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Analysis: Who did what for Ireland in the rucks against South Africa?

Jack McGrath was superb post-tackle for Ireland, but many others dug in too.

JACK MCGRATH HAS developed into one of Ireland’s most important players over the course of the last three seasons, as Cian Healy’s injury issues have shorn the squad of a previously world-class loosehead.

While McGrath is a less explosive athlete, he has more than compensated for the regular absences of Healy. Indeed, the 26-year-old is now clearly the leading loosehead in the country and is among the best in the world.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt is a fan of McGrath's ruck work. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

His set-piece work, both at scrum and lineout, is always solid while he hits hard in the tackle. The real upside with McGrath is his technical excellence around the pitch, which marries perfectly with his impressive fitness.

In a sport where entire front rows are often replaced early in the second half, McGrath is capable of playing full 80-minute games. On top of that, his stamina allows him to contribute hugely around the park for Ireland.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that McGrath was the most involved Irish player in terms of ruck numbers in last weekend’s historic 26-20 victory over South Africa.

For anyone who has not read a ruck analysis on The42 before, it’s worth scrolling to the very bottom of this article for an explanation of how and what we mark.

McGrath’s mountain of work

With 31 total involvements, loosehead prop Jack McGrath led the way for Ireland in a game where he looked more like a back row than a front row at times.

Ireland’s Jack McGrath and Devin Toner McGrath celebrates with Devin Toner, who had 18 ruck involvements. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

He trailed only openside Jordi Murphy with his nine first arrivals to the ruck and, more importantly, seven on those actions were effective as he shunted Boks players away from the Irish ball.

The 26-year-old was second in the second arrivals charts too, where he notched three effective clear-outs, and it was the same story with his seven third arrivals, as McGrath’s work rate brought him from ruck to ruck to clean up the final details.

Defensively, he managed to slow the South African ball once, although he did give away a penalty with his one miss. As we’ve already pointed out, that penalty concession under the Ireland posts appeared to be a tactical decision and was probably the smart move.

While rucking is just one part of McGrath’s job, the numbers and quality ratings for last weekend once again underline why the Leinster man is one of the first names on Joe Schmidt’s team-sheet.

Best and Heaslip lead

In the face of trying circumstances, Ireland needed their leaders to step up more than ever. Rory Best and Jamie Heaslip delivered.

The hooker had perhaps his best game since taking over the Ireland captaincy from Paul O’Connell and his ruck work, with a total of 26 involvements, stressed as much.

Jamie Heaslip celebrates after the match Heaslip is a master of the less-heralded work on the rugby pitch. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Relatively speaking, there were not a huge number of rucks in the Cape Town fixture, meaning no player came close to a figure like Heaslip’s remarkable 49 total ruck actions against France at the World Cup last year.

On Saturday, Heaslip had a total of 24 but he packed real quality into those contributions. The number eight had four effective first arrivals, while he also hammered in for three effective second arrivals. Adding the ruck effort to his sensational tackling performance, this game showed again why Heaslip is first-choice.

Best, meanwhile, was similarly potent in his rucking actions, with seven effective clear-outs across the course of the encounter. While a hooker will often find it tough to be first man to the breakdown, Best’s 13 second arrivals show that he was working hard.

Defensive hunger remains

Coming into this game, the expectation was that we might see Ireland’s fierce breakdown competitiveness ease off a little.

Defensively, they have had some issues in the recent past with over-committing to competing for the ball on the ground, therefore leaving them a little short on numbers further out the defensive line. The expectation was that Andy Farrell would alter that by having more players out of the ruck and on their feet.

Stander Reward 7 Stander should have had a seventh-minute turnover penalty.

When CJ Stander was red-carded and then Robbie Henshaw was sin binned, the expectation that Ireland would stand off, fan out and fill the line was even stronger.

Instead, they continued to be aggressive in looking to steal and slow the South African possession. Even when down to 13 men, the likes of Best and Heaslip attempted to slow or kill the ball.

Again, there was an element of cynical play involved – particularly in Heaslip’s two misses, where he played the ball when off his feet and with the South African attack threatening.

Otherwise, Ireland were effective in their total of 46 defensive rucking actions.

Heaslip, Best and Jordi Murphy led the charge – the openside was also top of the first arrival charts in attack in what was a strong showing from him after doubts surrounded Schmidt’s decision to back him in the seven shirt.

Stander should have been rewarded early on with what we’ve marked as a turnover, while Iain Henderson chipped in with a steal of possession.

Hendo TO 21 This one was a gimme for Henderson.

Scrum-half Conor Murray’s huge defensive performance is signified by his turnoverturnover assist and one present marking in defensive rucks. Backs such as Henshaw, Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall all attempted to slow possession in midfield too.

We will get a better idea of Ireland’s strategy around the defensive rucks if and when they have 15 players for the full game against the Boks in Johnnesburg but the signs are that Schmidt’s team will continue to compete aggressively.

Trimble’s workload

With a total of 18 actions on both sides of the ball, Andrew Trimble was the busiest Ireland back in the first Test. He had a good outing with ball in hand too, making three breaks and showing some sharp footwork to beat a couple of defenders.

The flow of Test rugby is never predictable and ruck numbers are not just influenced by work rate alone; sometimes the tackles just happen in front of a particular player more than another.

Springboks Lwazi Mvovo and Ireland’s Andrew Trimble Trimble wins a box kick for Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

That’s not to say that Trimble’s engine was not impressive, just that more of the action flowed down his wing for large parts of the game. In contrast, Keith Earls had just three ruck actions, but as we know from other Ireland games the Munster man loves to hit a ruck.

Trimble was superb at ruck time for Ireland last weekend, with his eight effective actions underlining as much.

Elsewhere in the backline, Marshall and Jared Payne were relatively busy, with 11 and 10 ruck actions respectively.

Perhaps more impressive though were the 10 contributions Jackson made in a performance that underlined how combative and aggressive he is. While halfbacks generally contribute very little to rucks due to the game-running nature of their roles, Jackson needed to dig in with Ireland down a man.

His four effective first arrivals stood out, while he added two defensive presents as he looked to frustrate the Boks. Adding in his ball-stripping efforts, place-kicking, second-half linebreak and try-saving tackling, it was an excellent display from the Ulsterman.

 Tighthead mobility

While Mike Ross again showed that he has not figured out Tendai Mtawarira at scrum time, he was good around the pitch for Ireland. He made some strong tackles in defence and his 20 ruck actions were generally of a high quality.

With five effective clear-outs and even one slowing contribution in defence, the veteran showed he still has work rate left in the tank.

Mike Ross and Tadgh Furlong celebrate after the match Ireland's tightheads both impressed in the rucks. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Interestingly, however, Tadhg Furlong came off the bench to show that he can match Ross in terms of ruck work. The Wexford man had 13 ruck actions in his 21 minutes or so on the pitch, showing off huge hunger to impress.

More importantly, he had two dominant shots – the only two Ireland earned in our markings for this game – and a further five effective clear-outs. Not all of those markings came on first arrival and it was notable how Furlong made an impact as second or third man when the ruck was not yet clearly won.

Having earned a scrum penalty against Trevor Nyakane on his first scrum after replacing Ross, this was a good showing from the 23-year-old tighthead and gives Schmidt and his coaching staff genuine food for thought.

Sean Cronin was another who impressed at ruck time off the bench, showing solid work throughout his seven total actions.

Top of the Pops

Below, we’ve listed the rucking involvements for each Irish player in the starting team and those who came off the replacements bench.

First arrivals

Jordi Murphy celebrates after the match Murphy rewarded Schmidt's faith. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

10 Jordi Murphy – 7 effective, 1 guard, 2 present

Jack McGrath – 7 effective, 1 guard, 1 present

Jamie Heaslip – 4 effective, 3 guard, 1 present

Andrew Trimble – 6 effective, 1 present

Jared Payne – 4 effective, 2 present

Paddy Jackson – 4 effective, 1 present

Luke Marshall – 2 effective, 1 guard, 1 present, 1 ineffective

Iain Henderson – 1 effective, 3 guard

Rory Best – 3 effective

CJ Stander – 2 effective, 1 present

Mike Ross – 2 effective, 1 present

Tadhg Furlong – 2 effective, 1 present

Devin Toner – 1 effective, 1 present

2 Robbie Henshaw – 1 effective, 1 present

Rhys Ruddock – 2 effective

Sean Cronin – 1 guard, 1 present

1 Ultan Dillane – 1 effective

Conor Murray – 1 effective

Second arrivals

Rory Best Best is a strong ruck operator. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

13 Rory Best – 4 effective, 6 guard, 2 present, 1 ineffective

10 Jack McGrath – 3 effective, 6 guard, 1 present

Devin Toner – 4 effective, 3 guard

Mike Ross – 3 effective, 4 guard

Tadhg Furlong – 1 dominant, 2 effective, 2 guard

Jamie Heaslip – 3 effective, 2 guard

Iain Henderson – 3 guard, 1 present

Robbie Henshaw – 2 effective, 1 guard

Jared Payne – 1 effective, 2 guard

Andrew Trimble – 1 effective, 1 guard, 1 present

Sean Cronin – 1 effective, 1 guard

Luke Marshall – 1 effective, 1 guard

Jordi Murphy – 2 guard

Paddy Jackson – 2 guard

CJ Stander – 1 effective

Keith Earls – 1 present

Third arrivals

Devin Toner Toner had one of his best game for Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Devin Toner – 8 guard

Jack McGrath – 1 effective, 4 guard, 2 present

Mike Ross – 1 effective, 4 guard, 2 present

Andrew Trimble – 1 effective, 3 guard, 1 present

Jamie Heaslip – 4 guard

Tadhg Furlong – 1 dominant, 1 effective, 1 guard

Iain Henderson – 1 effective, 1 guard, 1 present

Rory Best – 2 guard

Jordi Murphy – 2 present

Luke Marshall – 2 guard

CJ Stander – 1 guard, 1 present

Jared Payne – 1 guard

Paddy Jackson – 1 guard

Keith Earls – 1 present

Defensive efforts

Jamie Heaslip Heaslip was busy on both sides of the ball. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Jamie Heaslip – 1 slowing, 4 present, 2 miss

Rory Best – 1 turnover, 1 slowing, 4 present

6 Jordi Murphy – 1 slowing, 5 present

Iain Henderson – 1 turnover, 1 slowing, 2 present

Conor Murray – 1 turnover, 1 turnover assist, 1 present

Jack McGrath – 1 slowing, 1 present, 1 miss

Robbie Henshaw – 3 present

CJ Stander – 1 turnover, 1 present

Mike Ross – 1 slowing, 1 present

Andrew Trimble – 2 present

Luke Marshall – 2 present

Paddy Jackson – 2 present

Sean Cronin – 2 present

Tadhg Furlong – 1 present

Keith Earls – 1 present

What we’ve looked at

For the purposes of this article, we’ve studied and noted every single action by Ireland’s players at the breakdown and ruck against South Africa last weekend, both in attack and defence.

Just to clarify, when we refer to the ‘breakdown’ here, we mean the situation in the split second after a tackle has been made and no ruck has formed. The term ‘ruck’ signifies the meeting of at least one player from each team over the tackle in a contest for the ball.

Eoin Reddan, Conor Murray and Luke Marshall The second Test will be an even greater challenge. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

When looking at Ireland’s rucking in attack, we have marked players in terms of their arrival to the ruck. That is, who was the first, second, or third player on the scene post-tackle? We have also counted fourth arrivals but those are not listed above.

It’s useful to know who was first to the breakdown in attack but we also need to account for the quality of each player’s rucking effort. Otherwise, we’re just left with a pile of arguably meaningless numbers.

Murphy was the first man to arrive to the breakdown on 10 occasions against the Boks, but how effective was he once in position? Rory Best was the second Irish player into the ruck 13 times, but did he have a positive impact?

In order to attribute quality to each rucking effort, we’ve gone for five degrees of competence - dominant, effective, guard, present and ineffective.

dominant act of rucking signifies a moment where we actively think ‘that’s an exceptional clear-out.’ These incidences are rare, and involve cleaning a defensive player out extremely swiftly and powerfully, ensuring optimal quick ball. Removal of a major turnover threat would also generally qualify as dominant.

An effective rucking action is one that effectively clears out a defensive player, in a less breathtaking way than the dominant category. It generally involves moving a body that is not an immediate and major turnover threat, but ensures quick attacking ball.

guard action signifies a player who does not actually engage a defensive player, but is present at the breakdown/ruck to guard the ball, discouraging the defence from attempting to make a steal.

The present marker is used to note any player who is involved in the ruck, but has no major effect on it either positively or negatively. It’s quite a vague label, admittedly, but there are so many different things that can happen in a ruck that it serves a purpose here.

Finally, an ineffective marking indicates poor rucking from an Ireland player, whereby they failed to clear a turnover danger or were very slow to shift a body when that needed to be done.

Andy Farrell, Joe Schmidt and Mick Kearney Schmidt and Ireland are close to making more history. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

As with so many other aspects of the game, rucking is complex and nuanced. A brilliant clear-out can come in the form of smashing a defender off his feet as he looks to poach the ball, or using a tin-opener technique to roll them away when that is more ideal.

A poor rucking effort could see the attacking player allow a defender into position for a turnover, slide up their back and beyond them, fall off their feet too easily, not arrive with a strong base beneath them, come in too high or lack aggression in the hit, to cite a few examples.

That means that every dominant (or effective or ineffective) rucking effort is not of the same type. In that regard, you’ll have to trust our judgement on these actions, or go back and watch the game yourself.

Defensively, we’ve gone with four categories to indicate the quality of the effort.

turnover means the player has won possession from the opposition, while a turnover assist signifies that another player may not have won the turnover without the help of that assisting action. It can also indicate a defensive action that draws the opposition into conceding a penalty.

Slowing indicates that the defensive player has clearly done that to the opposition’s possession, while the present category signifies a player who needed to be cleared away by the opposition. That can be in the form of a player attacking the breakdown or a tackler bouncing to their feet to compete after completing the tackle.

The present tag might not always be a completely positive thing, especially if a player makes a poor decision to target the ball, but it does generally indicate to us which players are focused on competing to slow or turn over possession.

Finally, a miss marking signifies that the player has missed a gilt-edged opportunity to turn the opposition over or that he has given away a penalty.

*This analysis of the Ireland v South Africa match was undertaken through one set of eyes and over the course of a stop-start-rewind-pause-fast forward-pause viewing of the game. If there are any minor inaccuracies, for that we apologise.

As we have mentioned before, this analysis is heavily inspired by the magnificent ‘Ruck Marks’ articles done by the excellent Digging Like a Demented Mole blog.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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