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Dublin: 1°C Thursday 3 December 2020
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Conor Murray only box kicked twice for Ireland against Italy. This is why

Ireland had encouraging variety in their kicking game as they beat Italy in Dublin.

AMONG THE MANY noises that were absent at the Aviva Stadium yesterday was that strange collective sigh as Ireland launch a box kick into the Dublin sky.

Even if supporters had been allowed in, they wouldn’t have had much cause to deliver it.

Conor Murray box kicked just twice in yesterday’s 50-17 win over Italy and there were two main reasons for that.

Firstly, Ireland didn’t over-use his box kicking to exit their defensive territory and, secondly, Ireland kicked from hand in phase play before they had to kick.

Let’s look at the exit strategy from Ireland first. ‘Exiting’ is a huge part of the game as teams look to get out of a dangerous area of the pitch without inviting pressure back onto themselves immediately.

Murray’s brilliant box kicking has long been key to Ireland’s tactics in this part of the game but they had damaging exiting issues in defeat to England at Twickenham back in February.

In the eighth minute, Murray found himself box kicking from the position we see below – more than 20 metres infield from the left touchline.

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This is a very tough position for a right-footed player to kick from, back over themselves towards the safety of the touchline. Murray would rather be closer to the touchline here, making it easier to get the ball safely out of play downfield.

From the difficult position above, Murray’s kick duly lands just short of the touchline.

Jacob Stockdale is the primary chaser for Ireland and he neither gets properly into the air to contest nor smashes England wing Jonny May out into touch after he catches.

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That means May can fight infield and spark a counter-attack that results in England scoring a try just 24 seconds later after a clever Ben Youngs grubber kick bobbles awkwardly and sees the retreating Johnny Sexton spilling it for George Ford to dot down.

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England’s second try also stemmed from an unsuccessful Ireland exit.

As we can see below, Murray has found himself in that same tricky position but Ireland opt to box kick again.

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With Maro Itoje applying typically intense pressure in counter-rucking, Murray makes a poor connection with his kick and it flies low and infield, directly to the waiting May.

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May sparks the counter-attack, England immediately break Ireland’s defence, win a penalty, kick into the left corner and then use penalty advantage to chip behind Ireland.

This time, the retreating Stockdale fails to field the ball and Elliot Daly pushes past him to ground the ball for England’s second try.

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Clearly, there are many other things that happen in between the box kicks and the England tries, but Ireland themselves will likely have focused on their unsuccessful exits as much as anything else in their post-match analysis.

Italy clearly noted this aspect of the game at Twickenham too and Franco Smith’s side were keen to put Ireland into a similar position yesterday.

They dropped every single one of their restarts to Ireland’s left-hand side around the 22-metre line, keen to see if they could get similar results to England. 

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However, Ireland had clearly considered their difficulties in Twickenham and had two counter-strategies.

In this example, James Ryan fields the Italian restart and carries before Murray passes infield for Tadhg Beirne to make a second carry.

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The immediate thought is ‘why are Ireland moving further infield and leaving Murray in that tough spot?’ but the question is answered on the next phase.

Murray passes back to out-half Sexton…

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… and Sexton hammers his exit into touch just beyond Ireland’s 10-metre line.

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Ireland apply pressure at the ensuing Italy lineout and on just the second phase of defence, Andrew Porter wins a jackal turnover penalty.

So, just over a minute after Sexton’s successful exit, Ireland have an attacking lineout just outside the Italy 22.

Ireland haven’t tended to exit off their out-half very much at all in recent years but Sexton’s right-footed kicking skills are obvious and it makes clear sense in this case.

With Jacob Stockdale at fullback, Ireland also now have a cannon of a left boot that they used for exiting purposes as Italy continued to drop their restarts into exactly the same position, as we see here just before half-time.

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Again, Murray moves the ball infield for Porter to carry.

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But this time, Stockdale has set up behind the ruck to use his left boot.

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And the fullback delivers a gigantic exiting kick that lands in touch all the way up inside the Italy half.

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Reaching or getting beyond the halfway line with an exit kick is an extremely good return and this example highlights the value of Stockdale’s kicking power at fullback.

Indeed, Ireland had earlier nearly scored a try following a Stockdale exit.

On the occasion below, Ireland have taken the ball back into their 22 so Stockdale can’t kick directly into touch as Murray finds him behind the ruck.

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But the sheer length of Stockdale’s kicking means he can still deliver a good outcome for Ireland as he unleashes a howitzer downfield that forces opposite number Jayden Hayward [yellow below] to turn and retreat to field it just outside Italy’s 22.

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Haywards responds by kicking back to Stockdale near the left touchline, with the Ireland fullback fielding the ball…

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… and then Stockdale fires up one of the very promising counter-attacking surges from Ireland in this game as he swerves past one Italy defender and breaks.

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Stockdale cleverly dummies a pass inside to Sexton before turning back out and sending Hugo Keenan in for what looks like an Ireland try, only for referee Matthew Carley to rule it out on TMO review for James Ryan’s actions in subtly impeding Marco Lazzaroni ahead of the ball.

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Still, it’s very nearly a majorly successful outcome for Ireland on the back of Stockdale’s massive exit.

Interestingly, Murray did box kick from the left for one Ireland exit in the second half just after Ryan had stolen an Italian lineout, a situation in which they obviously hadn’t pre-called an exit strategy.

The ruck is slightly closer to the touchline on the 15-metre line…

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… but Murray’s kick stays just infield as Italy wing Edoardo Padovani catches it before the hard-chasing Hugo Keenan tackles him instantly to ground.

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Ireland give up a penalty a couple of phases later and Italy kick back into the 22 for an attacking lineout, meaning an unsuccessful exit for the home side.

Murray’s only other box kick in this game came over on the other side of the pitch and after Ireland had attempted to run the ball out of their own 22 as a means of exiting after receiving Italy’s restart following half-time.

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It’s not the best kick of Murray’s career but it still causes Italy problems as they fail to field it and primary Ireland chaser Andrew Conway very nearly regathers the ball on the bounce, just knocking-on in the process.

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This example highlights the value of box kicking as part of a team’s tactical plan – successful box kicking can pressure the opposition into errors and see the kicking team regain the ball.

If Conway can regather here, Ireland are suddenly into a highly advantageous turnover attacking situation against a disorganised defence. That is exactly the kind of scenario where a team’s attacking skills can flourish.

This example also leads us to the second main reason Murray didn’t box kick more often in this game – Ireland were better at kicking the ball before they had to kick, delivering a more varied kicking game.

In the example above, the run exit hasn’t been a success so Ireland go to their box kick as a Plan B of sorts. 

Too often in the past with Ireland, they have resorted to box kicking in the middle third of the pitch after their initial attacking objectives with ball-in-hand have failed. This happened regularly in Twickenham in February, when Murray kicked 10 times.

irelands-conor-murray-2322020 Murray had to kick frequently at Twickenham. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

On several occasions, Murray box kicked the ball away after England’s defence had smothered Ireland’s forced attempts to move the ball wide, leaving Farrell’s side well behind the gainline. Or Murray box kicked the ball away after Ireland’s set-piece had failed to provide a good platform to attack off with ball in hand.

While Murray kicked 10 times in Twickenham, there were only seven other kicks in play from Ireland as they over-focused on trying to play with ball-in-hand and forgot about challenging the English defence in other ways.

Against Italy yesterday, there were 21 kicks in play that weren’t from Murray. Sexton kicked eight times, Stockdale four, Conway three, while Keenan and Garry Ringrose had one kick each.

The set-piece was much better from Ireland and we also saw them opting not to force passes into wide channels in situations they had done so versus England. Instead, they regularly turned and pressured Italy with their kicking game away from Murray.

We get a good example below as Ireland play from left to right in the middle third of the pitch following a powerful linebreak from Bundee Aki.

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Murray moves the ball to first receiver Sexton, who has a two-man pod of Cian Healy and Porter [red above] running hard lines outside him, with Ringrose [yellow] providing the back-door option.

Sexton plays out the back to Ringrose and the temptation for the centre is to play a second back-door pass behind Rob Herring [red below] to Stockdale [yellow].

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With Conway holding the width out of shot on the right touchline, there’s space on the edge but instead, Ringrose opts to kick.

He does so as Italy wing Bellini [pink below] advances up from the backfield, worried about the possible passing attack out to Ireland’s right edge.

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Ringrose’s kick finds grass in behind Bellini and in front of fullback Hayward, who has had to track across from Italy’s right, with the ball bouncing into touch near the 22.

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At the ensuing lineout, Italy fold under pressure and Beirne is able to make the steal…

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… meaning Ireland are back into another promising attacking field position, with Italy then infringing at the breakdown, allowing Sexton to kick the penalty into the right corner. 

They do miss the close-range chance due to a knock-on at the forming maul but the try-scoring chance stems from a clever use of the boot from Ireland before they were actually forced to kick the ball away.

In such situations, the collective sigh is usually heard as Ireland go to Murray’s box kick.

Murray’s only other kick in this Italy game was his delightful nudge for Keenan’s second try in what was a clinical counter-attack from inside the Ireland 22.

Jamison Gibson-Park replaced Murray in the 67th minute and his first touch in Test rugby was a smart variation on the box kick.

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From just inside the Ireland 22, Gibson-Park shaped to box kick high and long but instead dinked a softer, shorter kick over the Italy defence into space just behind, allowing Sexton to chase and regather on the bounce.

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Ireland recycle quickly after Sexton is tackled and Peter O’Mahony, Beirne, and Stockdale move the ball wide right to Conway, who grubber kicks ahead with the ball rolling into touch and leaving Italy in another tricky spot.

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Using Sexton and Stockdale from exiting positions on the left makes sense but it’s important to underline that this doesn’t mean the end of Murray box kicking on Ireland exits – his superb right boot will continue to be important on the right-hand side and elsewhere.

His box kicking further upfield should also remain a weapon and it would be a major surprise if we don’t see more kicking from Murray next weekend in Paris.

The aim for Ireland is to ensure box kicking is just one part of a varied kicking game that keeps the opposition defence guessing.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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