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Analysis: Paddy Jackson's performance the epitome of Ireland's defensive grit

Ireland’s first-ever win against the Boks on South African soil was built on their 14-man defence.

AT JUST 87KG, Paddy Jackson is never going to be the biggest hitter in Test rugby but his display against South Africa on Saturday underlined once again that there is nothing wee about his defence.

The Ireland out-half was superb as he more than compensated for the absence of Johnny Sexton in a performance that spoke volumes of his ever-growing confidence, maturity and ability.

Paddy Jackson tackles Faf de Klerk Jackson was a ferocious defensive presence. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The presence of Luke Marshall, a decision-making centre, in the 12 shirt certainly aided Jackson’s composure, as did the assurance of Conor Murray at scrum-half. For the 24-year-old Ulsterman this seemed like a watershed moment in his Test career.

The most impressive aspect of Ireland’s display in their historic 26-20 victory was the defensive resilience they demonstrated when down to 14 men after CJ Stander’s 23rd-minute red card, as well as when they were reduced to 13 by Robbie Henshaw’s yellow in the 32nd.

Jackson’s own showing epitomised that grit from Ireland as he put his body on the line repeatedly, completing 13 tackles and making some incredibly important defensive contributions.

Ireland’s top tacklers: Jack McGrath [17], Paddy Jackson [13], Jamie Heaslip [13], Iain Henderson[12], Luke Marshall [12], Robbie Henshaw [11], Devin Toner [11], Jordi Murphy [10].

Jackson slipped off three tackles attempts, including being bumped into the ground by Siya Kolisi at one point, but this was a truly outstanding defensive outing from the Ireland out-half.

His aggression, determination and work rate were the symbols of this Ireland victory.

Faz show

One of the most interesting aspects in the build-up to this game was the anticipation around what Andy Farrell’s influence would bring to the contest.

The new defence coach – ‘Faz’ as the players refer to him – has made a positive impression on the squad and it was always clear that Ireland’s linespeed was going to ramp right up.

LINESPEED 8

Ireland did look stretched by some of the South African width in the early exchanges at Newlands Stadium but they claimed back every single metre when the Boks played back in towards midfield.

We get a great example of Ireland’s increased linespeed in the clip above.

Ireland aren’t sitting off or hesitating here. It’s confrontational linespeed that is even more aggressive further out from the ruck. Devin Toner flies up out of the line and will have been disappointed to miss the chance for a big shot on Lood de Jager, but Iain Henderson finishes the job for a gain of seven metres on a single phase.

Though we only got 22 minutes of Ireland with 15 men, the increased linespeed in this area was clear. We await Johannesburg and Test two to see a more rounded illustration of Farrell’s influence and any obvious systematic changes.

Clinging on

Having built a 10-3 lead in impressive fashion, the red card naturally changed everything for Ireland.

From a position of control that heavy blow seemed to rock Joe Schmidt’s men mentally and, with a body less in defence, they suddenly found themselves back-peddling against the Boks.

PJ Hit

That said, the aggression levels remained intact for Ireland. We see as much above as Andrew Trimble and Jackson hammer off the line to shut the Boks down when Ireland are stretched and in danger of conceding.

Rather than sit off and allow the South Africans to pass out to space wide on the left, the two Ulsterman hammer up looking for the spot tackle.

It’s Jackson’s firm hit on 124kg tighthead prop Frans Malherbe that shuts the door and then Ireland make the decision to kill the ball. It’s cynical as Jack McGrath kills it and a team warning comes from referee Mathieu Raynal but Ireland will feel it was the smart decision on reflection.

They give up three points but quite probably prevent five or seven being scored.

Just minutes later, the Boks again have numbers and space wide to the left and this time Elton Jantjies can shift it there.

Forward Pass

Again, Ireland do just enough to cling on. It’s Trimble’s aggression and proactivity that are responsible here.

As the Boks pass the ball out to the left, the easy and understandable thing for the Ireland right wing to do is drift with them, standing off but giving up big metres and inviting the Boks to run at the tryline.

Instead, Trimble forces the pressure back on South Africa.

Trimble

He comes forward and into the hit on Francois Louw, putting the Bath flanker’s catch-and-pass under real scrutiny. With Trimble ensuring that the window to shift the ball on to Kolisi is brief, Louw’s pass goes marginally forward and Ireland are out of trouble.

Trimble made three breaks for Ireland on Saturday, two on account of Jared Payne’s majestic offloads, but he can be underrated as a defender at times. His influence in moments like the above are almost always aggressive and proactive.

Cracked

Ireland’s put-in to the subsequent scrum was reversed, apparently for a delay in the feed, meaning the South Africans had an excellent attacking platform on the 22. The tourists finally cracked.

TRY 1

Firstly, it’s worth noting how the scrum wheels right around and leaves Ireland openside Jordi Murphy unable to break out onto Boks scrum-half Faf de Klerk.

We can see below that Murphy and number eight Heaslip are just beginning to break off the scrum as de Klerk fades away to the right awaiting the pass from Duane Vermeulen.

BR

With Murphy tied down to the scrum for so long and on this angle, there is no hope of the openside being able to break out onto de Klerk as he fades away from the scrum.

In turn, that ensures that Ireland out-half Jackson has to sit down on de Klerk as the scrum-half arcs away.

PJ

We can see above that Murphy [7] is working hard to get across but Jackson is aware of de Klerk’s pace and understands that he can’t simply drift off the potential tackle and worry about Boks inside centre Damien de Allende.

Going back to the scrum, it’s also worth noting that Trimble is now acting as the blindside flanker for Ireland.

Sweep

He did an excellent job slotting into the set-piece after Stander’s red card – the scrum penalty Ireland won with him involved surely earned him bragging rights – but this example points to the difficulty of defending with only 14 players.

Trimble is tied into the scrum but he’s also being asked to work across as the sweeper in behind the defence for Ireland, as the blindside wing would do when the defending team has 15 players on the pitch.

Trimble’s work rate meant he willingly carried out this dual role all evening in Cape Town, but the initial starting point at the scrum leaves the Ulsterman with just too much ground to make up.

No Stopper

We can see above that after Lwazi Mvovo breaks through for South Africa there’s open space for him to run into.

A good blindside wing, as Trimble is in normal 15-man circumstances, would be busting a gut to get across and close that space at this point. Trimble, however, has had to come from a messy scrum and therefore is at a major disadvantage.

As we can see below, Trimble’s work rate [he's wearing 14] means he does actually get quite close but Mvovo is already crossing the tryline at this point.

Trimby

What about the actual linebreak by the Boks?

It’s gorgeous handling from Jantjies to send Mvovo through but Ireland had justified gripes with the blocking carried out by de Allende in this case.

It’s clear blocking on Marshall but let’s take a closer look at the incident.

Block

Like any good midfield defender, Marshall has his head up and scanning what’s happening in front of him as de Klerk initiates the play.

Ball watching is a real danger in these channels but we can see below that Marshall has his head up.

Read - Head Up

We can also see what de Allende’s decoy run is doing to Marshall here.

In the image above, Marshall has just sat down briefly as the ball flies from de Klerk to Jantjies. The Ireland inside centre will likely reflect on this as his only slight error in the score.

We can see above that Henshaw is still striding forward as he reads that pass to Jantjies and Marshall might just feel that he could have come forward a hint more aggressively in this instance.

Yes, the match officials should have picked it out but Marshall will be looking for ways he can learn from this incident, as would any professional player.

Even one more aggressive step forward and arcing to the left here would have made a difference, most probably in the form of ensuring that he was even more clearly blocked or taken out of play by de Allende.

Of course, it’s easy to say as much when watching freeze-frame replays but the vast majority of players do look to learn from these instances, even when the match officials let them down.

React - Right Foot

As Marshall picks up the ball flashing behind de Allende, we can see him step off his right foot in the shot above.

He’s now fully aware that de Allende is a decoy and his intention is to get outside de Allende’s right shoulder and pick up Mvovo running the inside line off Jantjies.

That door, however, is closed to Marshall by de Allende’s run ahead of the ball.

Closed

That’s the frustration and justification for Ireland’s gripes on this occasion. Marshall has made the read and is attempting to get beyond de Allende.

It’s a different scenario when the defending player fully commits to the decoy runner and actively looks to tackle him. In that instance, the defender has bought the decoy run and isn’t attempting to get to another player.

Here, Marshall is simply blocked from getting through onto Mvovo as Henshaw slams high into Jantjies for his yellow card.

Marshall attempts to rebound off de Allende and scrag Mvovo but the Boks left wing has too much of a head start and his pace also takes him away from the despairing lunge of Keith Earls from the outside.

With Jared Payne having already shifted up to close the wide gate as he initially reads a wide attack from the Boks, and with no possibility of a sweeper for aforementioned reasons, Mvovo streaks clear to score.

That the try comes on account of a blocking action obviously rankled with Ireland and captain Rory Best did ask Raynal to assess it with his TMO.

Ireland appeared to be hard done by, though it is a little difficult to have sympathy with them given that they have benefited from instances similar to this over recent seasons.

Perhaps they are more subtle in their actions but Schmidt’s men are certainly no saints when it comes to closing off tackling access to defenders and providing clever screens for ball carriers.

Shutting the door

A brilliantly-manufactured drop goal from Paddy Jackson saw 13-man Ireland regather the composure that had suddenly left them with Stander’s red card but they were forced to dig in for an incredible defensive grandstand as the first half concluded.

The Boks stretched them with width over and back across the pitch to earn another superb attacking field position in the 39th minute only for Henderson to produce a hugely important strip in the tackle.

Hendo Strip 39

de Jager is no shrinking violet but Henderson’s pure explosive upper body strength helps him to rip the ball clear of the Boks lock’s grip in the instance above.

It’s a phenomenal piece of strength and technique from Henderson when already fatigued in defence. Heaslip, who was sensational in defence, does well to hold de Jager up in the tackle and that allows Henderson to enter the fray and strip the ball.

However, that was not the end of the onslaught for Ireland in the first half. Having found touch with their exit, the Boks came back with their two-man advantage and applied more serious pressure.

After six phases of pummelling attack, they get to the situation below.

Etzebeth Silly Carry 41

We can see above that le Roux and Mvovo have their hands in the air signalling that they want the ball to attack all the clear space under the posts and wide to the left.

With Lionel Mapoe arcing across from the right, two good passes – using their forward carriers as screens – from the Boks would probably mean a try in this instance.

Instead, the Boks are hellbent on powering over and Eben Etzebeth makes a carry close to the ruck that simply wastes a fine try-scoring chance.

Etzebeth Silly Murphy Carry

That decision allows Murphy to make a superb hit – one of 10 from the openside – and drive Etzebeth to ground.

The technique from Murphy is excellent and highlights a general trait in Ireland’s play last weekend. They consistently took care of the important details in the tackle, which is obviously the single most important aspect of defence.

Coming in low, Murphy gets his head to the side of Etzebeth’s arse and wraps his arms around the lock’s legs.

Murphy Hit

Typically of this Irish tackling performance, Murphy doesn’t just leave it at that and accept making a soak tackle where Etzebeth falls beyond him.

Instead, the Ireland openside explodes upwards and drives into the hit to smash Etzebeth into the ground.

Murphy Hit .1

Having come off the line aggressively, the combined effect is a win of metres for Ireland and a relatively slow Boks ruck, allowing Murphy’s team-mates an extra few split-seconds to reorganise.

Even still, the Boks should score on the very next phase.

At the point of the freeze frame below, Ireland have eight defenders on their feet against eight attackers on the left side of the ruck.

Next Phase

However, four of them are particularly tight to the ruck.

One simple pass from de Jager to le Roux removes four Irishmen from the equation and it’s a gilt-edged chance for the Boks.

Two Pass Four Ds

Now, with the ball in le Roux’s hands we are looking at a 7-on-4 situation for the Boks or a 7-on-5 if Henderson can pull off the incredible feat of sprinting across from inside on the drift.

Hands? Miss One Even?

Best does very well for Ireland here in maintaining some of his linespeed. The Ireland captain doesn’t hammer up with abandon but he does come forward to put a doubt in le Roux’s mind about shifting the ball through the hands in a simple manner.

Even still, it’s quite hard to see why le Roux does not do so or, perhaps more comfortable, give a miss pass to Mapoe.

If the Boks trust their catch-and-pass skills here then they can shift it through the hands while drawing in the Irish defenders.

Payne is out of shot to the left of the screen above, as is Louw for South Africa.

Ireland Scramble

Instead of hitting one of his centres and therefore drawing Best and Jackson up to tackle, le Roux opts to float a long pass wider to Mvovo.

That allows Jackson to drift out towards Mvovo but even still it looks like a certain try-scoring chance for the Boks.

Has To Be

If Mvovo can fix Jackson in the slightest, there’s a two-on-one outside with Adriaan Strauss and Louw up against Payne. Strauss is struggling, however, and rather than sprint to get to Mvovo’s outside shoulder and demand the ball, he eases off and looks like he expects the winger to finish himself.

Mvovo steps inside the hard-drifting Jackson [the contact does slightly slow him] and is fending Payne as he heads towards the tryline before a big involvement from Marshall after he has worked hard to get across.

Watch in the clip above again what happens when le Roux passes the ball wide. Marshall has sat down in midfield to hit one of de Allende or Jantjies running off the Boks fullback but when the ball is floated wide, he has to burst out on the drift.

He puts the head down and finds that effort to sprint across and then grapple Mvovo with strength even as he comes across in a position that is quite unstable.

Marshall Under Fatigue

It’s a crucial tackle from Marshall and it allows Ireland to gather their breath for a second or two as the Boks carry infield on the next phase.

But it’s still not over for the 13-man defence and they need a big play from Jackson to save the situation outright.

Final Play

Again, the Boks will have been kicking themselves for not doing the simple thing in this instance.

A really straightforward catch-and-pass from le Roux in the situation below is all that is needed with three men outside him against one defender in Payne.

WLR Catch Pass

It’s a very narrow channel on the left but if le Roux runs straight to fix Marshall and tips the quick short pass on to Mapoe then a try is highly likely.

Instead, he opts to swerve to the outside of Marshall, taking a few crucial extra steps and eating up more of the lateral space, before releasing to Mvovo.

We can see above that Jackson is already working across to cover and, with South Africa running out of space, he produces a powerful hit on Mvovo that saves Ireland from going in behind at half time.

Payne’s decision to come forward as le Roux passes is important and his attempt to pick off the ball means Mvovo has to spin to gather it up high.

PJ Save

Mvovo isn’t thundering forward onto the ball and, having worked hard to get into position, Jackson makes sure he takes full advantage of that fact, hammering into the Boks wing’s back to force him and Louw out over the touchline.

It’s quite remarkable that South Africa did not score in his passage of attack – they were generally very inaccurate and wasteful on Saturday – but Ireland’s 13-man defence deserves huge credit for the manner in which they kept the Boks at bay.

Choking

It barely needs to be said that Ireland’s defensive performance in the second half was exceptional as they managed to limit the Boks to just seven points – those seven coming from an intercept of Irish possession.

There were big moments throughout the second 40, some more subtle than others.

Marshall Chat 41

With only 14 defenders, Ireland obviously weren’t able to generate as consistent a linespeed as they would have liked and they often had to drift hard in defence to ensure the Boks didn’t cut them out wide.

Drift defence calls for excellent communication and Ireland looked to have that at all times.

Above, we can see Marshall providing the chat as Ireland drift in defence when still down to 13 men.

Marshall

Marshall is signalling to Earls outside him to shift on out one man, doing so twice as he also provides the aural cue.

Earls can obviously read the situation himself but the reassurance of hearing those words and picking up Marshall’s physical communication in his peripheral vision is huge. Ireland manage the Boks’ overlap well here and win a penalty two phases later.

New defence coach Farrell has spoken about his wish to build on the pre-existing strengths left by Les Kiss and that was obvious in Ireland’s use of the choke tackle.

Choke 58

Henderson and Toner man-handle Mapoe in the instance above, ensuring he has no chance of getting to ground quickly. Heaslip identifies their intentions and joins the contest to seal the deal.

Ireland’s locks were wonderfully physical throughout in Cape Town and this moment was symbolic of the manner in which they muscled up to the Boks.

Not content with simple holding ball carriers up for scrum turnovers, we also saw Ireland upgrade their choke tackling by targeting the ball.

Best

With Earls having gone in low around the legs of de Jager here, Toner is again the man to initiate the choke. He wraps his arms firmly around the Boks lock and shows excellent strength to lean the contact up and away from the ground.

With de Jager seemingly losing focus on the ball as he attempts to battle to ground, Best spots his chance and swoops in for another strip of possession.

Only minutes before that, Best had forced another turnover of the South Africans’ possession, although it came in a more questionable manner.

Best Foot 54

With the Boks having bludgeoned their way into striking range, Best senses that he simply must act at this ruck.

His entry is sound as he gets in behind the tackle and approaches the ball through the gate looking to jackal.

Entry

More questionable initially is the entry of le Roux, who looks to clear Best away.

The South Africa fullback arguably comes from the side, and not through the gate.

WLR Entry?

Referee Raynal is happy with the entry, however, and le Roux manages to clear Best off to the side of the tackle point.

Raynal shouts, “Away green!” as le Roux clears Best off the ball and the Ireland hooker finds himself off his feet to the left of the ruck.

AWAY GREEN!

His right knee and right arm are on the ground above and Best is therefore off his feet.

However, Best bounces up almost immediately and Raynal seems to think that Best hasn’t actually been off his feet after le Roux’s clearout.

The Ireland captain proceeds to target the ball again, even though he is now essentially re-approaching from the side. Raynal allows that to happen and Best kicks at the ball with his foot.

Ball In 9s Hands!

The issue now, as we can see above, is that the ball is already in de Klerk’s hands.

Coincidentally, it was the IRFU who asked World Rugby to clarify the law around kicking the ball out of a player’s hands last year, with the global governing body confirming that it is illegal play.

Best gets away with it here, however, as Raynal feels he is entitled to play the ball – despite having already warned him “Away green!”

The ball pops loose, Raynal says it has gone “backwards,” and Toner flops down on it to complete the turnover.

Clearly, Best was lucky not to be penalised but then Raynal could have easily pinged le Roux for his entry into the ruck. For Ireland, two wrongs made a right.

Generally in this game, Raynal let an awful lot go. He has come under for criticism for the red carding of Stander and not picking up the block on Marshall but Ireland got away with their fair share too.

Henderson Strip 45

With the tackle already on the ground in the instance above, Henderson strips the ball away from Tendai Mtawarira. It’s borderline but Raynal is on the other side of the contact to where the ball spills out and he rules it a knock-on.

This is clever, streetwise play from Ireland’s point of view as Henderson takes a risk to gain an advantage for his team.

Murray TO 73

Above, Ireland secure a crucial 73rd-minute turnover through Conor Murray – who was exceptional in the defensive effort after the break, seemingly covering the ground for both himself and the missing Stander.

The issue with the turnover is that Murray’s hands go to ground in front of the ball before he clamps onto it, something referees have seemed keen to penalise more recently.

Raynal feels the turnover is legit and Murray is rewarded for his ability to jackal over the ball so swiftly after being involved in the hit on Kolisi.

Whatever about getting the benefit of the doubt, Ireland’s work rate was simple huge in Cape Town.

Earls Chase 61

The brilliant chasing by Earls of Jackson’s penalty that struck the post in the 61st minute is one strong example, as he follows up the sprint by thumping Warren Whiteley in the tackle and then fighting up to his feet to compete.

It’s sheer desire married to physical aggression, as is the strip Jackson makes on number eight Vermuelen below.

PJ Strip 80

This comes in the 80th minute with Ireland looking to close out the game and the strength from Jackson to rip the ball out is hugely impressive.

Stripping the ball was not deemed a knock-on by the defender until recently but the law has been clarified and Jackson’s brilliant work – followed by the determined dive onto the ball – results in a final attacking scrum for the Boks.

Final stand

Against Ireland’s tiring 14 defenders, the Boks drive up into the 22 and lay the foundation for one final thrust at the tryline.

Again, they should probably score but Ireland’s incredible defensive grit holds them at bay.

Final Hit

With Jantjies, Mvovo and de Allende combining to shift the ball wide left and into clear space, the often-brilliant le Roux again errs in attack.

Henshaw is drifting hard for Ireland in defence to get across and cover the space, meaning le Roux needs to do everything in his power to fix the Ireland 13.

WLR

Instead, he passes early to JP Pietersen and that allows Henshaw, crucially, to drift out onto the Boks left wing.

If le Roux had been able to genuinely interest Henshaw here, making him sit down even for a split second, it’s highly likely Pietersen would have been able to score.

Instead, the left wing is taking on both Payne and Henshaw in the tackle.

As we see below, he opts to carry the ball in his right hand – the side from where Ireland’s two tacklers are coming. Other finishers in this instance might have tucked the ball in their left and fended with their right arm.

JP Right Hand

Pietersen opts to swerve in towards where Payne and Henshaw are coming from, hoping to ensure that means he has enough space to finish as they drive him towards the touchline.

With the tackle taking place so close to the tryline, Payne understands that he cannot go low on Pietersen here. With momentum on his side, the Boks wing would quite probably stretch out to finish.

Finish

Payne initiates the hit high on Pietersen’s upper body, looking to wrap the ball up in the process.

Henshaw’s actions are intelligent in a highly-pressurised situation.

He attempts to seal himself around both Payne and Pietersen, almost binding the contact together up high with his arms as it heads towards the touchline.

Henshaw Seal Payne High

The total effect of Payne and Henshaw’s actions is that Pietersen is wrapped up and shunted towards the touchline but his power and momentum means he continues to move towards the tryline.

While his feet threaten to graze the touchline first, Pietersen’s upper body actually frees up as Payne and Henshaw slide down the tackle but, once again, Jackson has worked hard to be in place to contribute.

PJ Last Say

He lifts in from underneath to ensure Pietersen cannot make a desperate attempt to ground the ball, with Rhys Ruddock ploughing in as the fourth defender to be certain.

A brilliant defensive play from Payne, Henshaw, Ruddock and Jackson that epitomises their grit with 14 men on the pitch.

That resilience made history for Ireland and means they have a chance at something far more special in the closing two Tests of the series.

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Murray Kinsella

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