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No props on the wing, the scraps, clarity in transition - Ireland's defence checklist

Andy Farrell’s men will be looking to make improvements in a defensive sense in the Autumn Nations Cup.

Gaël Fickou did damage out wide against Ireland.
Gaël Fickou did damage out wide against Ireland.

WHY WAS IRELAND’s tighthead prop left defending one-on-one out wide against France’s left wing?

It’s a question that was on many people’s minds after watching Andrew Porter get beaten by Gaël Fickou in Paris two weekends ago.

Ireland boss Andy Farrell, who earned his stripes in rugby union as a defence coach, will certainly be looking for his team to ensure it doesn’t happen again as they face Wales on Friday night in Dublin.

Simon Easterby has taken on much of the defence coaching since Farrell’s promotion but the head coach obviously remains a major influence, and they will likely have spent much of the past week looking to ensure their players have real clarity around what they want defensively.

Ireland’s defence needs to improve in the upcoming Autumn Nations Cup, having conceded four tries to an admittedly lethal France attack last time out and had issues at other stages across 2020.

While les Bleus deserve credit for their quality going forward, Ireland will feel they made life too easy for the French.

Antoine Dupont’s try in the seventh minute is a case in point, a score that begins with Dupont box-kicking out of the France half.

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As previously discussed, Dupont’s kick comes down very close to the touchline – meaning Jacob Stockdale rather understandably doesn’t jump to field it – only for France wing Vincent Rattez to bat the ball back infield.

Having been ‘escorted’ to that position by the retreating Hugo Keenan, Rattez is in touch as he leaps.

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However, Law 18.2 (d) tells us that the ball is not in touch if:

“A player, who is in touch, kicks or knocks the ball, but does not hold it, provided it has not reached the plane of touch.”

The onus is on Ireland to react well in the kind of ‘transition’ situation they would have discussed before facing France A regained box kick is a wonderful opportunity to attack against a defence forced to rapidly reorganise itself, and France strike in two phases to score.

‘Winning the scraps’ is vital against a team like France but Ireland fail to do so here. As highlighted below, the retreating Cian Healy is initially in a decent position to gather in any loose ball.

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With the kick seemingly destined for touch, Healy relaxes for a second and as Rattez then bats the ball back infield, he has to react as France hooker Julien Marchand darts for it.

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It’s Marchand who wins the race for the scraps and regathers possession for France, allowing them to bounce onto the attack.

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Overall, Ireland lost out in the battle for the scraps in Paris and it’s one area they will likely have highlighted in their own review. Nipping things in the bud is essential in Test rugby.

With France having recovered the ball in this instance, Ireland’s defence needs to rapidly get into shape.

Stockdale [white below] drops into the backfield as he signals for Johnny Sexton [red] to shift out to Ireland’s right-hand side. 

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As Sexton swings up into the frontline defence, we can see below that he’s communicating with Andrew Conway [yellow below], signalling for the Ireland wing to remain in the backfield.

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That leaves Ireland with two defenders covering possible kick space in the backfield as part of the 13+2 defensive system that they have used in recent years. 

With the ruck close to the touchline – meaning they can bring aggressive linespeed – Ireland have a good chance to win back a few metres on the first phase of defence.

They manage to do so as Robbie Henshaw and James Ryan land a good tackle on Bernard le Roux to win the gainline.

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While that’s happening, it’s interesting to note that scrum-half Conor Murray has not joined the frontline defence and is instead sweeping behind it.

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Traditionally, scrum-halves always played this role in defence but it has become far less common in recent years as teams like Ireland have used their scrum-half as an additional frontline defender.

Murray has often thrived as part of Ireland’s frontline, using his size to make an impact in the tackle.

We have not regularly seen him used in this sweeping role behind the defensive line and it will be interesting to see if this is a tweak Ireland persist with or whether it was based on threats they felt France would bring with a short kicking game [the French scored off a Romain Ntamack chip kick later in this game].

What it means here is that Ireland are obviously a man down in the frontline. Adding an extra body to the frontline allows the defence to have greater width and therefore rush forward with greater peace of mind. So really they’re a 12+1+2, rather than a 13+2.

Even still, Ireland are in decent shape before the second phase.

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Having opted against competing at the breakdown after Henshaw and Ryan’s tackle, they have seven defenders on their feet on the right side of the ruck, with seven French attackers outside scrum-half Dupont.

Porter [red below] starts out as the fourth Irish defender off the ruck, so it’s certainly not the case that he is wide on the edge of the defence to begin with.

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As Dupont passes to out-half Ntamack, who then passes out the back of two French forwards [yellow below], Sexton reads the play and shoots up [white] to pressure French fullback Anthony Bouthier.

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As Sexton closes up and in on Bouthier, Bundee Aki [yellow below] does similar, turning in on Virimi Vakatawa to cover the possible offload to Bouthier’s left. 

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If Sexton can land a good tackle on Bouthier here, it’s a big win of the gainline for Ireland again.

Bouthier does an excellent job of evading Sexton’s tackle attempt, however. 

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It’s a lovely step from Bouthier to exploit Sexton’s linespeed but the Ireland captain will, of course, have been disappointed to miss his tackle. 

Bouthier shows great awareness to stop once he’s in behind Sexton – ensuring he doesn’t simply run into the Irish players hunting from inside – and loft the ball wide to Fickou in space out on the left.

The tackle miss means Ireland are congested [white below] around Bouthier and Vakatawa.

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Porter [red above] suddenly realises the danger and, having drifted across from inside, he now accelerates beyond Tadhg Beirne and Aki in his bid to cover Fickou.

Beirne and Aki are slightly hesitant in turning and chasing across, when an earlier acceleration might have allowed them to plug Porter’s inside shoulder a little more convincingly.

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Either way, Porter is in a very difficult situation and Fickou does a brilliant job of exploiting it.

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Not only does Fickou’s footwork – dummying to step back inside before bursting back outside – cause Porter [red below] to briefly sit down, but it also causes the sweeping Murray [white] to hesitate and break stride too.

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Fickou’s acceleration takes him well clear of Porter and he has no problem outpacing Murray as the Ireland scrum-half attempts to recover.

As soon as Fickou is a running threat out on the edge, one of Ireland’s backfield players would generally begin to close up towards the frontline but in this instance, Conway [yellow below] actually backs off initially.

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We obviously don’t know what plans Ireland have made for this kind of situation but with Murray sweeping, Conway seems to be hoping the scrum-half will cover across to tackle Fickou along with Porter.

Again, it’s worth reiterating that Murray hasn’t always been in this sweeping role for Ireland and it does seem there is some slight confusion here.

With Conway having stood off initially, he then has more than 10 metres to close up onto Fickou after the France wing skips past Murray.

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With Dupont [red above] accelerating onto a typically excellent support line, Fickou also has strong support on the inside.

The delay in Conway closing up has also delayed Stockdale’s run [white above] from the left-hand side of Ireland’s backfield.

While the fullback could perhaps have read the threat a little earlier, he may well have been waiting for Conway to shift up the pitch before beginning to work across. 

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At this stage, Stockdale would be working wonders to prevent a try but he will be frustrated not to have at least got better contact onto Dupont to force a more difficult conversion for the French.

Ireland will certainly feel they could have snuffed this score out much earlier.

It’s an example of Farrell’s side losing the scraps, missing a tackle and leaving themselves disorganised as a result.

Just after half time in this game, Ireland conceded another score on transition as the French fielded Sexton’s garryowen and struck clinically. 

As Sexton [white below] kicks, we can see that 14 of Ireland’s players are in the left-hand half of the pitch.

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Obviously, Ireland aren’t guaranteed to win Sexton’s kick back, so there must be an adjustment in case they lose the aerial contest.

However, as Bouthier [red below] wins the ball, we can see that Sexton is the only one of those 14 players to make any attempt to shift to the right-hand side.

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The rest of the Ireland team simply run straight upfield before Bouthier offloads to Ntamack and we can see that Caelan Doris [yellow below] is very exposed out on the right – having already been holding width in the preceding Ireland attack.

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France wonderfully convert the opportunity into a try as Ntamack draws in Doris before passing to Fickou, who chips over Sexton for the support-running Dupont to gather and brilliantly offload back inside for Ntamack to dot down.

Again, Ireland will feel that they made life far too easy for the French in this instance and they will surely have been striving for more clarity in what they’re doing in this kind of transition situation.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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