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Analysis: Ireland's attack needs to make clear progress under Mike Catt

The Irish attacking effort was underwhelming against France in yesterday’s Six Nations defeat.

WHEN MIKE CATT was announced as Ireland’s new attack coach in the summer of 2019, IRFU performance director David Nucifora reminded supporters that ex-England international Catt “was a smart and innovative player” and promised that “he brings those attributes and much more besides in his approach to coaching”.

So far, the harsh reality is that we have yet to see innovation from Ireland’s attack under Catt, while they lacked smarts against France again yesterday. Their decision-making, pass accuracy, and set-piece plays were all poor at times.

andy-farrell-and-mike-catt Ireland attack coach Mike Catt and head coach Andy Farrell. Source: Brian Reilly-Troy/INPHO

Ireland managed to produce only two clean linebreaks to France’s seven.

Andy Farrell’s side did notch a try to somehow bring the encounter down to the wire but it was, in truth, a fortunate one as Ronan Kelleher reacted well to a wicked bounce of the ball after France had stolen an Irish lineout.

The Irish players lacked enough clarity and calm-headedness under pressure from this strong French team, who were short of their best in Dublin. 

If Ireland are to finish this Six Nations strongly, they will need to find another level in attack. Peter O’Mahony’s red card against Wales gave Ireland something of a free pass on that occasion but, concerningly, some of their indecisiveness in attack during that game was repeated yesterday.

It must be mentioned that Ireland were severely hit by injuries to halfbacks Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, as well as first-choice forwards James Ryan and Caelan Doris, as well as having Jacob Stockdale missing through injury, so there is some mitigation.

However, the Irish set-piece is improving under new forwards coach Paul O’Connell and scrum specialist John Fogarty, and head coach Farrell needs his attack firing.

Ireland’s defensive lineout work was good again yesterday, with O’Connell seemingly making an impact in that area [he will be frustrated with two penalty concessions], and it was the source for an early attacking chance. 

In the second minute, Rhys Ruddock’s steal gives Ireland a turnover – which can be the best platform to attack off as the opposition must swiftly organise themselves defensively – but Farrell’s men opt to immediately kick the ball.

Kick1

The opportunity outside Billy Burns is clear, with France’s midfield defence narrow and left wing Gabin Villière looking exposed out wide.

A flat skip pass from Burns beyond Robbie Henshaw to Garry Ringrose here gives Ireland a real chance to make big gains on the right, with fullback Hugo Keenan working up from the backfield after the turnover, and wing Keith Earls on the edge.

Ire

We can see below how Vincent is starting tight after the turnover, with clear space on his outside shoulder for Ringrose to target.

Ringr

France fullback Brice Dulin is in the backfield, but right wing Damian Penaud is all the way over behind the lineout – not an ideal starting point for defending an Ireland attack on the other side of the pitch.

Ireland are unlikely to score here – France would back themselves to scramble – but it’s certainly an excellent chance to stretch the visitors defensively early in the game.

Instead, Ireland kick contestably, knocking the ball on as they chase. Burns doesn’t appear to consider the pass, while none of the Irish backs outside him look like they call or signal for the ball.

As we saw throughout the first half, Ireland’s game plan revolved around kicking contestably when they were in the middle third of the pitch.

In this instance, that tactical focus means the players are blind to the opportunity in front of them. 

As against Wales last weekend, Ireland made several poor decisions not to pass yesterday, with another example below in the second half.

Kick2

It’s promising play from Ireland initially as Ed Byrne makes the link pass to Ross Byrne and he moves the ball on to Ringrose, who has worked very hard from left to right to get into this position. To his credit, France centre Gaël Fickou also works hard to track him.

Ringrose has Keenan [who has also worked hard from the left] just off his shoulder, while Josh van der Flier and Earls are outside him – scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park has started running upfield anticipating a linebreak – as France’s defence drifts across, but Ringrose opts to kick.

As highlighted below, France have backfield cover in Dulin and Villière. 

France

Again, a simple skip pass from Ringrose – after darting at edge defender Antoine Dupont’s inside shoulder to delay his drift – to van der Flier could have given Ireland good attacking return and stretched the French defence.

But again, there doesn’t appear to be any thought of passing nor any demand for the ball from outside. Ireland’s tactical approach has seemingly deemed that kicking in a bid to pressure France is a better option from this area of the pitch. 

Ringrose kicks and Villière comfortably deals with it, stepping past the onrushing Earls.

Even in the dying moments of the game, Ireland miss a chance to pass the ball into space on the edge. 

Pass?

Ireland’s attacking shape gives them an opportunity to move the ball wide to Keenan and CJ Stander on their right but Matthieu Jalibert shoots on the left edge of the France defence and Henshaw opts against passing to Ringrose.

Ringrose would probably back himself to get another pass away before Jalibert tackles him here but Henshaw decides to carry himself, which is understandable given that the clock is in the red and a penalty will be enough for Ireland to win the game.

It’s not a try-scoring chance for Ireland but a willingness to deliver the pass may have put them in a more promising position. It goes down as another example of Ireland’s players deciding against passing the ball after creating space out wide.

Catt’s charges had some good attacking platforms from set-piece in this game but failed to use them to telling effect.

Ireland’s very first set-piece attack of the game comes from a right-hand-side scrum and is underwhelming. On first phase, Earls is tasked with simply running directly into Jalibert.

KE

The planned second phase sees Tadhg Beirne coming around the corner to make a carry that lacks real intent – it is simply designed to set Ireland up for a kick.

P2

And that planned kick arrives on third phase as Gibson-Park launches a box kick from the midfield ruck.

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Good work from Julien Marchand and Fickou escorting the Irish chase allows Villière to mark the ball as he fields Gibson-Park’s kick.

Ireland kicked the ball 41 times in play yesterday, a very large total, and it was jarring to see this lack of ambition from a set-piece platform. Ireland’s game plan appeared to be rigidly designed for the forecast rain and wind that had cleared off by the time the match got underway. 

Ireland appeared to be targetting Brice Dulin and Villière, who are small at 5ft 9ins and 5ft 11ins respectively, but anyone who has seen that pair play will have known that they are not particularly weak in the air, with Dulin particularly assured in that department.

To be fair, Ireland did get some success from their kicking game and even created opportunities with it, but planning set-piece attacks around kicks – there was even one on first phase from a lineout – seems like a waste of prime attacking opportunities.

Ireland did obviously nearly score from an excellent lineout maul just after Bernard le Roux’s first-half yellow card.

The build-up was positive, with Gibson-Park playing off the maul at an opportune time, then a ‘blocker’ shape sees Henshaw passing out the back of Ringrose to Burns, who fires a pass wide to Keenan in space.

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HK

France do very well in their scramble defence, with Fickou making a superb effort to get across the pitch. 

The work-rate from Fickou – France’s defensive captain – ensures Dulin doesn’t have to turn in to deal with Keenan’s running threat and can instead keep his body open towards James Lowe. It’s superb work from Dulin, as he does just enough to get Lowe to ground, with Fickou following over the top as Lowe’s foot nicks the touchline before he dots down.

Ireland boss Farrell felt that Keenan needed to do more before passing the ball here.

Chance

“If we carry the ball another five metres and square up, we probably get that five-pointer,” said Farrell post-match.

It’s a tough one for Keenan. With Fickou and Damian Penaud hunting so hard from his inside, if he continues to carry the ball, he will have to run diagonally, therefore depriving Lowe of space.

Keenan could hang onto the ball for a fraction longer, perhaps just giving Dulin a last-split-second doubt and checking him, but he opts to give the pass early in order to provide Lowe with the one-on-one chance he very nearly finishes.

Keenan is moving at high speed with pressure on the inside and his pass causes Lowe to hop slightly in order to collect it, but it’s still a good chance to score. France deserve credit for preventing the try but Ireland certainly felt it was a big missed chance. 

Otherwise, Ireland struggled to create any openings with their set-piece attack. The effort below early in the first half would have been extremely disappointing for them.

R1

We can see that Gibson-Park darts to the right of the scrum and it appears the aim of the play is for the Ireland scrum-half to drag opposite number Antoine Dupont across in the process, leaving Ireland with a better attacking chance on the left.

However, as we can see below, Dupont makes an excellent read of Ireland’s intentions and stays put as Stander begins to pass to his left.

11

Dupont’s read allows him to break off the scrum and push the French defenders outside him earlier, allowing them to drift across and cover the Irish attack.

Most plays in rugby have several options, of course, and Ireland could have gone down the short side here with Stander passing right to Gibson-Park.

JGP

Fullback Keenan is also swinging to that side of the scrum, while Earls is there too.

Dupont will, of course, scramble across if Ireland pass right and Gibson-Park would need to get outside the French back row, but there is potential for making good gains as the French scrum-half recovers, as well as backfield space to exploit.

Ireland don’t over-ride their initial call to play to the left, however, and with Dupont plugging the inside, the French backline can comfortably drift across the pitch to cover the attack.

There is some confusion as Ringrose drifts across the pitch and Lowe only switches back inside at a late stage. France centre Arthur Vincent has engaged into the tackle on Ringrose by then and forces a knock-on into touch. It’s a poor attack from Ireland.

Ireland actually only had two more set-piece platforms in the second half, both of them lineouts and Farrell bemoaned his team’s poor “game management” in the third quarter, suggesting that they should have kicked behind the French more often.

“We kept sending our forwards into some brick walls but look, at the same time, we had opportunities within that middle third to try and get the ball to the edge,” said Farrell.

“Their wingers were obviously taking a chance coming in and jamming, and once or twice we fell into a trap on the edges and two men out got caught.”

Ireland struggled for a foothold in the opposition 22 in the second half with the Shaun Edwards-coached French defence taking control of the tie and smothering Ireland’s attack.

Ireland lacked accuracy and clear-headedness when they did get chances to attack, including in the example below.

Ireland

Stander intercepts Dupont’s pass and carries but instead of the ball being flashed away rapidly, Ireland end up with four of their forwards in the breakdown with only two French players committed.

Gibson-Park has been defending in the backfield for Ireland before the turnover, as we can see below, but it takes Ireland more than four seconds to realise that the scrum-half is not on the scene. 

JGP1

Something similar to this happened against Wales two weekends ago early in the game after Ireland had regained a Conor Murray box kick, and it’s unclear if they have actually discussed the need for somebody to fill in as a scrum-half in such turnover instances.

In this case, the delay allows France to get a little more width in their defence and comfortably handle the ensuing Irish attack until Lowe opts to kick down into their 22.

Ireland had a promising burst up the right through Earls in the 53rd minute as he stepped back inside to beat a couple of French defenders on his way into their half, only for Ireland to make another error at the breakdown.

Error

It’s sloppy from Ireland as Gibson-Park loses the ball forward off van der Flier, handing France a turnover which eventually leads to their second try as they kick in behind Ireland to draw a knock-on from the covering Lowe, then score off the ensuing scrum.

Again, Ireland might look at their decision-making in this instance. Shifting the ball back to the left has sense with the bulk of Ireland’s team to that side, of course, but Ringrose has reloaded to the right and offers a possibility in the shortside.

Ireland

Le Roux is retreating in an offside position and while Vincent and Dulin are on that right-hand side of the ruck, Gibson-Park could interest at least one of them by scooting to the right himself before passing. 

We can also see the empty French backfield, so even if the French cover across onto Ringrose, there is lots of kick space. Ireland have explored the shortside a huge amount under Catt and nearly grabbed a late winner in Cardiff when Gibson-Park freed Ringrose down the right, only for Justin Tipuric to make a stunning try-saving tackle. 

But in this instance, Gibson-Park loses the ball looking to move it left and France soon score their second try to move into a 15-3 lead that really should have resulted in a more comfortable win.

Kelleher’s try brought Ireland back into the contest and even after that, Ireland had glimpses of opportunity that they overlooked.

Lowe1

The example above is an intriguing one as Lowe gathers a French kick and evades Penaud before kicking long, with the ball going all the way into the French in-goal area for a 22-metre restart.

Lowe has been picked by Farrell in part due to his attacking x-factor, with the Ireland boss willing to be patient as the wing learns about defending at Test level, and this seems like an opportunity for the Leinster man to show his cutting edge.

Numbers

Having darted away from Penaud, Lowe only has Fickou in front of him, with six other Irish players in the vicinity. There is space for a possible counter-attack in which Lowe’s offloading skills might come into play.

Instead, Lowe is cognisant of Ireland’s tactical focus on kicking long and instantly boots the ball downfield. 

Reverse the situation above and it is not difficult to imagine France taking the chance to back their attacking skills against a disorganised defence.  

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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