'Spaces not faces. General movement helped us to a Grand Slam'

Our Six Nations columnists Lynne Cantwell outlines the good work the Italian union are doing.

OFTEN WHEN YOU speak to people who have come up to the Northern Hemisphere from New Zealand to play rugby, they will tell you how physically taxing they find it.

I remember talking about this to a player named Simon Devane, a Kiwi lock who played with London Scottish a number of years ago. Simon, having come up from Canterbury in New Zealand, noticed that his body was taking longer to recover after games.

There could be lots of factors to explain this, but he felt strongly about the tendency for players to take more contact when he played in England, something he wasn’t as versed in playing in New Zealand.

Joe Schmidt Joe Schmidt and Ireland are prepping for a clash with Italy. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Spaces not faces! A rugby mantra that is widely used, but this was the message I experienced during the season I spent playing club rugby in Auckland in 2009. It makes sense when attacking to try to find space, as opposed to seeking out contact.

You never want to get to the point where you look to mimic everything the Kiwis do in rugby, but there is value to be taken from this experience, echoed by others, both in terms of injury prevention and rugby effectiveness.

This all comes to mind when considering the state of Italian rugby as they get set to take on Joe Schmidt’s Ireland in Dublin tomorrow. With three losses from three games so far in this championship, some might be questioning the Italians’ place at the Six Nations table.

I feel there are reasons to be positive about their future, however, and one of those is what I know of how their union is working to create better players.

‘General movement’ is a concept that was first introduced to us in the Ireland Women’s squad back in 2007. Steve Aboud, the IRFU’s head of technical direction, presented to us and mentored our coaches – the likes of Shane Moore, Fergal Campion, Keith Murphy and Greg McWilliams - in putting this premise into place.

It’s a French concept borne from recognising the limitations of overly-structured and patterned rugby. The aim is to teach and promote a heightened ability to navigate games in open play [positioning and repositioning of players with and without the ball] and having the ability to adapt to attacking and defensive opportunities comfortably.

Ashleigh Baxter, Vikki McGinn and Lynne Cantwell celebrate after the game 5/8/2014 The concept of general movement helped Ireland to become a better team. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Basically, over time we learned how to navigate play effectively and make good decisions based on how play would unfold.

The incredibly influential Pierre Villepreux, a legend in the coaching world, is the man behind the formation of this concept. He argues that organised, but not pre-programmed, movement is the ideal way of breaking down a defence.

General movement is not about pre-empting what is going to happen, but reading play as it happens and making your decisions based on that. It’s very much, ‘there is a contact situation here, what’s unfolding, what are the options and where should you be lining yourself up next on this basis?’

It’s having an understanding about what you’re trying to do when you play rugby, instead of just looking for contact because there’s a defensive line to run into.

General movement is the antithesis of just setting up rucks and phases, going from one to the next, which I think some teams probably don’t realise they do quite a lot of.

In Ireland, we often say, ‘we’ll have a scrum and we’ll hit it up.’ What is hitting it up? Our aim with hitting it up is to carry into contact, whereas our aim should be to try and breach the line every time or at least win the contact. We go back to our story of the Kiwi second row coming up to the Northern Hemisphere: spaces not faces.

In order to facilitate the decision-making required for general movement to be effective, there does need to be an element of structure.

The ‘life of the ball’ is the name given to the group of players closest to the ball carrier, whose responsibility it is to provide continuity of possession in attack.

Simon Zebo Ireland were run close by Italy at the World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The ‘early’ group are those players who are in position laterally in the same direction as the initial attack. They can be in position quickly on the next wave of attack, identifying and communicating where the space is.

The ‘axis’ group signifies the players who are near the breakdown as the ball is emerging again, and their responsibility is to provide close attacking options, say taking a short pass off the shoulder of one of the ‘early’ group.

Finally, the ‘late’ group refers to those who provide the options for the attack to reverse or bounce back against the grain, and again they have a responsibility to identify attacking opportunities, communicate and then exploit them.

Structure, yes, but only to facilitate the freedom to make good decisions.

General movement is an idea that the Italians have put into place very well in their underage structures. The Italian union’s technical director, Francesco Ascione, is another who strongly believes in this concept.

When we were trying to grasp the idea with the Ireland Women’s squad, we would have viewed lots of footage of the Italy U20s side in order to see general movement done very well.

The new Italian out-half Carlo Canna, who is injured for tomorrow’s Ireland clash but who has been playing very well in this campaign, is one example of a better end product coming from this philosophy. He’s only 23 and is still learning, but appears to be thinking his way around the pitch, attempting to locate and exploit space.

Italy are trying to play the game that way more and more, it’s deeply embedded in their union. From that point of view, I think they’ve got potential and there is a purpose in what they are trying to achieve on the pitch.

I know how effective this learning process can be because the introduction of general movement to the Ireland Women’s squad completely changed the creativity and intelligence of our play and, importantly, the comfort at how we did this.

We could outsmart teams that were used to defending predictable patterns predominantly used in the womens game in that era, which we attribute a huge proportion of our success in winning the Grand Slam to in 2013.

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RTE TV Conor O'Shea Conor O'Shea would be perfect for Italy. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

It’s been speculated that Conor O’Shea may be heading to Italy as their next head coach this summer and I think he could be a missing part of the jigsaw for them. O’Shea’s professional standards and technical and tactical direction will be a huge asset to Italy at Test level.

With Ireland, Schmidt came in and potentially highlighted some of the emotive fuel that Ireland sometimes relied on too much. Ireland’s passion for their country is an untouchable source of motivation that is an exceptional tool to drive you.

Under Schmidt, that’s still an important factor, but not the only one. When you’re dipping into that manic motivation too often, the well can run dry.

Combining some elements of that mentality with O’Shea’s professionalism and the good work the Italian union has done to push their players to play more intelligently, and we may see the progress that has been lacking from the Italians in recent years.

As for tomorrow’s game, I think Italy are likely to come up short in Dublin. Jacques Brunel’s team can be frantic and disorganised defensively. That presents opportunities for Ireland of course, but it can also frustrate.

Against any defence, you choose certain plays to try and lure the opposition into doing something that in turn allows you to exploit them somewhere else. But if the defence doesn’t even follow that one initial play as expected or hoped, the opportunity on phase two doesn’t materialise.

I sense that Ireland will seek out good territory on the pitch early on and play bog-standard positional rugby to start. I think it’s wise not allow it turn into too much of a flair game in the first quarter, so Ireland can settle themselves and new combinations and take control.

Put out the early fires from Italy and then Ireland can try to put into place some of the plays they’ve not been able to so far in this championship. Given the disorganised nature of Italy’s defence when the phases begin to rack up, Ireland’s own general movement will also be important.

Josh van der Flier Ireland can deliver their best performance of the championship. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Players with their heads up, seeking out gaps, communicating the opportunities and then exploiting them intelligently – that’s what we all hope to see from Schmidt’s men tomorrow.

The Ireland Women’s team take on the Italians this weekend too of course, and I expect another home win there.

The Italian team are very feisty and unpredictable, though their lack of strength and physicality is a potential weakness. Ireland have named a very new team to take on the Italians on Sunday, at 1pm in Donnybrook.

It’s another important step for them to blood new players and get back up to the standard of rugby they can play in the build up to hosting the 2017 Women’s World Cup.

- This piece was updated at 8.37am on 11 March.

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About the author:

Lynne Cantwell  / Ireland's most-capped women's international, played in five World Cups.

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