Green shoots

The most encouraging passage of attack in Ireland's entire autumn campaign

The sequence leading to Duncan Taylor’s yellow card gave us a glimpse of what Ireland are trying to do.

TRAILING 9-3 and with Scotland having assumed control of momentum in the game coming towards the half-hour mark, Ireland needed to find something convincing to seize the initiative.

They duly delivered it in what head coach Andy Farrell and attack coach Mike Catt will likely view as the most encouraging passage of attack from Ireland over the course of this autumn campaign.

The sequence begins with a right-hand-side lineout just inside Ireland’s half, where they use a 5+1 lineout that has CJ Stander [white below] set up in the ‘receiver’ position as scrum-half Conor Murray [red] starts beyond the 15-metre line as part of the backline attack.


Under Catt, Ireland have mixed things up in terms of first receivers from set-pieces like this one in a bid to paint different pictures for defences, even having out-half Johnny Sexton starting inside the 15-metre line and fading away from the lineout at times yesterday.

Here, lineout leader Iain Henderson makes a dummy movement towards the front as James Ryan shapes to lift Peter O’Mahony behind Henderson.


With Ryan dropping out, Henderson instead turns to lift O’Mahony from the front as Andrew Porter helps to get him airborne from behind.

The Munster captain is an explosive lineout jumper and the combination here sees him getting off the ground so dynamically that Porter briefly loses contact with him.


As we can see above, Stander is moving to accept a transfer of the ball when O’Mahony lands back to the ground, with Ryan and Cian Healy moving into slots on either side of him to set up an Irish maul.

Posing a maul threat obviously gives the Scotland forwards a threat right under their noses, while also meaning the backline can’t advance up from the offside line just yet.

It is a dummy maul, however, and Stander breaks off to pass to Murray.


Caelan Doris, the remaining Irish forward, has set up in midfield for this attack but Murray skips him to find inside centre Bundee Aki as Sexton fades out the back.

The passing from Ireland is stilted, meaning both Murray and Aki have to check their runs, so the midfielder isn’t thundering forward as he targets Scotland out-half Jaco van der Walt in the defensive line, with opposite number Duncan Taylor turning in to tackle him.

Indeed, van der Walt now poses a turnover threat over the ball along with Jamie Ritchie coming from the inside.


Doris has to be decisive in his response to the threat and he shows urgency to drive into the contest. Although van der Walt gets his shoulders lower and into a decent position, Doris is able to lever in under his torso and lift him away, just as Stander arrives.

Murray has clean ball to move away for the second phase of the attack, which features a tunnel pass between hooker Rob Herring [yellow below] and outside centre Robbie Henshaw [red].


Herring has worked around the corner from his initial lineout throw and offers a short one-out option for Murray, while Henshaw is running a hard, flat line slightly wider.

The idea here is for Herring and Henshaw to interest those interior Scotland defenders and the ploy is successful as Taylor [white above] is briefly concerned by Henshaw’s line, which delays him from drifting out onto Sexton as Murray plays the needle pass.


With Taylor delayed, Scotland outside centre Chris Harris [red below] now has to worry about Sexton’s running threat on his inside and he turns his shoulders in as a result, giving Sexton his cue to pass to right wing Hugo Keenan, who has swung all the way across to the left to create the overload.


As Keenan receives the pass from Sexton, we can see that left wing Keith Earls [white below] is calling for the ball with clear space in front of him.


Scotland wing Darcy Graham [yellow] has moved up into the passing channel between Keenan and Jacob Stockdale or Earls, meaning his only real option is to lift a bridge pass up over Graham’s head, obviously meaning the ball will hang up in the air for longer.

Instead, Keenan backs himself to get outside Harris, who is recovering to drift onto him after briefly turning in on Sexton.

With the ball in two hands, Keenan gets outside Harris and is able to deliver an offload in beyond the Scotland centre’s tackle.


Keenan’s short offload finds Stockdale and he steps back inside Taylor but is brought to ground, requiring Earls to arrive into the breakdown and shove Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg clear of his fleeting thought of jackaling over the ball.

Herring also arrives in towards the breakdown but is not required to engage into it as Murray looks to move the lightning-quick recycle, only to be slightly delayed by Taylor [yellow below], who gives up a penalty advantage for failing to roll clear.


Ireland are now into their attacking ‘shape’ off this ruck, clicking into the 1-3-2-2 system that Farrell and Catt have installed this year.

Below is a representation of the 1-3-2-2 shape Ireland set into in this instance.


Herring is the ’1′ at the breakdown, while the pod of ’3′ forwards [red below] is running hard off the ruck to provide a direct carrying option.


With Cian Healy, Ryan, and Doris running hard upfield, they are the most immediate threat to the Scotland defence and, therefore, keep them narrow in that area close to the ruck.

But Sexton [white above] has already given Murray the call to hit him behind the three-pod as Ireland look to get straight back to the width on the right. We can see the hard-working Keenan [yellow above] getting infield to be part of this next phase.

As Sexton receives a nice pass from Murray, we can see the next ’2′ part of Ireland’s phase-play shape in movement as Henderson [red below] and Andrew Porter [yellow] run front-door options as Sexton and Henshaw instead pass out the back.


Again, Henderson and Porter’s job is to be viable ball-carrying threats that cause defenders to delay their efforts to jockey out across the pitch to the left.


It’s fluid attacking play from Ireland as three accurate passes from Murray, Sexton, and Henshaw shift the ball from left to right and into Aki’s hands, with Henshaw skipping Keenan after the wing has worked into the attack again.

Out on the left edge of Scotland’s defence, van der Walt [white below] makes the decision to shoot up on Aki in a bid to shut down the play with a ball-and-all tackle.


We can see that Stander and O’Mahony [red above] are the final ’2′ in Ireland’s 1-3-2-2 shape, maintaining width rather than having chased the ball across the pitch.

It means that even without outside backs on this side of the pitch, Ireland have width in their attack.

Aki does well under the pressure from the advancing van der Walt, stepping back to his inside shoulder and then throwing the second offload of this Irish attack to find Stander.


Stander moves the ball swiftly on to O’Mahony in lots of space and the Munster man gleefully takes advantage of a one-on-one against Scotland scrum-half Ali Price, barrelling through his tackle attempt after closing up from the backfield.


O’Mahony pirouettes out of Blade Thomson’s tackle effort too, driving up into the Scotland 22 as Scott Cummings gets him to ground before Stander and Keenan resource the breakdown, Stander withstanding Duhan van der Merwe’s counter-ruck attempt.

Coming off the touchline, Ireland have their three-pod in place again. Henderson is in the middle of it, with Porter on his inside and Doris outside.


Sexton [white above] is out the back again but Ireland decide to test the front-door this time and they barge right through it.

Eager to win momentum back for Scotland, prop Zander Fagerson [yellow below] shoots up from the defensive line here but makes a bad read and charges up onto Porter rather than Henderson, the actual recipient of Murray’s pass.


That means Ritchie [white above] has to commit in on Henderson and that leaves space on his outside shoulder for Doris [red above] to thunder into as Henderson delivers a smooth tip-on pass.


The timing of Doris’ run is typically good. He’s not on top of Henderson too early, having started a few steps off him in order to give his lock time to transfer the ball across his body and also meaning Doris can punch onto it as he shifts his line late to adjust to the outside of Ritchie.

Turning in from the outside, Fraser Brown manages to get his left arm to Doris’ left foot and trips the Ireland number eight, meaning fullback Hogg is suddenly a real turnover threat. Tip-on passes often leave the ball-carrier isolated as the team-mate closest to them is invariably tackled just after passing.

Ireland need to be ultra decisive here to remove Hogg and they are.


Porter is first arrival and he blasts Hogg clear of the ball.

Porter wraps his left arm in under Hogg’s torso, while it appears he does the same with his right arm. The Ireland tighthead is on his feet as he drives into Hogg, rather than diving at him.

Henderson is second arrival and drives in behind Porter to accentuate the clearout. The dynamism of it means Hogg is blasted backwards, which also results in the Irish players finishing on the ground but this is the case with a huge number of attacking clearouts.

Referee Matt Carley is satisfied that the Irish players have driven in here rather than diving and that there is a clear wrap from Porter. Again, it means ultra-quick ball on a plate for Murray and Ireland will feel they were in position to score on the next phase.


Sexton is first receiver this time and he plays out the back of the two-man pod of Ryan and Healy [red below] to Aki.


Herring [yellow above] is set up to run another front-door option on the next wave of the play but Taylor’s hand prevents Aki’s pass from finding Henshaw.


Carley doesn’t take long on the TMO review to decide it’s a yellow card offence given Ireland’s numerical advantage outside Aki.


With Graham [yellow above] very isolated out on the edge for Scotland, Ireland would have backed themselves to finish here if Aki’s pass goes to Henshaw, who has Herring, Earls and Stockdale outside him.

The Irish frustration is clear as Taylor’s hand bats the ball down but he is sent to the sin bin and Sexton can at least pop over three points as a result of what Farrell and Catt will likely view as the most encouraging passage of this game and this autumn.

It swung the momentum firmly back into Ireland’s favour yesterday as they ended the first half in front thanks to Earls’ try and then essentially finished the game off in the opening 10 minutes of the second half with two further scores.

The confidence generated by a successful sequence like this one is important.

The combination of width, offloading, good decision-making, decisive breakdown work, aggression in the carry, and some slick passing is exactly what Catt and Farrell have been hoping to see.

The challenge is to bring much more of it against the likes of England and France in 2021.

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