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Analysis: Ireland always work hard but their breakdown must be better in Italy

Devin Toner continues to lead the way for Ireland in terms of sheer ruck numbers.

Updated 11 February

WHATEVER YOUR GAME plan might be, it’s always going to come up short if your breakdown work is not of a sufficient standard.

Ireland found that out to their detriment last weekend in Murrayfield and we can be certain head coach Joe Schmidt has spent time working on this area of his side’s game ahead of the Six Nations clash with Italy in Rome today [KO 2.25pm].

Here, we look back on the Scotland clash for evidence of what Schmidt might have pointed out to his players as they look to get their championship bid back on track.

We have also complied the usual ruck stats for Ireland, which are at the bottom of this article.

Ireland suffered at the breakdown on their very first attack of last weekend’s game, although they probably should have won a penalty.

Attack 1

We see the incident above, as Robbie Henshaw carries in an isolated position after Garry Ringrose has looked for a short pass on a hard line off his left shoulder.

Henshaw works on the ground after the tackle to present the ball as far back on Ireland’s side as he can, but tackler Alex Dunbar is straight back into his feet looking for the turnover, while Scotland hooker Fraser Brown dives in targeting the ball.

Conor Murray is left in a poor position with two Scots to choose from, and the ball bobbles loose. It does appear to come forward off Dunbar’s hand, while Brown clearly goes straight off his feet but it’s an early warning for Ireland.

Jump to the 17th minute, with Ireland trailing 7-0 and looking for a way onto the scoreboard, and again there is poor work at the ruck from Schmidt’s men.

Attack 4

Ringrose is the carrier for Ireland this time and they have the kind of front-foot possession that makes rucking so much easier.

Arriving to the ruck for Ireland are three players: Rory Best, Rob Kearney and Henshaw.

Attack 4.1

To have three men arriving like this is ideal for Ireland, allowing one to clear the ruck on the left of the carrier, the second to clear simultaneously on the right, and the third to stand ‘guard’ over the ball, protecting scrum-half Murray as he passes.

Ireland’s players understand these roles in depth, with Schmidt spending so much time on perfecting them on the training pitch and in the analysis room.

But there’s no identification or decision-making on the move from Ireland here and, as we can see below, all three players hit the ruck at the same time.

Attack 4.2

Kearney and Henshaw go to ground in dealing with turnover threat Tommy Seymour, but Best is left on his feet and needs to react instantly to take on the role of guard, even if he was not originally ideally placed to take on that role.

Attack 4.3

A big step diagonally backwards to his right will put Best in a position over or just beyond the ball and allow him to drop into a more stable position to resist any counter ruck but – as with much of Ireland’s performance – there is an uncharacteristically inaccurate reaction from the hooker.

He backs away from the tackle point to his left, presumably eager to get back infield for the next series of carries.

That opens the door for Finn Russell to come through and perfectly time a tackle on Murray as he scoops the ball off the ground.

Attack 4.4

As we see above, Russell forces the knock-on from Murray in the tackle and Scotland grasp possession.

It’s a handling error that ends this particular Irish attack, but Schmidt is certain to have viewed it more as a failing at the ruck.

Just over two minutes later, Ireland lose possession again, this time through a Zander Fagerson turnover penalty.

Simon Zebo gathers in one of several loose exiting kicks from Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg and opts to carry the ball back himself on kick return.

Attack 5

Following up his own kick, Hogg gets in nice and low to take Zebo’s legs out, meaning the Ireland wing is instantly on the deck.

Once he realises he’s going to be in the position below, Zebo needs to instantly start fighting to ensure the jackaling player cannot clamp straight onto the ball.

Attack 5.1

We can see Fagerson hovering over the ball, primed to jackal, so Zebo has to do everything in his power to fight against the impending turnover.

We have spoken before about Schmidt’s demand for ‘bodyball’ from ball carriers after they are tackled and Zebo is unlikely to have ticked off the criteria in this case.

The Munster man is in an unenviable position on the ground having been chopped down so suddenly and still sliding forward, but he must find a solution.

Crawl forward up the pitch [counter-intuitive as that may seem], violently twist his upper body back to the left, or commando roll – whatever it takes to ensure Fagerson can’t get directly onto the ball.

Unfortunately for Ireland, none of that happens and Fagerson gets onto the ball, leaning briefly onto his left hand to get into position.

Attack 5.2

This is, of course, against the laws of the game but Ireland do it enough themselves when competing for turnovers that it’s difficult to feel any sympathy.

First arriving player to the ruck is Sean O’Brien and he’s likely to have been very disappointed with his rucking effort. Having lost the chance to get in underneath Fagerson and clear him before the Scotland prop actually jackals, O’Brien opts for a croc roll but can’t shift Fagerson in the split second he has.

By the time Tadhg Furlong arrives to lift Fagerson’s right leg and take away his base, referee Romain Poite has already seen enough and signals the turnover penalty.

There was time for another breakdown failing from Ireland in the first half, this one coming with the score at 21-8 and Schmidt’s men searching for a crucial score before the break.

Attack 8

Ireland play around the corner from right to left but it’s instantly clear that they don’t have many bodies over on that side of the ruck.

Having carried powerfully twice already in this attacking passage, CJ Stander is struggling and his progress across to the left is laboured. Better work rate and he might have been in position to hit the ruck.

Attack 8.1

Iain Henderson accepts the pass from Murray and perhaps it’s now time for him to make the big carry he has been waiting for.

The Ulster lock had just six carries last weekend, despite Ireland’s huge share of possession, and none of them were of the explosive type for which Henderson is most noted.

In this instance, Scotland out-half Russell is directly in front of him – exactly the kind of mismatch on which Henderson thrives.

Attack 8.2

Instead of accelerating to Russell’s outside with aggression, looking for a powerful fend or simply bumping the Scotland playmaker off, Henderson opts to pass to Henshaw on his left.

Henshaw has a seemingly favourable one-on-one of his own, in fairness, with Greig Laidlaw in front of him but the Scotland scrum-half pulls off a brilliant tackle, even after the Leinster man turns on his footwork.

Attack 8.3

Laidlaw drives in low around Henshaw’s thighs, wrapping well to completely take the Ireland centre’s legs out and chop him down as swiftly as Zebo was in our earlier example.

With Keith Earls having hung off Henshaw – something we will return to later – he is now some distance away from the tackle point, while Henderson has to retreat back around in behind Henshaw.

Attack 8.4

Russell hunts from the inside and poses a threat to the ball, although Henshaw’s hard work on the ground – he brings his knees underneath him and then looks to present the ball back – buys Ireland a split second.

They need more than that, however, and Earls hammers in from the side, worried about Russell winning the turnover. Penalty Scotland again.

We move to the 55th minute, and with Ireland now back to within six points at 21-15, when their breakdown issues strike again.

Attack 10

It’s John Barclay who earns the turnover for Scotland time this, superbly so, but Ireland will have been hugely frustrated again.

As Jamie Heaslip accepts the pass from Paddy Jackson, there are supporting players in decent positions to ensure that the ruck is well resourced.

We can see below that Heaslip [circled] has the ball tucked into one arm – a clear indicator he will carry – so Ireland’s support players need to react energetically to get to the impending ruck.

Attack 10.1

Zebo [1] is likely to be first on scene, but Stander [2] needs to start working hard to get to the tackle point. Jack McGrath [3] should then be able to provide additional rucking support or guard the ball.

However, blindside flanker Stander hangs off from committing, perhaps feeling he can offer a carrying option on the next phase. Stander does eventually arrive, but it’s already too late at that stage.

The tackle by Scotland inside centre Dunbar plays a huge role in this turnover.

Attack 10.2

We can see Dunbar above, with a firm wrap of Heaslip’s legs as he completes the tackle. Already we can see that Barclay is hovering just in behind, eyes on the ball.

What Dunbar does next is crucial.

Attack 10.3

He wrenches Heaslip’s legs forward and into the ground, rotating his own upper body with dynamism.

We can also see above that Dunbar’s position is directly in Zebo’s line of arrival to the ruck, causing problems for Ireland’s first arriving ruck player.

Below, we can see what Dunbar’s clever tackling action has done to Heaslip.

Attack 10.4

With Dunbar firmly keeping hold of Heaslip’s legs – illegal, of course – Heaslip is essentially trapped.

He can’t roll his upper body around to Ireland’s side to present the ball cleanly and he certainly can’t roll upfield, or do anything really. Dunbar should release after the tackle, but it’s brilliant defensive play to buy Barclay time to jackal.

Zebo simply must do better with his clearout attempt as first man in. His access to the tackle point has been greatly reduced by Dunbar’s tackle, but we can see above that Barclay does not yet have his hands on the ball.

If Zebo can even take Barclay’s arms out of the equation, never mind clear him away, the situation will probably be saved, but he can’t do that and by the time he gets a firm hold of Barclay’s upper body, the turnover has been forced.

Just over 10 minutes later, with Ireland now in the lead at 22-21 and attempting to seal a win, there is another costly breakdown failure.

Attack 14

Henshaw is the carrier for Ireland as they attack wide on the right, but he’s brought to ground by replacement Scotland centre Mark Bennett.

Off to Henshaw’s right is Earls, although the Ireland wing is clearly hoping for a pass or late offload.

Attack 14.1

It means that, as with our earlier example of Henshaw being turned over, Earls is not in a strong position to hit the breakdown with impact. Instead, he is off to the right of the tackle point.

This is perhaps an illustration of why Schmidt and Ireland have been hesitant to fully pursue an offloading game. They have offloaded more in the past year than before, but rucking remains a clear priority for this team.

Support players looking for offloads and late passes are invariably worse positioned to his rucks, so Schmidt is likely to continue to stress his desire for efficient recycling in the ruck to be prioritised.

Nonetheless, Henshaw gets into a decent position to present the ball here and Ringrose and Earls are in place to ensure Ireland retain possession.

Attack 14.4

The issue is that neither Ringrose nor Earls identify tackler Bennett as a threat to the ball.

Bennett works immediately back to his feet after tackling Henshaw and before a ruck is formed, and though Ringrose and Earls do belatedly engage with him, the Glasgow man is able to get a foot to the ball to ensure the turnover.

Clever defence yet again from Scotland but Ireland will be keen to ensure there are no similar repeats today.

The final breakdown turnover Schmidt’s men conceded was in the 70th minute, with their 22-21 lead intact. The penalty Ireland gave up proved to be deeply damaging, as Scotland kicked into the Irish half and earned a shot at goal when Jackson failed to roll away.

Laidlaw slotted it for a 24-22 lead.

Attack 17

That the penalty comes at a ruck after Ireland have broken the Scottish line sums up the fact that Schmidt’s men could not turn their attacking chances into scores in the second half.

Murray’s pass here is taken by van der Flier but it would have been fascinating to see Tommy Bowe get the ball instead.

Attack 17.1

Bowe might not have the pace he once had, but he would have backed himself to make a big bust and possibly score in this instance. Stuart Hogg is out of shot in the backfield, but slightly to the right of the ruck so Bowe would have had space to go for.

The pass goes to van der Flier instead, however, and Ireland are initially slow to react. Murray is close to the ball, but we can see in our clip above that Ultan Dillane and Rory Best – the next best placed support men – aren’t sprinting in behind.

Murray arrives first and does manage to croc roll Ross Ford away from his jackal position, even if it’s not hugely dynamic.

Dillane is second man in and his role is to play guard over the ball.

Attack 17.2

We can see above that Dillane has his head down, almost resting against the body of ball carrier van der Flier, and it’s not the strongest position for the Connacht lock to be in.

Generally, a guard will want to have his head up, scanning for any potential counter-rucking players and giving themselves a solid, stable centre of gravity over the ball.

Dillane’s bowed head is as good as an invitation for Scotland replacement prop Gordon Reid and he hammers into Dillane’s exposed upper back, getting an excellent hit in to rock the Ireland lock backwards and off his feet.

Bowe arrives back and attempts to halt Reid’s progress, but is ineffective and Dillane panics on the ground, using his hands to force the ball backwards on Ireland’s side. An easy penalty for Poite.


The theme through all of these incidents is shortcomings in the basics of breakdown. All of these things are eminently fixable for Ireland and it would be a major surprise to see extensive repeats at Stadio Olimpico this afternoon.

The sheer range of errors from Ireland is consistent with the rest of their display at Murrayfield, when a mental fog of some sort meant they came up short across several aspects of their game.

As in those other departments, however, there was also some superb play from Ireland at the breakdown and in the rucks.

Below, we’ve listed the ruck stats from last weekend’s game as usual. You will likely notice the large number of ‘ineffective’ markings for the first and second arriving players, which tallies with some poor moments at the breakdown.

We can also see huge numbers for many of Ireland’s players – 50 in total from Devin Toner is a new record – as they showed work rate to get to the tackle point.

Of course, Ireland had long spells of possession, so the numbers were always likely to be high, but Schmidt will now ask him men to back up the effort with the kind of consistent rucking quality they have become well known for.

Total ruck contributions

Devin Toner and John Ryan Toner was top of the class once again for Ireland. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

50 Devin Toner (17 first, 23 second, 9 third, 1 defensive)

41 Sean O’Brien (18 first, 6 second, 9 third, 1 fourth, 7 defensive)

34 Tadhg Furlong (12 first, 14 second, 5 third, 3 fourth)

34 Iain Henderson (13 first, 9 second, 11 third, 1 fourth)

33 Jack McGrath (6 first, 15 second, 5 third, 5 fourth, 2 defensive)

31 Jamie Heaslip (14 first, 7 second, 4 third, 1 fourth, 5 defensive)

30 CJ Stander (10 first, 9 second, 4 third, 2 fourth, 5 defensive)

30 Rory Best (13 first, 16 second, 1 third)

26 Garry Ringrose (15 first, 5 second, 5 third, 1 defensive)

18 Robbie Henshaw (3 first, 10 second, 1 third, 4 defensive)

13 Keith Earls (5 first, 1 second, 4 third, 3 defensive)

13 Rob Kearney (3 first, 4 second, 4 third, 1 fourth, 1 defensive)

13 Simon Zebo (9 first, 2 second, 1 third, 1 defensive)

12 Cian Healy (3 first, 2 second, 1 third, 4 fourth, 2 defensive)

12 Ultan Dillane (3 first, 4 second, 3 third, 2 defensive)

12 Paddy Jackson (5 first, 5 second, 1 third, 1 fourth)

6 Josh van der Flier (2 second, 2 third, 2 defensive)

5 John Ryan (2 first, 3 second)

4 Tommy Bowe (1 first, 2 second, 1 third)

4 Conor Murray (3 first, 1 second) 

First arrival

Ireland’s Sean O'Brien O'Brien was effective at ruck time. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

18 Sean O’Brien (9 effective, 7 guard, 1 present, 1 ineffective)

17 Devin Toner (9 effective, 4 guard, 2 present, 2 ineffective)

15 Garry Ringrose (1 dominant, 11 effective, 1 guard, 1 present, 1 ineffective)

14 Jamie Heaslip (7 effective, 6 guard, 1 present)

13 Iain Henderson (8 effective, 4 guard, 1 present)

13 Rory Best (9 effective, 3 guard, 1 ineffective)

12 Tadhg Furlong (9 effective, 2 guard, 1 present)

10 CJ Stander (6 effective, 3 guard, 1 ineffective)

9 Simon Zebo (6 effective, 1 guard, 1 present, 1 ineffective)

6 Jack McGrath (5 effective, 1 guard)

5 Keith Earls (3 effective, 1 guard, 1 ineffective)

5 Paddy Jackson (3 effective, 1 guard, 1 ineffective)

3 Rob Kearney (3 effective)

3 Ultan Dillane (2 effective, 1 present)

3 Cian Healy (1 effective, 2 guard)

3 Robbie Henshaw (1 guard, 1 present, 1 ineffective)

3 Conor Murray (1 effective, 2 ineffective)

2 John Ryan (2 effective)

1 Tommy Bowe (1 effective)

Second arrival

Rory Best Best was second for second arrivals. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

23 Devin Toner (9 effective, 11 guard, 3 present)

16 Rory Best (5 effective, 10 guard, 1 present)

15 Jack McGrath (8 effective, 5 guard, 1 present, 1 ineffective)

14 Tadhg Furlong (1 dominant, 6 effective, 6 guard, 1 ineffective)

10 Robbie Henshaw (5 effective, 4 guard, 1 ineffective)

9 CJ Stander (5 effective, 3 guard, 1 ineffective)

9 Iain Henderson (5 effective, 3 guard, 1 present)

7 Jamie Heaslip (1 effective, 3 guard, 1 present, 1 ineffective)

6 Sean O’Brien (3 effective, 1 guard, 1 present, 1 ineffective)

5 Garry Ringrose (3 effective, 2 guard)

5 Paddy Jackson (1 effective, 4 guard)

4 Ultan Dillane (1 effective, 2 guard, 1 ineffective)

4 Rob Kearney (1 effective, 1 guard, 1 present, 1 ineffective)

3 John Ryan (1 effective, 1 guard, 1 present)

2 Josh van der Flier (1 effective, 1 guard)

2 Tommy Bowe (2 guard)

2 Cian Healy (2 guard)

2 Simon Zebo (2 guard)

1 Conor Murray (1 effective)

1 Keith Earls (1 ineffective)

Third arrival 

Ireland’s Iain Henderson Henderson was third man in on 11 occasions. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

11 Iain Henderson (7 guard, 4 present)

9 Devin Toner (1 effective, 5 guard, 2 present, 1 ineffective)

9 Sean O’Brien (1 effective, 5 guard, 3 present)

5 Tadhg Furlong (2 effective, 2 guard, 1 present)

5 Garry Ringrose (1 effective, 4 guard)

5 Jack McGrath (1 effective, 2 guard, 2 present)

4 Jamie Heaslip (1 effective, 1 guard, 2 present)

4 Keith Earls (2 guard, 2 present)

4 CJ Stander (1 guard, 3 present)

4 Rob Kearney (1 effective, 1 guard, 2 ineffective)

3 Ultan Dillane (1 effective, 1 guard, 1 present)

2 Josh van der Flier (2 guard)

1 Rory Best (1 guard)

1 Robbie Henshaw (1 guard)

1 Paddy Jackson (1 guard)

1 Simon Zebo (1 present)

1 Cian Healy (1 present)

1 Tommy Bowe (1 ineffective)

Defensive efforts

CJ Stander CJ Stander won a turnover penalty for Ireland. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

7 Sean O’Brien (1 turnover, 2 slowing, 4 present)

5 CJ Stander (1 turnover, 2 slowing, 2 present)

5 Jamie Heaslip (5 present)

4 Robbie Henshaw (4 present)

3 Keith Earls (3 present)

2 Jack McGrath (1 slowing, 1 present)

2 Josh van der Flier (2 present)

2 Ultan Dillane (2 present)

2 Cian Healy (2 present)

1 Devin Toner (1 present)

1 Rob Kearney (1 present)

1 Garry Ringrose (1 present)

1 Simon Zebo (1 present)

- This article was updated on 11 February to correct the breakdown of Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander’s total ruck contributions.

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Murray Kinsella

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