'It's not just about one or two decision makers, every player has to understand'

Lynne Cantwell explains how Ireland’s women’s team improved their effectiveness on the pitch.

IN 13 YEARS playing for Ireland, I experienced what it feels like for a team to click just three times.

It’s a feeling where you know every teammate’s role to precise margins, where players see and read each others’ play instinctively and there is a deep collective understanding of what the team are trying to do throughout each phase.

Head Coach Joe Schmidt Joe Schmidt will hope to see his side fully click against Italy. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

It always fascinated me how incredibly effective you become in your units and team when you do click.  On Sunday against Romania, Ireland performed like a team that is genuinely clicking.

The detail behind the team’s training and preparation has been very well documented. It’s clear that the meticulous planning and tactical understanding in this management team’s approach supplements and fills gaps Ireland had in the past.

But what’s so incredibly hard to plan, and complicated to explain, is how to make your team and player combinations click.

We’ve got to put in context of course; Ireland’s win against Romania on Sunday can’t be compared to many of the other tougher games that took place last weekend. I understand that it’s a lot easier for teams to perform fluidly, look like they have more time of the ball, and make fewer mistakes when the opposition is weaker.

However, my observations are based on Ireland’s performance, not just their outcome. Comparing the Romania game to their effectiveness stats from the Canada win, Ireland improved how effective they were at converting possession and field position into points.

Ireland were 63% effective with the 61% possession they had in the Romanian game, improving on their 60% effectiveness in overall play the weekend before against Canada.

The Irish women’s team has been using a game analysis template that revolves around these markers to analyse team performance for the last number of years. It’s based on a system developed by Steve Aboud, the IRFU’s technical director and an influential figure.

Statistically, if teams are 54% or more effective in their combined attack and defence, this should equate to winning the game.

Paul O'Connell Paul O'Connell warms up at training today. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

We used this system to specifically measure what areas of our game we needed to make improvements in. We were first introduced to this type of detailed analysis the year of the 2010 World Cup in England.

Len Browne was our analyst and according to his study, we were often only 42 to 48% effective with our possession in games, regardless of how big our share of the overall possession was.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if you’re not converting your possession into points or better field position, you won’t win games. The next four years were spent training hard to improve these statistics, with infinitely more technical and tactical direction.

Naturally, this is a huge process that takes a lot of time and breaks down into incredible detail. But having this overall insight creates incredible understanding from the players of what the objectives are in each phase of play, what the team is trying to achieve in each part of the pitch and, importantly, the implications of poor execution or decision-making.

A simple example of how this affects what you do on the training ground would be practicing footwork drills before taking the ball into contact to improve ground made through contact. That in turn will result in a more effective use of possession.

Another example would be recognising which attacking options to choose when in your opposition’s 22.

This is your scoring zone where it’s vital you come away with points. Often this is the time to choose safer backline moves and more direct moves that secure and retain possession to score tries.

Over the years, our effectiveness stats gradually improved as lots of the technical and tactical detail was filled in and the players collectively understood our direction better. There were plenty of really bad performances thrown into the mix of course.

When we beat New Zealand in the 2014 World Cup in Marcoussis, our overall team effectiveness was 58%. This was a phenomenal stat for us against the three-time world champions.

What was most telling about the performance was that we were 70% effective defensively. We just did not allow New Zealand to advance in their attack, which starved them of converting their possession to points.

We had points to score ourselves of course! We had identified that New Zealand kicked 60% of their attacking possession in open play. This meant that when Rene Wickcliffe kicked to Ireland in open play, we reacted with speed.

A view of training Ireland are based in Guildford this weekend. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The team quickly retreated as we anticipating the kick, which allowed a competitive counter attack with Niamh Briggs as the spearhead and lots of options either side. Thankfully she found Ali Millar with her tidy draw and pass, and Ali ran 40m to the left corner and scored the game-winning try.

That New Zealand win was the third game where I felt the team genuinely clicking. The other two times were when we beat England in Ashbourne in the 2013 Grand Slam campaign – our first win over England - and when we beat USA in our 2010 World Cup pool game.

Understandably, Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team will have a more advanced understanding of play objectives than the women’s team, by virtue of their being a professional outfit.

The extended training time that is part of a World Cup year allows players and coaches to prepare and practice in so much more detail. This extra understanding and familiarity provides an excellent platform for players to tune into how their teammates play.

That means that on the pitch players read each other better and react more instinctively as a group without having to be told what to do all the time.

It’s not just about one or two decision makers, every player has to understand.

Yes, the last two games have been against relatively poor opposition, but Ireland look to me to be starting to click. The gradual rise in their effectiveness is a strong indicator of that impression.

Ireland still have an Italian and French mountain to climb, but that feeling of clicking is like few other feelings players can experience on the pitch.

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