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Analysis: Ireland's attacking belief flows to fire them to Six Nations title

In the first part of a study of Ireland’s attack against Scotland, we look at captain Paul O’Connell’s early try.

“IT GIVES YOU unbelievable confidence.”

That’s Robbie Henshaw’s answer when we ask him how much belief Ireland take from Joe Schmidt’s power plays working out in the high intensity of a Test match.

Paul O'Connell lifts the RBS 6 Nations Championship trophy as the Irish players celebrate Paul O'Connell gets his hands on the Six Nations trophy again. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Last week, we looked at Ireland’s attacking play following suggestions that Schmidt’s side were lacking in that area of the game. There had been repeated instances of Ireland coming extremely close to pulling off their starter plays in this Six Nations, although the tiniest of details being inaccurate meant unsuccessful outcomes.

On Saturday, when Ireland needed that accuracy most of all, they delivered on their detail and the confidence that followed from the success of their power plays was obvious to see.

That confidence filtered into everything Ireland did against Scotland, including passing, ball carrying, offloading [four in this game], rucking, and scrummaging.

As we mentioned last week, it’s remarkable the difference just one of these plays working out can make to a team’s mindset, and the most important truth is that Ireland’s players have believed in Schmidt’s plays all along.

You’ve seen last year against France in Paris that a couple of set-piece moves worked really well there too,” continues Henshaw. “We got benefit from Andrew Trimble going over. It gives us confidence that if you do your job right it will work.

“Against Wales a couple of missed targets maybe at the breakdown, and people just not getting through 100% of their job, it just led us to half line breaks and we didn’t execute perfectly, but we could see the moves were there.

“They work when everyone does their job to 100%.”

Backing it up

As we’ll see in this two-part analysis of Ireland’s attacking success in Murrayfield, Schmidt’s set-piece plays worked extremely effectively, arguably for the first time in this championship.

Joe Schmidt and Paul O'Connell "I think you should score after four minutes, Paulie." Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

They had been extremely close in other games, but this fixture saw the Irish players fully capitalise on the ingenuity of some of Schmidt’s constructions by finishing their chances when they came.

One of the issues for this Ireland team recently has been attacking inside the opposition 22, something we also looked at closely last week in the build-up to this Scotland game.

In Edinburgh, Ireland upped their accuracy in that sector too, crucially adding the variety that had been missing in the previous four rounds of this Six Nation.

Coupling the effective utilisation of the set-piece plays Schmidt and his coaching team provide the players with, and their increased success in the opposition 22, it was the finest attacking performance we’ve seen from Ireland this year.

It’s worth pointing out that Ireland were up against a weak Scotland defence that repeatedly lost collisions, organised itself poorly in the frontline, and generally under-performed, but Ireland could only beat what was presented to them.

Scotland’s weakness combined with Ireland’s genuine improvements for a 30-point winning margin that handed Schmidt’s men the title for a second consecutive year. 

Maul beginnings

Having watched what Wales had done to Italy and possessing an awareness of exactly what they needed to do, a strong start was naturally of great importance to Ireland in Murrayfield.

Paul O'Connell and Devin Toner in a maul O'Connell and Toner cause havoc at the Scotland maul. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The same is true of any team in any rugby game, but the necessity of coming out of the blocks accurately was also magnified for Ireland because of their poor start a week before in Cardiff.

To see Paul O’Connell touch down with just 4:08 on the clock was a major fillip to Ireland’s hopes, but the all-seeing Schmidt is likely to have gone back to the 1:52 mark to pinpoint exactly where this Irish try took root.

On the face of things, this score was just about Ireland being able to work their way over the line after 13 phases of close-range attack. That, however, would ignore the work that went into building that field position and momentum.

A superb Cian Healy turnover in midfield as Scotland attacked early on allowed Robbie Henshaw to grubber up the right and into touch five metres inside the Scots’ half of the pitch.

An ideal time chance for Scotland to build again perhaps, but Ireland’s defence had other ideas.

Source: RBS Six Nations

The subsequent lineout is shown above, with the defensive effort from Ireland being absolutely perfect. Ross Ford throws to the front, where Adam Ashe gathers the ball, but Jamie Heaslip’s sacking is clinical.

While the Scottish intention is to transfer the ball immediately from Ashe to Jim Hamilton, which they carry out, Heaslip still needs to remove Ashe from the mix to allow his teammates to flood in and defend the maul.

Peter O’Mahony leads the charge, driving in behind the sacked Ashe, and it’s worth keeping a close eye on his actions thereafter.

POM D

O’Mahony is highlighted in red above as Scotland transfer the ball. At this point, he’s bound to Dave Denton, with the number eight having lifted Ashe at the back, but O’Mahony swiftly realises that the ball has been transferred and shifts his focus.

Euan Murray is circled in yellow above, with his job in this instance meant to be to anchor in on the left of Jim Hamilton and provide stability and power at the front of the Scottish maul.

POM D2

Instead, O’Mahony gets in underneath the Scotland tighthead and essentially fights him out of the contest, reducing Scotland’s combined power. While that’s happening, O’Connell has led the counter-drive in behind O’Mahony.

Lock Jonny Gray is designated as the bracing player on the right side of Hamilton, but O’Connell beats the youngster to the punch, bursting in underneath Gray and into a superb driving position.

POC D

Healy and Devin Toner immediately follow in behind O’Connell, Mike Ross then lending his 120kg+ bulk as Ireland shift the Scots metres back up the pitch.

Ashe gets around to the back of the Scottish maul to take over in possession of the ball, but then Toner’s long levers come into play.

Lanky players like the 6ft 10ins Toner can sometimes struggle in fluid contact situations like mauls, as they understandably tend to find it difficult to swiftly shift their body position.

However, long arms can also be an incredibly useful tool in the maul, allowing the defensive player to reach beyond bodies and target the ball to great effect. Toner often does this for Ireland, while 6ft 9ins Luke Charteris is a menace in this regard for Wales.

TONER D

Timing is everything, and Toner’s is accurate in this instance.

The former Castleknock College man reaches his long left arm up over the right shoulder of Gray, down along the torso of Ashe and slams a big paw onto the ball just as Scotland scrum-half Greig Laidlaw looks to move it away from Ashe, forcing the knock-on.

Superb maul defence from Toner and his fellow forwards results in an early attacking scrum for Ireland about eight metres inside the Scottish half and wide on the right; the ideal scenario for one of Schmidt’s starter plays to be introduced.

Backs take over

The ensuing scrum actually goes to ground, but referee Jerome Garces is unwilling to halt play with the ball being available for Ireland to play.

Source: RBS Six Nations

The angle of the collapsed scrum proves ideal for Ireland, briefly tying down the Scotland back row as it does and ensuring Conor Murray can pass away from the base as close to Johnny Sexton as possible.

The starter play that follows from Ireland is an absolute peach, and one that is extremely reminiscent of Schmidt and Sexton’s glory days at Leinster. Both men are fond of the possibilities loop plays offer, with that movement key to this try.

Outside centre Jared Payne and fullback Rob Kearney are the direct-running players in this set-up, their task being to force defenders to ‘sit down’ on their heels, negating the possibility of them drifting out the line.

The initial loop from Sexton around Payne achieves that aim, in taking two defenders [out-half Finn Russell and inside centre Matt Scott] out of the game, as we see below.

Loop

The short handling from Payne is particularly sweet and typical of a man who has done his job with minimal fuss in this championship. Sexton’s slight delay on the next pass is also vital, as it leaves the remaining Sottish defenders with less time to react.

Vern Cotter’s side are defending ‘four up’ here, meaning they have included their openside wing, Dougie Fife, in the defensive line. It’s partly what Ireland have planned to exploit with this particular play.

Whatever about his strong attacking form, five-times capped Fife is a man Ireland would have looked to as a potential weak link in defence. They had great success in attacking up the left in the first half especially, most notable for this try.

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 10.52.37

The excellent work from Sexton and Payne narrow to the scrum leaves Scotland in a difficult defensive position, as we see above. Here, Kearney’s straightening decoy line is signified by the red arrow, with Fife being drawn towards the Ireland fullback [yellow].

Fife starts this passage of play relatively wide, in that he is not tight to his outside centre Mark Bennett.

Spacing

As a result, the narrowness of Ireland’s initial thrust means Fife is forced to come from out-to-in defensively.

With four defenders in the line, it’s what Scotland would have wanted to do anyway to get a dominant hit behind the gainline, but it means that Fife is going to have little opportunity of readjusting if Ireland are able to get a pass out the back of Kearney.

That’s exactly what happens, Sexton releasing a nicely-weighted pass [they aren't always, as Henshaw later learned!] behind his fullback and on to Tommy Bowe running an arc from his starting position tucked in behind Sexton, Henshaw running a similar line just outside Bowe.

Bennett

Above, we can see Fife slipping as he realises the error of his decision to bite in, but it’s worth pointing out that Kearney would possibly have broken the line here had Sexton opted to hit his fullback short and flat.

Scotland outside centre Mark Bennett isn’t actually aware of the arriving Kearney in this situation. He hasn’t lifted his head to scan the defence for almost two seconds at this point, and is caught totally flat footed by the Irish movement.

Bennett might have reacted well to pick off a flatter Sexton pass to Kearney, so the back door option is the strongest one available to Ireland’s out-half and he sends Bowe galloping into open space.

Overlap

The plan here for Ireland is obviously to score on first phase from the scrum and they put themselves into a good position to do so. That said, every starter play is carried out with the knowledge that the defence has an important part to play in things.

It would be interesting to hear Schmidt review this score, and whether or not he felt his side should have finished the original Bowe break immediately. Our feeling is that they should have.

The failure of his frontline defence leaves fullback Stuart Hogg totally exposed for Scotland, although Tommy Seymour is making a huge effort to cover across from the left side of the pitch.

Overlap

As we freeze the frame above, we can see that if Bowe draws Hogg and removes him from the equation, Ireland will be left with a two-on-one against Seymour tracking across the pitch and a try is almost certain.

Bowe is unable to tie Hogg down, although it must be underlined that the defensive effort from the Scotland fullback is sensational. There are two sides to every moment, and while Ireland should look at this as an opportunity they will execute better next time, Hogg’s actions are superb.

There have been some doubts about the 22-year-old’s defence in the past, but he has saved the Scots time and again in this championship. Here, he keeps his body open towards the touchline, keeps his feet constantly moving and never sits down for Bowe.

That frees him to shift out onto Henshaw when Bowe releases his pass, in turn allowing Seymour to get further across the pitch and mark Luke Fitzgerald on the outside.

Cover

Textbook from Hogg, but should Ireland look at this as a missed opportunity? Against better teams like New Zealand, Wales, South Africa or England, this is the type of chance that simply has to be taken.

Ireland operate under a philosophy of constantly looking to get better, and this moment is one they may well look at in that regard.

Could Bowe have done more to occupy Hogg? Could he have dummied and stepped inside the fullback? Could Henshaw have been flatter to Bowe and therefore skirted outside Hogg?

It’s far too easy to ask those questions while watching the game back with the luxury of pausing and rewinding of course, but Schmidt knows better than most that there is always room for being better.

Finishing

And so, Ireland find themselves within five metres of the opposition tryline, where they have had some bad times in the past fortnight and an area in which we highlighted the need for improvement.

This time, they get the job done clinically over 12 phases.

Source: RBS Six Nations

Reflecting on the state of Ireland’s attacking play under Schmidt last week, we pointed to the ineffectiveness of some of their play in the opposition 22, particularly underlining that there was a need for more variety aside from one-out runners.

Nothing revolutionary was required, but we looked to the simple screening plays Wales had used to manufacture their Scott Williams try as one example of how Ireland could ask more questions of the defence in the opposition 22.

In that vein, we had an early opportunity at Murrayfield to see if Ireland could bring such variety.

The first phase after Henshaw’s carry sees Ireland play off Sexton at first receiver, adding an additional pass to the mix. On the very next phase, there are three passes from Ireland as they go back down the short side through Sexton, Fitzgerald and Kearney.

POM Carry

Thereafter, Ireland do go to their one-out runner in blindside flanker O’Mahony short off the ruck, but it’s notable how the Munster captain wins the gainline, something Ireland repeatedly failed to do against the Welsh defence.

Clearly, this Scotland defence is weaker than the remarkable wall Wales erected in Cardiff, but we look instead at how Ireland ensured they had greater impact. Above, we can see O’Mahony coming from depth onto the ball at pace.

It’s really simple but it helps O’Mahony power closer to the line even without his excellent footwork, before Cian Healy and Toner make the next one-out carries.

Screen

Again, Ireland add some variety to their play on the very next phase, this time Murray sending a longer pass down the tunnel formed by Heaslip in front of the ball and Healy and O’Mahony behind it.

We’ve highlighted Heaslip’s nice little block on Ashe in the image above, which is intended to leave a hole for Henshaw to burst through as he comes on the switch off Sexton.

Heaslip carries out his role well, knocking Ashe briefly to his knees, but the promising 21-year-old bounces back up to save his side by hauling Henshaw to the ground.

O’Mahony adds even more variety to the attack by picking and jamming to the left, taking full advantage of an especially quick breakdown after Henshaw has been tackled by Ashe. This mixture of attacking thrusts forces Scotland to think and react, rather than allowing them to set a line and simply smash the Irish ball carriers.

O’Brien, O’Mahony and Heaslip are next up to carry for Ireland, testing whether the Scots have reached breaking point. Nothing gives, so again Schmidt’s men look to add an element of variety by using their backs and passing the ball twice.

Switch

Sexton gets width from the ruck, Murray’s pass is on the money and then a change of line from Kearney on a straight-forward switch again demands that the Scots react to a changing shape.

The now-tiring 120kg lock Gray loses the collision with 95kg Kearney and, as with the preceding phases, the rucking from Ireland is accurate.

O’Brien smashes assist tackler Blair Cowan off Kearney, while Mike Ross further adds to the length of the ruck by moving beyond the point of breakdown.

Breakdown

That leaves O’Connell with time and space to scoop the ball off the deck and barrel forward into then hole left by Ford’s folding around the corner. The most subtle of blocks ahead of the ball by Mike Ross also means Hamilton is in a weakened defensive position.

Ford folds around the corner in the belief that Hamilton will be the pillar on the left side of the Scottish defensive ruck, but Ross’ slight bump of the second row leaves him compromised.

Rossy

Referee Garces did review Ross’ action with his TMO and was content that the Ireland tighthead had not done enough to warrant ruling the try out, but it might be that the little nudge on Hamilton was enough to ensure the lock didn’t hold O’Connell up over the line.

What we can also say here is that the Irish attack that preceded this moment contributed to its success. Ford is clearly fatigued coming around the corner into the defensive line, and not even really looking at the ball.

Hamilton loses the fight to get beyond Ross in time to hit O’Connell too. These are two tired forwards who have been through a scrum, forced to sprint 40 metres back up the pitch, then dragged through the phases by a varied Irish attack.

From O’Connell’s point of view, it was an opportune finish that spoke volumes of his leadership. Schmidt’s side have never really had trouble getting into opposition territory, but getting over the line has been an intermittent issue.

Paul O'Connell scores a try O'Connell gets Ireland off to the perfect start. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

In these instances, you need an individual to step up and take the responsibility for actually scoring. The easier thing for O’Connell to do here would have been to act as the guard over the ball and allow the waiting Murray to play away to the left again.

Instead, the captain stepped up and showed his team the way forward. They followed over the next 76 minutes, all the way to a second consecutive championship under Schmidt.

Up and running

1 minutes and 28 seconds after Conor Murray feeds the scrum, O’Connell powers over the tryline for Ireland’s first try. The early score was vital for Schmidt’s side as it built their belief, particularly in being built on two elements that they needed to fire.

The set-piece play worked almost to perfection, bringing with it huge gains and great confidence, while Ireland’s more varied play in the Scotland 22 saw them drag Cotter’s side out of the comfort zone to breaking point.

Check out The42 later today for the second part of this analysis, which looks at the other three Ireland tries against the Scots.

‘It was just surreal’ – Turns out the Irish players experienced the last day drama just like we did

We need to build a Six Nations trapdoor and push a team through it

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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