Analysis: O'Brien's ruck return another reminder of what Ireland have missed

Devin Toner set a new benchmark with a huge 47 ruck contributions last weekend.

LAST WEEKEND, SEAN O’Brien gave the rugby world a forceful reminder that he is one of the finest players currently active in the game.

That he did so while still on his way back towards achieving peak match fitness makes his performance all the more impressive.

Beauden Barrett with Sean O’Brien and Garry Ringrose O'Brien was superb for Ireland last weekend. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ireland have enjoyed plenty of success under Joe Schmidt in recent years, but what could they have done had O’Brien been fully fit throughout? Keep him injury-free into the new year and Ireland’s Six Nations prospects increase greatly.

O’Brien’s showing against the All Blacks underlined why they actually know his name, when they are completely unaware of others in this Ireland team.

The plan pre-match was most likely that O’Brien would get through 50 or 60 bullocking minutes for Ireland, before Josh van der Flier came on to bring renewed work rate to the back row.

However, CJ Stander’s 22nd-minute head injury changed any such plans and O’Brien had to go the distance.

This is a player who hadn’t completed 80 minutes since 8 January, more than 10 months previously.

In that light, O’Brien having such a complete impact over the course of the game against the All Blacks was astounding.

Ruck leader

The fact that O’Brien led the ball-carrying charts with 20 surges – for 36 metres of gains – has perhaps been front and centre in the analysis of his display.

But it was at the breakdown and in the rucks that O’Brien’s real influence on this contest was felt.

SOB O'Brien wins a turnover for Ireland.

He won three clean turnovers of the ball on the ground, in a performance that included a total of 40 ruck contributions.

Seven of those actions were on the defensive side of the game, underlining how important O’Brien is to Ireland in the area of stealing and slowing the opposition’s possession.

Despite carrying the ball 20 times, O’Brien still found the time to make a total of 33 ruck hits in attack, with 17 of those as the first arrival to the tackle. The numbers are high, of course, but as important was the fact that the Tullow man had just a single ineffective marking across the whole game.

O’Brien had no fewer than 17 effective clearouts as first or second man into the ruck for Ireland, while his defensive efforts included two slowing actions and three further present markings, on top of those three turnovers.

Going the full 80 for Ireland was perhaps unexpected for O’Brien, but it will have done him the world of good ahead of this weekend’s battle with David Pocock and Michael Hooper in the Wallabies’ back row.

Pocock is often mentioned as the best openside in the world, but O’Brien will very much return to that discussion if he picks up where he left off last weekend.

The 29-year-old has been through hell with injuries over the course of his career, but somehow his body still allows him to thrive.

Big Dev’s work rate

The highest total of ruck contributions we’ve ever recorded from a single player in one game was the 41 clocked up by Paul O’Connell against Italy in the 2015 Six Nations.

Of course, we have only done these ruck analyses since the 2014 November Tests, but that is clearly a huge figure. Tommy O’Donnell reached the 40 mark in that same 2015 fixture against Italy, with O’Brien matching that number last weekend.

Devin Toner Toner makes an excellent hit on Dane Coles.

However, it was Devin Toner who set the new benchmark for total contributions last weekend with 47.

The Leinster second row’s work rate has been clear to the eye in recent times – he led the charts for Ireland in Chicago too – but this is an eye-watering total from a man who also made nine tackles and four carries.

Toner will have been disappointed that Ireland’s lineout possession wasn’t always completely clean, but his ruck work was strong again.

There were three ineffective actions among his efforts, with Ireland intermittently allowing the Kiwis to get a good grasp on the ball post-tackle, but 19 first arrivals also saw Toner being effective 10 times.

He had 20 second arrivals and, again, a fine ratio of quality with eight effective hits.

In a way, Toner’s performance sums up what Ireland brought to this game. There was incredible work rate and willingness to hammer into the physical battles, but there were slight imperfections too.

Ironing out some of those small kinks in the display should lead to a better result against Australia on Saturday.

Early arrival

It was always certain that Ireland’s ruck numbers would be high, given the sheer amount of possession they had on Saturday. With New Zealand forced to make 193 tackles in total, that’s a whole lot of breakdowns and subsequent rucks.

TONZ Ireland give up a turnover in the New Zealand 22.

So to confirm that replacement flanker Josh van der Flier offered up 34 contributions in this department, that Jamie Heaslip hit the 32 mark, and that outside backs like Jared Payne, Garry Ringrose, Rob Kearney and Simon Zebo all reached at least 20 was no surprise.

Certainly, this underlines the work rate from Ireland but there is not much a player can do to actively avoid rucking, so – as ever – quality is a better marker of their effectiveness.

Of the 448 rucking contributions made by Irish players, we marked only 16 as ineffective. That’s less than 4% of Ireland’s ruck actions, but those little slips were key in allowing the Kiwis to steal possession at crucial moments – particularly in their defensive 22.

Alongside that, there were only two dominant markings for Ireland across the entire course of the game. So while they were effective in clearing bodies, they perhaps lacked that utterly violent edge that is the hallmark of their very best rucking performances.

Getting to the ruck early and aggressively will be key for Ireland against the Wallabies this weekend.

Simultaneously, Ireland need to be wary of overcommitting numbers to rucks, as they tend to do from time to time.

Ball security is a major priority under Schmidt, and rightly so, but Ireland can lapse into a habit of adding an extra body or two into or around rucks that are already won. Against the Wallabies, the Irish players will need to have their decision-making finely tuned.

While Ireland did have many excellent two-man rucks against the All Blacks, there were also several situations like the one below.


We can see that four Irish players have committed to resourcing the post-tackle situation, and New Zealand haven’t committed a single player apart from the tackler, Kieran Read, who is back on his feet and moving towards the defensive line.

It’s obviously difficult to know whether the defensive team is going to look to steal possession each time in the high tempo of a Test match like last weekend’s, but Ireland will look to be better in their decision-making against Australia.

The instance above is roughly 35 metres from the New Zealand tryline and even one extra body staying out of the ruck could have had an effect on the next phase, or the phase after that.

Keeping bodies on their feet should allow Ireland’s attack to be more effective against the Wallabies, although they will remain utterly focused on securing ball at the rucks.

Ringrose effort

It’s worth mentioning the ruck efforts of Garry Ringrose as he made a good fist of adapting to the inside centre role after Robbie Henshaw’s early head injury.

Ringrose is clearly an outside centre, but he put the head down to make 18 strong carries for Ireland in congested channels, beating two defenders and producing a linebreak.

Ringrose Ringrose with an effective contribution as first arrival.

He led the tackle count for Ireland with 10, while at ruck time he topped the backs’ charts with 27 total contributions.

More impressively, Ringrose had 12 effective markings and managed to slow the Kiwi possession at one defensive ruck. While his future surely lies in the 13 shirt for province and country, this was a promising showing from Ringrose, and one that demonstrates that he is about far more than creative attacking skills.

Simon Zebo delivered 23 ruck contributions in another good performance in Ireland’s 11 shirt, with his defensive skills – the slapdown of the fend in particular – continuing to grow.

Off the Ireland bench, Iain Henderson had 14 ruck actions in 23 minutes on the pitch as he made his comeback from a shoulder injury. Though he understandably didn’t look to be at his most explosive, it was interesting to note the slowing marking at ruck time.

Henderson in Ireland’s second row provides Ireland with another threat to opposition ball, while his carrying is also generally excellent. Schmidt will be pleased to have the Ulsterman back in the mix.

Total ruck contributions

Ireland’s Devin Toner  Jamie Heaslip and Tadhg Furlong Toner's work rate was huge. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

47 Devin Toner – 19 first, 20 second, 6 third, 1 fourth, 1 defensive

40 Sean O’Brien – 17 first, 10 second, 6 third, 7 defensive

34 Josh van der Flier – 14 first, 7 second, 9 third, 1 fourth, 3 defensive

32 Jamie Heaslip – 9 first, 12 second, 8 third, 1 fourth, 2 defensive

32 Tadhg Furlong – 8 first, 18 second, 4 third, 2 fourth

30 Rory Best – 10 first, 10 second, 5 third, 2 fourth, 3 defensive

30 Donnacha Ryan – 6 first, 11 second, 8 third, 4 fourth, 1 defensive

27 Jack McGrath – 8 first, 8 second, 5 third, 6 fourth

27 Garry Ringrose – 12 first, 6 second, 7 third, 1 fourth, 1 defensive

23 Simon Zebo – 10 first, 6 second, 6 third, 1 defensive

2o Rob Kearney – 5 first, 11 second, 2 third, 1 fourth, 1 defensive

20 Jared Payne – 6 first, 7 second, 5 third, 2 defensive

16 Paddy Jackson – 7 first, 4 second, 3 third, 1 fourth, 1 defensive

14 Andrew Trimble – 5 first, 2 second, 5 third, 1 fourth, 1 defensive

14 Iain Henderson – 5 first, 2 second, 5 third, 2 defensive

12 Finlay Bealham – 7 first, 2 second, 2 third

CJ Stander – 4 first, 2 second, 1 third, 1 defensive

Conor Murray – 2 first, 1 second, 1 third, 2 defensive

Sean Cronin – 3 first, 1 second

Johnny Sexton – 2 first, 1 second

Kieran Marmion – 1 first

Cian Healy – 1 second

First arrival

Devin Toner dejected at the end of the game 19/11//2016 Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

19 Devin Toner – 10 effective, 3 guard, 4 present, 2 ineffective

17 Sean O’Brien – 11 effective, 6 guard

14 Josh van der Flier – 12 effective, 2 guard

11 Garry Ringrose – 8 effective, 3 guard

10 Simon Zebo – 7 effective, 2 guard, 1 present

10 Rory Best – 1 dominant, 5 effective, 3 guard, 1 present

Jamie Heaslip – 7 effective, 2 guard

Jack McGrath – 6 effective, 1 guard, 1 ineffective

Tadhg Furlong – 1 dominant, 5 effective, 1 guard, 1 ineffective

Finlay Bealham – 3 effective, 4 guard

Paddy Jackson – 5 effective, 1 guard, 1 ineffective

Donnacha Ryan – 5 effective, 1 guard

Jared Payne – 5 effective, 1 guard

Iain Henderson – 4 effective, 1 guard

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Andrew Trimble – 5 effective

Rob Kearney – 5 effective

CJ Stander – 3 effective, 1 guard

Sean Cronin – 3 effective

Conor Murray – 1 effective, 1 ineffective

Johnny Sexton – 2 effective

1 Kieran Marmion – 1 effective

Second arrival

Ireland team huddle Andrew Devin Toner Cian Healy Josh Van der Flier Sean O'Brien Paddy Jackson Kieran Marmion Jamie Heaslip and Iain Henderson Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

20 Devin Toner – 8 effective, 9 guard, 2 present, 1 ineffective

18 Tadhg Furlong – 8 effective, 7 guard, 2 present, 1 ineffective

12 Jamie Heaslip – 5 effective, 7 guard

11 Donnacha Ryan – 6 effective, 4 guard, 1 present

11 Rob Kearney – 8 effective, 3 guard

10 Sean O’Brien – 6 effective, 3 guard, 1 ineffective

10 Rory Best – 2 effective, 8 guard

Jack McGrath – 4 effective, 3 guard, 1 ineffective

Josh van der Flier – 1 effective, 6 guard

Jared Payne – 1 effective, 2 guard

Garry Ringrose – 3 effective, 1 guard, 2 present

Simon Zebo – 5 guard, 1 ineffective

Paddy Jackson – 1 effective, 2 guard

Finlay Bealham 2 effective, 1 guard

Andrew Trimble – 1 effective, 1 guard

Iain Henderson – 1 effective, 1 guard

CJ Stander – 1 effective, 1 guard

Sean Cronin – 1 guard

Conor Murray – 1 present

Johnny Sexton – 1 effective

Defensive actions

Sean O'Brien dejected after the game Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Sean O’Brien – 3 turnovers, 2 slowing, 3 present

Josh van der Flier – 1 turnover, 2 present

Rory Best – 3 present

Garry Ringrose – 1 turnover assist, 1 slowing

Iain Henderson – 1 slowing, 1 present

Jared Payne – 1 turnover, 1 present

Jamie Heaslip – 2 present

Conor Murray – 2 present

CJ Stander –  1 present

Devin Toner – 1 present

Donnacha Ryan – 1 present

Simon Zebo – 1 present

Andrew Trimble – 1 present

Rob Kearney – 1 present

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Murray Kinsella

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