here, we mean the situation in the split second after a tackle has been made and no ruck has formed. The term ‘ruck’ signifies the meeting of at least one player from each team over the tackle in a contest for the ball.

When looking at Ireland’s rucking in attack, we have marked players in terms of their arrival to the ruck. That is, who was the firstsecond, or third player on the scene post-tackle? We have also counted fourth and fifth arrivals but those are not listed above.

Joe Schmidt celebrates winning with Donnacha Ryan Schmidt loves a good ruck. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

It’s useful to know who was first to the breakdown in attack but we also need to account for the quality of each player’s rucking effort. Otherwise, we’re just left with a pile of arguably meaningless numbers.

Stander was the first man to arrive to the breakdown on nine occasions against the All Blacks, but how effective was he once in position? Toner was the second Irish player into the ruck 11 times, but did he have a positive impact?

In order to attribute quality to each rucking effort, we’ve gone for five degrees of competence - dominant, effective, guard, present and ineffective.

dominant act of rucking signifies a moment where we actively think ‘that’s an exceptional clear-out.’ These incidences are rare, and involve cleaning a defensive player out extremely swiftly and powerfully, ensuring optimal quick ball. Removal of a major turnover threat would also generally qualify as dominant.

An effective rucking action is one that effectively clears out a defensive player, in a less breathtaking way than the dominant category. It generally involves moving a body that is not an immediate and major turnover threat, but ensures quick attacking ball.

guard action signifies a player who does not actually engage a defensive player, but is present at the breakdown/ruck to guard the ball, discouraging the defence from attempting to make a steal.

The present marker is used to note any player who is involved in the ruck, but has no major effect on it either positively or negatively. It’s quite a vague label, admittedly, but there are so many different things that can happen in a ruck that it serves a purpose here.

Finally, an ineffective marking indicates poor rucking from an Ireland player, whereby they failed to clear a turnover danger or were very slow to shift a body when that needed to be done.

As with so many other aspects of the game, rucking is complex and nuanced. A brilliant clear-out can come in the form of smashing a defender off his feet as he looks to poach the ball, or using a tin-opener technique to roll them away when that is more ideal.

A poor rucking effort could see the attacking player allow a defender into position for a turnover, slide up their back and beyond them, fall off their feet too easily, not arrive with a strong base beneath them, come in too high or lack aggression in the hit, to cite a few examples.

Joe Schmidt celebrates winning with Rob Kearney The Ireland head coach must be pleased with his side's rucking last weekend. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

That means that every dominant (or effective or ineffective) rucking effort is not of the same type. In that regard, you’ll have to trust our judgement on these actions, or go back and watch the game yourself.

Defensively, we’ve gone with four categories to indicate the quality of the effort.

turnover means the player has won possession from the opposition, while a turnover assist signifies that another player may not have won the turnover without the help of that assisting action. It can also indicate a defensive action that draws the opposition into conceding a penalty.

Slowing indicates that the defensive player has clearly done that to the opposition’s possession, while the present category signifies a player who needed to be cleared away by the opposition. That can be in the form of a player attacking the breakdown or a tackler bouncing to their feet to compete after completing the tackle.

The present tag might not always be a completely positive thing, especially if a player makes a poor decision to target the ball, but it does generally indicate to us which players are focused on competing to slow or turn over possession.

Finally, a miss marking signifies that the player has missed a gilt-edged opportunity to turn the opposition over or that he has given away a penalty.

*This analysis of the Ireland v New Zealand match was undertaken through one set of eyes and over the course of a stop-start-rewind-pause-fast forward-pause viewing of the game. If there are any minor inaccuracies, for that we apologise.

As we have mentioned before, this analysis is heavily inspired by the magnificent ‘Ruck Marks’ articles done by the excellent Digging Like a Demented Mole blog.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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