Kieran Marmion explains how his Ireland and Connacht roles are different

Passing, sniping, kicking, defending and organising are all key parts of playing at nine.

Updated 7am, 28 April

ANYONE KEEPING A close eye on Kieran Marmion after he passes the ball might wonder where he’s off to.

The Connacht scrum-half has been running superb pre-emptive support lines this season, having worked hard to improve this aspect of his game in recent years.

Take the incident below against Leinster, for example, as Marmion runs across the pitch well ahead of the ball in order to be in position to rapidly get the ball away from the next ruck.

Marmion Marmion runs a clever pre-emptive support line.

“I was hoping Heff [Dave Heffernan] didn’t get tackled, because it was a long way back!” says Marmion with a laugh.

This kind of ‘cheat line’ is vital for any scrum-half and, unsurprisingly, the Kiwis have been leaders in this area for some time.

“It’s something that Pat Lam has driven with me since he’s come in,” says Marmion. “He does a lot of looking at lads like Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara, seeing how they pick up so many tries from just cutting off a bit of work and being a bit smarter in thinking ahead to where the ruck’s going to end up and where you can pick up second touches.

“Dave Ellis, when he was here, he did a lot on that with me too. Sometimes when you look at it, you’re thinking the ball is way back there and you’re up the pitch hoping that lad doesn’t get tackled because it’s a long way back!

“But you’ve got to try and read ahead and pre-empt where things are going to end up.”

A strong understanding of Connacht’s game plan allows Marmion to pick the right time to run these lines. It would be pointless, of course, to sprint ahead of play when it’s unlikely that Connacht are going to make progress upfield.

“Knowing the game plan, knowing the calls and where we’re trying to get to on the pitch,” says the 25-year-old. ”In that case against Leinster, it was a certain structure where we were going to go wide, so I was hoping we’d get around them.

“We do a lot of work in training at getting around teams, so knowing when we’re hitting up in the middle or going wide has a lot to do with it.”

The pre-emptive lines are just one small part of the skillset required to play professional rugby at scrum-half.

Kieran Marmion Kieran Marmion was at the Aviva Stadium for the launch of Mazda’s new partnership with the Guinness PRO12 Rugby Final series and officially hand over the trophy back to the tournament organisers on behalf of reigning champions, Connacht. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The role has evolved from the days when the man wearing number nine was asked to simply get to every ruck and pass the ball accurately. That is still part of the role but times have changed and different teams call for different things from their scrum-half.

“A lot of the basics are still around giving good service and organising,” says Marmion, “but it all depends on what kind of game plan is asked of you.

“It’s a lot different in Connacht, where a lot of what I’m asked to do is run and get second touches, maybe not kick so much. It really does depend on what the game structure is.

“It’s different with Ireland. It’s a lot more to do with getting that quick ball, that quick [passing] service, the kicking game. Defence is different as well. Being able to adapt between Connacht and going into Ireland camp, I’ve just got to make sure that I’m up to scratch with what is required in each game plan.”

The defensive side of the game was once seen as an afterthought for scrum-halves, who often worried about doing their best not to get run over, but men like the great Joost van der Westhuizen changed that forever.

Even with their relatively small frames, players like Marmion are expected to contribute, but he explains that his duties without the ball differ for Ireland and Connacht.

“With Ireland, you’re more up in the frontline. With Connacht, I’m a lot more in the chip line. I do have that freedom to get in the line when it’s short on bodies, but my main job with Connacht would definitely be just behind the line picking up the chip line.

“I probably don’t get to make as many tackles for Connacht as I would for Ireland, but I’m happy with whatever role.”

Marmion’s comfort in the frontline of the defence proved important for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland last November, when the Connacht man was called to fill in on the wing and completed some crucial tackles on the likes of Israel Folau.

Defence Marmion takes up the sweeper/bobby role behind Connacht's defensive line.

It’s in the nine shirt that he is most at ease, however, and quality of passing is something that Schmidt places huge demands on.

Marmion says he hasn’t actually adapted his individual technique a great deal since breaking into the professional game, and insists that every scrum-half must find their own way of passing rather than subscribing to one ‘correct’ model.

“I’m always working on it, always trying to get the release quicker, trying to find ways of getting the ball out,” says Marmion. “I wouldn’t say my pass has changed technically a lot.

“With repetition, you do get more comfortable. If you take a week off, you go back a few stages, so you’ve got to keep working on it. It’s something I do a lot of, but my technique hasn’t really changed too much.

“I don’t think you can put a technique on every player. Nines do pass differently. There are obviously the basics to it about staying low, transitioning your power and that, but everyone has different things like their hand placement on the ball.

“You watch someone like Conor Murray, the way he passes is probably a bit different to the way I pass. It’s all to do with how comfortable it is for you and how you get the best out of it.”

Marmion believes there can be different styles of scrum-half too, even if they must all possess overlapping skills in some ways. Since his youth, he has seen his running game as his particular strength.

“I was always a big fan of players who could make breaks. That was something I always enjoyed doing, I love running with the ball. I’ve built onto that the passing game and the rest.

“The most natural thing for me when I was younger was looking to run and snipe. I’ve had to build passing, kicking, defence onto that, trying to make myself as rounded as possible.”

Marmion’s sniping skills have been a major strength in Connacht’s attacking game under Lam, although he hasn’t quite been able to unleash them at Test level for Ireland just yet.

He underlines the importance of analysis work in making breaks around the fringes and also points out that focusing on those snipes can sometimes come at the cost of rapid passing from the base.

Snipe Marmion snipes through the middle of a ruck.

As well as making the typical arcing run to break, Marmion has excelled at breaking over the top of the tackle this season, in between pillar defenders, as he does above.

“It’s something that Connacht have helped me with,” says Marmion. “It’s a strength of mine to be able to break. It depends how the other teams defend, a lot of times they put a nine behind the line, but others put the nine in the line.

“If they put the nine in the line, there’s probably space in behind. I look at who their back row is, whether they’re tough on the ball or if they are filling out the defensive line.

“Looking for that break does maybe slow down the quick service, because you’ve got to have a look, but with Connacht we have different options. It may compromise how quick the ball is at times, but that’s not too much of an issue the way we play.”

The traditional image of a scrum-half – and one that remains true for some French clubs – is of a bossy figure barking out orders and guiding the forwards around the pitch.

However, Marmion points out that Connacht’s structured attacking game means there are less of those demands on him now, while Ireland rely more on their out-half to call the shots.

“With Ireland, it comes off 10 a lot but with Connacht we have a few structures where everyone knows where they’re meant to be in that structure.

“If there’s slow ball, I’ve got to try and direct the forwards but the 10 has to be organising for the next phase.”

Tactical kicking was once the domain of the out-half, but modern scrum-halves are vital to how their sides gain territory and apply pressure on the opposition through their kicking.

Ireland are one of the greatest examples of this change, with Murray having been such a vital figure with his box kicking from the base of rucks.

Kieran Marmion Marmion box-kicks for Ireland against England. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Connacht use the box kick less frequently and when they do ask Marmion to launch kicks, it’s often with a very different goal in mind.

“With Ireland there’s a lot of contestable kicks to try and get the ball back. With Connacht we don’t kick as much but when we do kick it’s probably a lot longer, not contestables as much.

“We’re trying to maybe get down there [into opposition territory] and put pressure on them that way. It’s just different ways of teams relieving pressure. It’s worked for us in Connacht.”

Ireland’s contestable box kicks place great demands on the scrum-half and this is certainly one of the most under-appreciated skills in the game.

Putting the ball into the right zone with the perfect four or five seconds of hang time to allow a chasing player to compete can be very difficult.

“You’re looking for 20 or 25 metres [of distance] and that’s something I’m working on all the time,” says Marmion. “I do it separately, I don’t get to do that with Connacht so I don’t get that repetition in games as much, so I have to do that on the side.”

The different types of kick employed by Connacht and Ireland also mean Marmion must adapt his technique.

“With Connacht it’s about trying to find length as much as I can. With that, there’s obviously a different trajectory, so the charge down has to be considered.

Kick Marmion got blocked down against Leinster.

“I got charged down in the Leinster game, and it’s probably different if you’re going for a contestable kick. You get that different trajectory, higher, whereas this one is longer.”

The presence of players on the side of the ruck shielding the scrum-half are important too, essentially blocking the defensive side from getting through to block the scrum-half’s kick.

Note how there are none in place for Marmion’s blocked-down kick above.

The scrum-half needs these shielding players to load up on the side of the ruck where his kick will actually come from. So, with Marmion being right-footed, he needs players loading on that side of the ruck.

“It’s a lot easier with Ireland because the lads know the positions to be in,” says Marmion. “You’ve got that time to slow it down and get lads into positions.

“The way we are with Connacht, it’s about trying to catch out people in the backfield who have maybe come up into the line, so you might not have that time to slow it down or get lads into position if you’re going long.

“That just lets their winger push back, so we try and get it in and out quickly. That does mean that the opposition can put a bit more pressure on the kick.”

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