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Ireland's pack of jackals well suited to the refocused breakdown interpretations

Andy Farrell was most pleased with his side’s defensive work in the big win over Italy.

Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, and Caelan Doris are among Ireland's jackal threats.
Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, and Caelan Doris are among Ireland's jackal threats.
Image: INPHO

IT WAS TELLING that even after his side had scored seven tries and racked up 50 points, Andy Farrell focused on the defensive side of the game when highlighting what had pleased him most about Ireland team’s win over Italy yesterday.

“If we defend like we defended for most of that match, we’ll give ourselves a chance,” said Farrell of next weekend’s visit to France.

Frustratingly for Farrell, Ireland started and finished the game with defensive slips as they gave up Italy’s only two linebreaks of the game in the third minute and the 82nd minute. But in between, their work without the ball was good.

Of course, the French attack will offer a much, much greater threat to Ireland than this callow Italy team. Fabien Galthié’s men delivered a reminder of how dangerous they are against Wales last night, with Antoine Dupont at the heart of their best work. 

That said, Ireland will feel they can pose a greater challenge for the French attack than the Welsh did in Paris – with the Irish pack of jackals sure to cause breakdown issues for les Bleus.

You don’t need to be an international rugby coach to recognise that since World Rugby re-emphasised the existing breakdown laws earlier this year and asked referees to more strictly enforce them, the jackals – players who specialise in breakdown turnovers – have been thriving.

The early data underlines the impression: there have been more breakdown turnovers since rugby’s post-Covid restart. Turnovers are being awarded earlier and the terminology of “surviving the clearout” is disappearing.

With that in mind, it was no surprise to see Farrell’s jackal-heavy Ireland team relentlessly targeting the breakdown against Italy yesterday to come up with eight turnovers in this area of the game alone.

Ireland have actually been more selective than some Test sides in targeting the breakdown in recent years, often preferring to have bodies filling the defensive line instead, but Farrell backed his men to go hard at the post-tackle area yesterday.

That made sense with jackals of the quality of CJ Stander, Tadhg Beirne, Caelan Doris, Andrew Porter, Bundee Aki, and Rob Herring in the team. Will Connors isn’t as renowned for breakdown turnovers but he was involved in the fun too.

As is always the case, Ireland had scouted referee Matthew Carley’s habits and that will be important in deciding the degree to which they attack the breakdown but it would be a surprise if there aren’t similar tactics against France given this trend in the game. That said, chasing lost causes against les Bleus and leaving the defensive line short of bodies is likely to be punished severely, so Ireland’s decision-making must be sharp.

Some of the signs against Italy were encouraging, with the first breakdown turnover arriving in the 10th minute.

Hugo Keenan makes an excellent low tackle on Italy’s Braam Steyn, assisted by Garry Ringrose…

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… leaving Steyn on his back as he comes to ground, with the ball clearly exposed.

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Having hunted across from inside the ball and with the Italian support slow onto the scene, Herring and Stander win the race to snap into position over the ball.

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Herring gets a better grip onto the ball but Stander aids his cause in providing stability on the hooker’s right and within three seconds of Herring getting onto the ball, Carley blows his whistle for the Ireland penalty.

Ireland get another turnover in the 15th minute just after they have spoiled an Italian lineout. Porter starts as the defender closest to the ruck.

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Beirne’s linespeed then forces Italy back row Sebastien Negri to step back inside.

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As James Ryan engages in the tackle on Negri, we can see below that Porter has swept into a position behind the contact as he looks for an opening.

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Porter’s anticipatory work duly leaves him in a perfect position to immediately clamp over the ball as Ryan completes the tackle.

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Porter beats opposite number Giosuè Zilocchi in the race to the ball and has the strength to deal with his clearout attempt – although he has to fight for five seconds before Carley blows his whistle.

The turnover trend continues just over a minute later after Beirne tackles Negri near the Italy 22. Prop Danilo Fischetti latches onto Negri and goes to ground with him as the tackle is completed, leaving Doris to reach over both of them and target the ball.

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We can see above that Italy lock Niccolo Cannone is arriving to clear Doris away but the Ireland flanker manages to pull the ball away as he is shunted backwards, allowing Cian Healy to scoop it off the ground.

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Italy complain of an illegal turnover but Carley explains, “No one on their feet, number six is the first player” as Ireland launch a counter-attack, Doris taking an offload from Healy to surge into the Italian 22.

Stander leads the linespeed for Ireland’s next turnover through Connors in the 20th minute.

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Connors is just inside Stander in the defensive line and, again, he sweeps in behind the tackle as the Ireland number eight tackles opposite number Jake Polledri, with Porter joining from the outside as the assist tackler.

As Connors goes after the ball, Porter’s presence is important in helping the openside to deal with the arrival of Italy prop pair Fischetti and Zilocchi in the next split second, again giving the jackaling player some stability.

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Ireland’s next breakdown turnover is of the counter-rucking variety as Keenan, Connors, and Beirne combine.

It starts with Keenan kicking downfield from just outside Ireland’s 22.

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Keenan works characteristically hard to chase his kick, which Italy fullback Jayden Hayward has fielded.

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Keenan then initiates the tackle on Hayward before Connors arrives in to rock the Italian with a big right-shouldered hit on his upper body.

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Connors is still on his feet after the dominant collision and he instantly recognises the counter-rucking chance as Beirne also senses the opportunity.

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The Irish pair aggressively drive through Italian halfbacks Marcello Violi and Paolo Garbisi to leave the ball exposed on Ireland’s side.

As Robbie Henshaw looks to scoop it up, Negri goes off his feet onto the ball and gives up the penalty, which Ireland kick into the right corner and then convert into a try for Keenan out on the left less than 90 seconds after his tackle on Hayward.

Ireland’s third try before halftime stems from a breakdown turnover at the end of a 17-phase passage of determined defence inside their own 22.

Connors’ tackle creates the opening as he makes a thunderous right-shouldered stop on Edoardo Padovani in the shadow of the posts, again dominating the collision to send the Italian backwards.

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We can see that Healy and Doris are hovering over the tackle already in the moment above, identifying the chance to go after the ball.

It’s Doris who jackals, although we can see below that he is not initially supporting his own body weight on his feet.

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Doris is overextending, up on his toes, and with his hands on the ground helping to keep him up. Carley is on the other side of the breakdown, however, and Doris rights himself to give a ‘good picture’ in the next second.

Doris chases his feet up underneath his upper body as the arrival of Zilocchi actually helps him to regain balance, while Doris’ left hand gets directly onto the ball.

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Violi now has to engage with Doris in a desperate bid to keep the ball as the Ireland number eight comes away with his second clean turnover, Carley shouting, “Only player on his feet” to signal play on.

Violi actually manages to strip the ball from Doris but the Ireland flanker is quick to regather it on the bounce and then pass to Aki to spark the counter-attack that concludes with Keenan scoring in the left corner.

This breakdown decision certainly could have gone against Doris but it perhaps underlines how jackals are getting rewarded at present.

With Ireland having plenty of possession in the second half, there was only one breakdown turnover from Farrell’s men after the interval but it was an important one as it led to Aki’s try.

Ed Byrne leads the linespeed on this occasion, chopping down Polledri.

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We can see above that Beirne is on the outside of the tackle this time, but he backs himself to come up with the turnover rather than ensuring that the defensive line has enough bodies on feet on the possible next phase.

Finlay Bealham also jackals from the inside but it’s Beirne who wins the turnover.

His right hand goes to ground briefly as we can see below.

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With Carley over on the other side of the ruck, Beirne is calculated in his actions, getting his left hand in underneath the ball and understanding that the Italy clearout is going to drive him backwards.

If he can keep his hand on the ball in the process, he can make a clean turnover. That’s exactly what happens as replacement prop Simone Ferrari arrives in, using Beirne’s right leg as a lever.

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Having skillfully and accurately tucked his left hand in underneath the ball, Beirne now brings his right hand onto it as Ferrari drives him to his left.

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Landing onto the ground on his side, Beirne readjusts the ball into his right hand and makes a one-handed offload back onto Ireland’s side.

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Stander and Connors then move the ball to O’Mahony, who conjures a superb one-handed offload for Aki to surge onto and finish impressively over in the left corner.

While World Rugby’s main goal in their breakdown review was to make this area of the game safer, it was also hoped that an increase in clean jackal turnovers – rather than just penalties – would result in more counter-attacking opportunities against disorganised defences.

The Keenan and Aki tries are examples of what can happen from a clean breakdown turnover.

And though they will need to tweak their tactics to adjust for France’s strengths and the habits of referee Wayne Barnes, who will be in charge at Stade de France, there’s no doubt Ireland’s pack of jackals will be looking to do more breakdown damage next weekend.   

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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