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Scanning, kicking, more playmakers, solid set-piece - Ireland's attack aims this autumn

Attack coach Mike Catt says teams ‘can’t just be one-dimensional anymore.’

THERE WERE GLIMPSES of what Andy Farrell and his attack coach Mike Catt want from their Ireland team earlier this year but we’ll have a far better understanding after this busy autumn, which involves six Tests in seven weeks if all goes to plan.

It starts with a Six Nations clash against Italy at a supporter-less Aviva Stadium in Dublin this afternoon [KO 3.30pm, Virgin Media 1] and the expectation is that 28-point favourites Ireland will be able to show plenty of their attacking philosophy.

Attack is the area where supporters had been clamouring for change when the Farrell era began in the wake of the 2019 World Cup failure.

mike-catt Ireland attack coach Mike Catt. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In very basic terms, Farrell and Catt are keen to make Ireland a less predictable and structured team in attack, capable of mixing their tactics up fluidly between passing into wide channels, being direct and confrontational, counter-attacking clinically, and kicking intelligently.

In the Six Nations wins against Scotland and Wales earlier this year, there were clear signs of the increased width Ireland are trying to play with, even if it didn’t always work out perfectly.

Ireland employed a new 1-3-2-2 attacking shape, with those numbers signifying the distribution of the eight forwards across the width of the pitch. 

While it wasn’t always possible to get into their exact 1-3-2-2 shape in attack due to forwards needing to deal with the challenges directly in front of them at times, the use of a pod of three forwards and a pod of two forwards [so the 3-2 part of the shape] in between the two 15-metre lines was consistent and brought about some of the best attacking passages from Ireland.

While more width seems like a positive, Catt stressed that simply passing the ball out into the 15-metre channels isn’t always the best way forward for Ireland.

“It’s about getting the balance right – if we need to go through the front door through their team, we do, or if we need to go out the back, we do,” said Catt.

“We really coach in terms of scanning, seeing the picture, and making the decisions on the back of what the defence gives us.

“We haven’t said to the players ‘you’re just doing this or that’, they’ve got to make the decision themselves on the pitch.”

johnny-sexton-and-conor-murray Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are key decision-makers for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

While Ireland have been heavily reliant on captain Johnny Sexton as their playmaker in recent years, Catt and Farrell are keen for other backline players to take some of that responsibility and pop up at first receiver intermittently.

Senior scrum-half Conor Murray must also be more of a threat on the fringes of ruck, with his previously strong sniping game having all but vanished in more recent times. 

Interestingly, when asked what had pleased him most about Ireland’s attack in those Scotland and Wales victories earlier this year, Catt pointed to some of his team’s kicking.

“We scored some very good tries and played exceptionally well against Wales,” said Catt.

“What we were able to do was really pressurise Wales, turn them [downfield to gather Ireland kicks] on a regular basis and then the opportunities we got, we actually capitalised on.

“That’s crucial against the Italians, if we can get the scoreboard ticking over and really pressurise that and make them play out of their half or in their half for a long time then the pressure will tell somewhere along the line.”

Ireland kicked in play 21 times against both Scotland and Wales, mixing some clever attacking kicks from wide players like Andrew Conway with the usual contestable efforts from their halfbacks. More of this from Ireland would be a good sign as they look to combine their wider ball-in-hand approach with a pressurising kicking game.

In defeat to England, Ireland only kicked 17 times in play and struggled to put any pressure on Eddie Jones’ team in this area.

andrew-conway-celebrates-after-the-game Back three players like Andrew Conway must be part of the attacking kicking game. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Creating and exploiting space in the backfield – whether from the boots of Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Garry Ringrose, Conway, or new fullback Jacob Stockdale – is something Catt wants to see from this Ireland team.

“Very much so. Defence and breakdown is very much driven at international level and you’ve got to have ways [of breaking teams down],” said Catt.

“It’s really getting the guys to change the way they’re thinking a little bit in terms of where the space is, but again they’ve still got to see the space, they’ve then got to execute the kicks.

“So it’s just putting another attacking bit on top of what they’ve currently got and it just keeps defences thinking all the time, and that’s crucial. You can’t just be one-dimensional anymore.”

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Back in February at Twickenham, Catt and Farrell’s men slavishly stuck to their aim of moving the ball to width but this only fed into the hands of England’s smotheringly aggressive defence.

But from Catt’s point of view, all of Ireland’s attacking problems in that game stemmed from the scrum and lineout.

“You’ve got to win your set-piece,” said Catt. “Simple as that.”

Indeed, the Irish set-piece did struggle to deliver any kind of decent attacking platform against England, while the scrum and maul had major issues against Scotland and Wales too.

 

Given that Leinster had real problems in those areas against Saracens recently, Ireland will be very aware of the need for lineout coach Simon Easterby and scrum coach John Fogarty to have those parts of Ireland’s game firing in the coming weeks.

Down in the opposition 22, Ireland are like every other team in largely opting for one-out rugby and playing off Sexton from time to time, but the clever try Sexton scored against Scotland showed they’re keen to have bring tweaks in that area of the pitch.

It was on penalty advantage and it’s actually a play that Ireland attempted previously under Joe Schmidt, but any such flourishes in the opposition 22 would be encouraging for supporters.

james-ryan-takes-the-ball-in-the-line-out Ireland's lineout, maul, and scrum must improve this autumn. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

And speaking of Schmidt, it would be morale-boosting for the Ireland players if some of the kind of set-piece power players that the former head coach was famous for featured this autumn. There is nothing like a perfectly-executed strike play to boost confidence.

So the checklist looks something like: continue to develop Ireland’s passing game and play with width, don’t forget to be direct at times, have less playmaking reliance on Sexton, use an attacking kicking game intelligently, have a rock-solid scrum platform, and deliver clean ball from the lineout and maul.

Hardly too much to ask for, is it?

Ireland:

15. Jacob Stockdale
14. Andrew Conway
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Bundee Aki
11. Hugo Keenan
10. Johnny Sexton (captain)
9. Conor Murray

1. Cian Healy
2. Rob Herring
3. Andrew Porter
4. Tadhg Beirne
5. James Ryan
6. Caelan Doris
7. Will Connors
8. CJ Stander

Replacements:

16. Dave Heffernan
17. Ed Byrne
18. Finlay Bealham
19. Ultan Dillane
20. Peter O’Mahony
21. Jamison Gibson-Park
22. Ross Byrne
23. Robbie Henshaw

Italy:

15. Jayden Hayward
14. Edoardo Padovani
13. Luca Morisi
12. Carlo Canna
11. Mattia Bellini
10. Paolo Garbisi
9. Marcello Violi

1. Danilo Fischetti
2. Luca Bigi (captain)
3. Giosue Zilocchi
4. Marco Lazzaroni
5. Niccolo Cannone
6. Sebastian Negri
7. Abraham Steyn
8. Jake Polledri

Replacements:

16. Gianmarco Lucchesi
17. Simone Ferrari
18. Pietro Ceccarelli
19. David Sisi
20. Johan Meyer
21. Maxime Mbanda
22. Callum Braley
23. Federico Mori

Referee: Matthew Carley (RFU).

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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