Even in the malaise, Ireland's discipline holds up with the top teams

Despite stuttering through the pool stages so far, Ireland’s discipline record is not out of kilter with the teams aiming for World Cup glory in Japan.

Peter O'Mahony has conceded three penalties.
Peter O'Mahony has conceded three penalties.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IN TRYING TO dissect what has being going wrong for Ireland in Japan, there has been no shortage of directions in which to point the finger.

The players overachieved last year.

The game-plan is too predictable.

Rory Best is too old.

Johnny Sexton isn’t fit.

The players took their eye off the Japan game.

It’s too humid.

Etc, etc…

Yet one of the most discussed areas of concern, highlighted after each of Ireland’s three pool games so far, has been the apparent slip in standards when it comes to Ireland’s discipline.

And while some of those concerns are genuine, with head coach Joe Schmidt himself pointing out that “it’s unusual for us to have a higher penalty count than our opponents”,  the fact is that when compared to the teams that would be considered contenders for the Webb Ellis Cup, Ireland’s discipline doesn’t actually hold up too badly.

World Rugby’s statistics show that Ireland have conceded a total of 22 penalties across their three matches in Japan. That leaves them level with England, who have also played three games. Wales have conceded 27 penalties in their three matches, hitting double figures in their opening 43-14 win against Georgia. Australia have racked up 28.

South Africa, who have enjoyed hugely one-sided games against Namibia, Italy and Canada since losing to New Zealand, have conceded 27 penalties in four games.

On paper New Zealand are leading the way in terms of discipline, having conceded just 18 penalties in their three games, although the general consensus is that the All Blacks have benefited from some rather generous refereeing in some of those matches.

As far as Ireland are concerned their most worrying day in terms of discipline was, unsurprisingly, that shock defeat to Japan. Schmidt’s team coughed up nine penalties in Shizuoka Stadium, with seven of those coming in the first half as Ireland moved into a 12-9 lead, each one giving the Brave Blossoms a little bit more belief and momentum.

To put that number in perspective, in those opening 40 minutes Ireland conceded more penalties than they had across the full 80 minutes in 50% of their Six Nations games over the last two seasons.

The fact that the usually squeaky-clean Conor Murray was Ireland’s worst offender against Japan gives a sense of the disorganisation and panic which swept across the team. The scrum-half was pinged three times in total, including an offside call in the last 10 minutes which allowed Yu Tamura kick the hosts seven points clear.

A few days later Schmidt was keen to make public the fact that his team’s discipline wasn’t as bad as believed, revealing that World Rugby had confirmed three of the penalty calls against Ireland in that game were in fact incorrect calls.

Murray didn’t concede any penalties in his only other appearance, against Scotland, but the three against Japan are enough to leave him joint-top of Ireland’s indiscipline chart. Peter O’Mahony is the only other player who has conceded three penalties, one coming in the Japan game before giving up two against Russia last week.

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Schmidt at least doesn’t have to worry about any particular individuals who are repeatedly costing his team.

conor-murray-dejected-after-the-game Conor Murray gave away three penalties against Japan. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Jack Conan, Dave Kilcoyne, Iain Henderson, James Ryan and CJ Stander have all been pinged twice, while six players have coughed up one penalty each, a spread which suggests it is an issue which lies with the team’s overall performance. 

Compare that to Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones, who has been responsible for five penalties against Wales despite enjoying a fine tournament.

Ireland’s discipline was notably problematic against Japan, but their return against Scotland and Russia was also concerning. On the opening weekend they lost the penalty count 7-6 despite recording a comfortable 27-3 win. The concession of just six penalties against Russia was more like the numbers we have come to expect under Schmidt, but the nature of some of those penalties will not have sat well with the Ireland head coach.

It is also clear that the amount of penalties being conceded by Ireland has not suddenly become a problem in 2019. In the first round of Six Nations fixtures earlier this year, where Schmidt felt Ireland were ‘bullied’ by England, his side only gave away four penalties. That number jumped to six, and then nine, against Scotland and Italy respectively. They gave away seven penalties against France, before a whopping 11 penalties during the 25-7 defeat to Wales in Cardiff, perhaps the single most troubling performance of all this year.

By the end of the tournament Ireland’s tally stood at 37 penalties across five games. That was only three more penalties than they had conceded in their Grand Slam winning campaign 12 months previously, and safe to say nobody was worried about their discipline then.

Ireland’s problem in Japan appears to be the manner in which they concede penalties, rather than the frequency.

When things are not going Ireland’s way, even as they moved into a 12-9 first half lead against Japan, they have tended to make rash decisions. 

They were repeatedly pulled up as they struggled to match Japan’s intensity around the breakdown, echoing that Cardiff display where an Ireland team which looked totally drained of confidence couldn’t live with a Grand Slam-chasing Wales side. Against Russia, a clearly jaded group of players made careless mistakes which would be punished by more formidable opposition.

Ireland are coughing up uncharacteristically easy penalties, and yet still their record stands up compared to teams in far healthier situations. 

Nobody is saying that Ireland can turn all this around and win the World Cup, as many of the issues holding them back in Japan are not overnight fixes.

However, should results go their way this weekend and Ireland reach the quarter-finals,  Schmidt should be targeting Ireland’s discipline as an area that can be quickly cleaned up. With rested bodies and focused minds, there will be no excuse for the sloppy mistakes which have dogged Ireland in the pool stages.

Do that, and the whole machine purrs a little bit more smoothly.

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