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Analysis: Schmidt's smarts shine through in Ireland's detailed power plays

There were fresh examples of the head coach’s clever thinking against the All Blacks.

JOE SCHMIDT WATCHES a lot of rugby.

It’s part of his job, of course, but it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that he’s obsessed with the game.

One of the things he enjoys is seeing what different teams are doing with their pre-planned moves from lineouts and scrums.

“I mostly steal them from other people so I’m always on the lookout, I always keep my eye out,” said Schmidt when asked how he comes up with Ireland’s moves.

Joe Schmidt before the game Schmidt is one of the most intelligent rugby coaches in the world. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“In the Mitre 10 Cup, they’ve always got a few good ones. There was a really good one that looked like the Highlanders play recently, I showed that to the coaches recently and said, ‘Hey, maybe we could do this.’ It’s hard to get patents on moves!

“Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t but it’s always nice when you do put them together. It’s nice when everyone knows their role and they come off.

“But the other coaching staff come up with some as well. I’ve come up with some incredibly poor moves in my time… they look really good on paper though.”

While Schmidt does tend to nick a few moves – every coach in the world does – he also has a genius for adding subtle tweaks to improve a play, and he is more than capable of creating his own.

Among the indicators of his creativity are the set-piece plays Ireland use, which involve pre-planned movements in which every player needs to be in a specific place at the right time to perform a designated task.

One, two, three, four, sometimes even five phases of organised attack from a set-piece, with many moving parts.

The detail is always impressive but it’s also fascinating to see how Schmidt develops his plays over the course of months and years.

Jacob Stockdale’s try against the All Blacks was a fine example, as Ireland utilised a play they’d had in their locker for several years, nailing the execution to create the space Stockdale exploited.

The CJ Stander try in Twickenham to help Ireland win the Grand Slam was another example, a move first used against the English three years prior.

There’s the dummy loop play that has morphed since Schmidt’s Leinster first used it in 2012.

But sometimes Schmidt makes tweaks in the space of a week and while they don’t always work out as intended, these alterations give us insight into the high-level workings of his rugby brain.

The past two weekends have provided examples.

Below, we see Ireland launching a two-phase ‘power play’ from the right-hand touchline during their win against Argentina.

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Ireland use a six-man lineout in this instance, with flanker Dan Leavy positioned out in the backline to make a carry.

It’s a good lineout call from Iain Henderson, allowing him to win the ball in between two contesting Pumas pods and deliver it hot off the top.

Out-half Johnny Sexton receives a crisp pass from Marmion and then throws a tunnel pass in front of Keith Earls [11 below] and behind Bundee Aki [12].

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Will Addison [13] is the recipient of Sexton’s pass in between the two decoys, but we should just note that Earls immediately begins to move back towards to the right touchline after he’s completed his initial role [as indicated below].

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Similarly, it’s worth noting what Ireland’s props do after their involvement in the initial lineout.

Tadhg Furlong [white below] and Jack McGrath [yellow] immediately move back towards the touchline as the rest of Ireland’s pack begins working infield.

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Going back to the ball, Addison moves it onto openside Leavy.

Now this isn’t a new Schmidt power play and some people may remember that Ireland scored off it against Canada at the 2015 World Cup, Dave Kearney finishing off a two-phase beauty.

There is a subtle difference this time around against Argentina, with Leavy positioned further infield – rather than out on the left touchline as Sean O’Brien was against Canada.

It means two fewer passes, and Leavy setting the ball up a little more infield. We’ll come back to this point.

Leavy carries the ball into contact along the left-hand 15-metre line, with Jordan Larmour arriving to clear out if required, then we see Addison [13 below] acting as the scrum-half just as Stander also arrives across to resource the breakdown.

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With Addison serving as the halfback, Ireland bounce back against the grain to their right in the second phase of this power play.

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Addison passes to Marmion, now in the role of first receiver, and the Connacht man screens a pass behind James Ryan and Iain Henderson to Sexton.

As we can see below, Ryan [white] and Henderson [yellow] are both viable options to receive a pass from Marmion, running aggressively with their hands up, the kind of ‘animation’ that Schmidt demands.

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Sexton [green above] is the always the target, but Ryan and Henderson’s job is to distract defenders even if only for a split second, buying Ireland time and space further out.

Sexton receives the ball from Marmion for a second time, before passing to Peter O’Mahony and running a loop line around him [white below].

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Importantly, O’Mahony’s running line is square up the pitch [yellow above], meaning he’s not drifting to the right, therefore asking more questions of the Pumas defenders and inviting them to sit down on him.

The pass back to Sexton is on O’Mahony’s inside shoulder, allowing Sexton to receive the ball back rapidly as he moves cross-field.

The next element of the power play is another screen pass, with Rory Best running the front-door option this time [green below].

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We can see Aki [12] is out the back of Best ready to receive Sexton’s pass, but the running line from the Ireland hooker is important.

He’s running at the inside shoulder of Argentina’s Javier Ortega Desio [8], aiming to entice him to bite down on Best.

As we can see below, Best achieves as much.

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Desio’s head is already swivelling to pick up Aki out the back, but he has sat onto his heels and respected Best’s run, biting in on him [blue above].

Desio’s delayed drift means Aki can burst outside him and upfield, leaving Ireland suddenly in a highly-promising situation.

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Nicolás Sánchez [blue above] is in a hugely exposed situation on the left edge of Argentina’s defence, with Aki hurtling forward.

The Ireland centre has Earls [11], McGrath [17] and Furlong [3] outside him in a clear overlap.

Now, Argentina left wing Ramiro Moyano is approaching up from the backfield out of shot above, but if Aki can really fix Sánchez, Ireland are going to be in an even more promising situation.

If we roll back a few seconds to the start of this second phase, we can see that Ireland’s initial attack off the lineout has drawn Argentina fullback Emiliano Boffelli [white below] up onto the right edge.

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While Moyano is advancing up from the left as Aki gets outside Desio, Boffelli is now having to sprint flat out back across the pitch as Ireland move the ball all the way right.

The point is that if Aki can fix Sánchez, there is a real opportunity for Ireland.

While McGrath and Furlong aren’t the quickest finishers outside Earls – who wouldn’t have enjoyed seeing Furlong have a go! – Earls’ evasion skills and pace would have given him a chance to beat Moyano and then perhaps even link with Marmion running an inside support line.

Either way, Ireland miss the opportunity as Aki fails to fix Sánchez, allowing him to sprint out on the drift [blue below] and make a good tackle on Earls, as Moyano comes up from the backfield [white] to cover outside.

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Ireland do still gain 20 metres or so from the starting point of the lineout, but there was scope to do more damage after the good build-up work.

That said, there is more at play here than Ireland looking to break the Pumas down.

A try is the aim every time Ireland attack with ball in hand but Schmidt is also attempting to lay a trap for the All Blacks here.

While the Kiwis have sometimes insisted they don’t do huge amounts of opposition analysis, they would almost certainly have been aware of this power play before Ireland utilised it against the Pumas.

So it’s likely they would have noted it with interest, particularly given that Leavy carried a little further infield than has been the case in some previous incarnations. 

Lo and behold, Ireland rolled the power play out in the 15th minute against the All Blacks on Saturday, launching from the left-hand touchline this time, and Schmidt threw another new tweak at the Kiwis.

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The lineout win is scrappy as Kieran Read applies major pressure but Stander gathers in the ball and pops it off to Marmion, who launches Ireland’s attack again.

The constituent parts are familiar even if this comes from the opposite side of the pitch, with Sexton throwing the tunnel pass between Aki and left wing Stockdale to outside centre Garry Ringrose. 

Again, we can see the props, Furlong and Cian Healy this time, moving back towards the touchline, while Stockdale also shifts back that way after being a decoy outside Sexton.

Because of the ever-so-slight delay from the lineout, Ringrose is closer to the Kiwi defence than was the case with Addison against the Pumas, but he does superbly.

Ringer

Ringrose [13 above] darts to Ryan Crotty’s outside shoulder, threatening with his acceleration and forcing Jack Goodhue to worry about potentially having to turn in for the tackle.

It keeps Goodhue’s head turned in [white above] and means he can’t actually eye up Josh van der Flier, who is thundering forward on an ultra-aggressive direct line [green].

With Ringrose releasing the ball, Goodhue only turns his eyes to van der Flier at the last split second and, while he’s done well to keep his body pointing at the Ireland flanker, he gets his head on the ‘wrong’ side of the tackle, leaving himself in a weak tackling position against a powerful man moving at speed.

While Goodhue clings on with one hand, the result is a major gainline dent for Ireland, before Rob Kearney and Stander resource the breakdown, Stander doing a fine job of removing the turnover threat of Ardie Savea.

Ringrose acts as scrum-half and now we see Ireland’s tweak.

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One detail to notice as Ringrose passes is the animation from Earls out on the right.

The experienced wing is brilliant in this aspect of the game and we can see him attempting to add even the slightest distraction for the Kiwi defence.

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Earls, always a good team-mate, has his hand in the air seemingly looking for the ball but we know it will be shifted back to the left.

Marmion is at first receiver and again it’s the second rows, Ryan and Devin Toner this time, who provide the screen in front of Sexton.

But as Sexton receives the pass from Marmion and then moves the ball onto O’Mahony, we can see a slight alteration in Ireland’s set-up.

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Sexton is already moving cross-field on his loop line [white above] around O’Mahony, who is running directly at the defence as before [yellow].

Best is lined up to run a similar screen line [green] if Sexton receives the ball back from O’Mahony.

But Aki is now in a different position, running just to the outside of O’Mahony [indicated in blue above], rather than bouncing out behind Best. 

O’Mahony turns his shoulders infield as if to leave that return pass up for Sexton to run onto again, but then he continues to swivel all the way around until his back is to the Kiwis.

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Sexton is still coming on the loop line [white above] and we can see his hands up as he shouts for the return pass, but Aki is punching onto O’Mahony’s outside on a hard line [blue] and he’s the intended target this time.

Unfortunately for Ireland, Read – such an excellent defender – makes a typically good defensive read.

If Read commits to tackling O’Mahony [as indicated in yellow below], it’s likely Aki will cut through off O’Mahony’s pass [blue].

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Owen Franks, just outside Read, appears to have committed to dealing with Sexton on the loop [as indicated in red].

That would mean that if Read bites down on O’Mahony, Aki would potentially burst right through the middle of Read and Franks.

The premise of this play is very similar to the clever play that cut England apart in Twickenham earlier this year, when it was Furlong who turned his back to the defence as if to give a loop pass back to Sexton but instead slipped the ball to Aki on a direct line just outside him.

From Ireland’s point of view, there will possibly be a feeling that O’Mahony wasn’t close enough to the Kiwi defence in this instance to fully lure Read onto him or force the defenders into really tough decisions.

In an odd way, Ireland are almost the victims of their own success on first phase through van der Flier, that big gainline bust ensuring that New Zealand had a little less linespeed on this second phase than might have been the case.

Remember that one of the keys in Twickenham was how close to the England defence Furlong was as he released the ball to Aki, giving the English no time to readjust. 

Against New Zealand, Read is several steps away from O’Mahony and he can, therefore, adjust, even to a picture he doesn’t expect to see as Aki comes hurtling forward on O’Mahony’s outside.

Even though this move doesn’t cut New Zealand apart, it gives us another insight into how Schmidt’s brain works around these attacking power plays. 

It will be intriguing to follow the evolution of this play down the line, so watch this space. It’s rare that Schmidt consigns one of these moves to the scrap heap and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it resurface again at some stage in the future.

Another power play we will be keeping a close eye out for is the one Ireland used to cut the Kiwis in the ninth minute. 

Ireland operate off a seven-man lineout this time, but with Marmion [white below] starting at the front of it and van der Flier [red] lining up as the ‘receiver’.

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O’Mahony, lifted by Toner and Ryan, wins the lineout at the tail after an excellent throw from Best and Ireland play clean off the top.

Marmion breaks from the front to accept the ball from O’Mahony and play scrum-half [white below], while van der Flier [red] arcs out over the 15-metre line to offer Marmion an option.

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Instead, Marmion zips the ball in front of van der Flier to Aki [blue] running a direct line at the Kiwis looking for the early gainline progress.

Ringrose, van der Flier and Furlong arrive to resource the first breakdown before Marmion hits Healy coming around the corner to carry.

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It may not seem like much but this is an excellent carry from Healy, who steps off his right foot to get to a ‘soft shoulder’ on Franks’ inside, allowing him to ensure a clean ball presentation.

Healy’s ball-carrying was superb against the Kiwis, with an average gain of two metres across his seven carries deeply impressive given that he had so much traffic in front of him.

After Best, Stander and Kearney get to the ruck – these are their designated roles – phase three of this attack sees O’Mahony [white below] carry around the corner.

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Toner and Ryan clear out that ruck, while Ringrose – an important figure here – is back on the scene.

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Ireland carry around the corner through Furlong one more time, with the tighthead making good gainline progress to set them up to finally strike.

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Even in this carry, there is important detail.

Furlong barrels forward and we can see that he fights to fall onto this right shoulder, therefore presenting the ball infield.

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Why is this important?

Because the players designated to clear out this ruck are Best and Healy, both of whom are arriving from that side of the pitch, folding around the corner from the left-hand side, as we see below.

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If Furlong falls onto his left shoulder, outfield, then Best and Healy have a slightly longer way to come and Ryan Crotty potentially has the spilt-second he needs to clamp onto the ball. In Schmidt’s world, the tiny details matter.

With Best clearing Crotty away and Healy standing guard over the ball, Ireland are now ready to strike on fifth phase – almost 15 seconds after Best’s throw at the lineout.

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Click here if you cannot view the clip above 

We can see the Ireland set-up at the start of the phase below and there are many things to take into account.

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For all intents and purposes, it looks like Ireland are set to bounce back against the grain to the left here.

They have a pod of three forwards to the left of the ruck in Toner [4], O’Mahony [6] and Ryan [5]. 

Sexton [10] is out the back of that pod and has his hands up, signalling that he wants the ball to be moved back to the left. 

Outside Sexton, there is good width in Ireland’s attack, with Stander [8] set up in midfield, Aki [12] further out and Kearney [15] moving to get wider again, having worked back to this side of the pitch after his involvement at the ruck on second phase.

Out of shot, Stockdale has shifted all the way towards the left touchline, giving Ireland great width.

Over on the right side, we can see Keith Earls circled in white.

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Earls has his hand in the air again but this time he is actually pointing to the left-hand side of the pitch, deceptively signalling for Marmion to move play back in that direction.

Van der Flier [7] is located on that side of the ruck too but he’s actively attempting to look like he’s not about to be involved in play, standing still at this moment. 

The key man in all of this is Ringrose, circled in green above.

The Kiwis can see him but he looks most likely to run off Marmion on that side of the ruck or fade in behind the forward pod. 

With Ireland looking set to move the play to the left – everyone fulfilling their roles – the Kiwis respond.

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Aaron Smith [white above] is in behind the ruck as he so often is, but starts to shift towards Ireland’s left as that pod of Irish forwards begin their threatening runs.

Similarly, Goodhue [yellow], who is initially on the far side of the ruck, begins to fold back across as Ireland launch this phase, presuming the attack will go to Ireland’s left.

Ringrose initially looks like he’s going to fade out the back of the Irish forwards, potentially accepting a screened pass there and feeding the ball onto Sexton, but at the last second, he cuts back to the right, indicated in green below.

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The space vacated by Goodhue is illustrated in red, the opportunity clear for Ireland.

Unfortunately for Ireland, New Zealand’s pillar defender on the right, Codie Taylor [yellow below], hasn’t shifted towards the other side of the ruck.

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He reacts well to engage Ringrose, who draws Taylor in before releasing van der Flier into space as Kiwi left wing Rieko Ioane sits off to mark up on Earls [indicated in blue below].

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Crotty [white above] proves to be a key man as he bursts across from the ruck and tackles van der Flier, who passes to Earls in the same second.

Crotty’s presence may be one of the regrets for Ireland in this instance – could Best have pinned him into the ruck for even a split-second longer to buy van der Flier more time? 

The risk, of course, is a penalty and it’s something referees are hot on at present, but a longer delay for Crotty there could have allowed van der Flier to surge further upfield.

As it is, Earls’ superb footwork sees him beat Aaron Smith, sweeping back across, and drive through the despairing tackle of Goodhue towards the five-metre line.

With New Zealand scrambling defensively and Ireland now in prime position to pressure them, the Kiwis come offside just two phases later, allowing Schmidt’s men to kick the opening three points of the game.

With every single point so crucial in this contest, this deeply intelligent and massively-detailed power play proves to be crucial in Ireland’s win.

Though these plays are designed to yield tries for Ireland, this effort must go down as a success.

It also serves us another prime example of the genius of Schmidt, capable of mapping out incredibly detailed plays that involve up to five phases and demand laser-like concentration from his players to nail down their ‘roles’.

There is much more to Ireland than their excellence from set-piece platforms but this is one of the most riveting reasons they are now one of the best teams in the world.

- Originally published at 11.00am. This article was updated at 11.24am to correct Ramiro ‘Herrera’ to Ramiro ‘Moyano’.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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