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Ireland's skills show up strongly against world-leading All Blacks

‘Our skills were as good as, if not slightly stronger, than the All Blacks on the day.’

THE ALL BLACKS have deservedly been lauded for their skill levels in recent years, but one of the most surprising aspects of Chicago two weekends ago was how well Ireland’s skills showed up in comparison.

Conor Murray’s passing was at a better level than Aaron Smith’s, while the likes of Johnny Sexton, Jamie Heaslip and Robbie Henshaw also passed well. Rory Best threw three accurate passes, and Jared Payne’s late effort was the pass of the game.

Johnny Sexton Jonny Sexton fires off a pass in Chicago. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Jordi Murphy was the only member of Ireland’s starting XV not to make a pass at Soldier Field, as Joe Schmidt’s side showed a willingness to go to width with their possession, particularly in the first half.

In the other basic skills, Ireland showed up superbly too. Their fielding of high balls was supreme at times, their tackle technique was sharp, their work at the ruck aggressive and their kicking very often accurate.

In the game in Soldier Field, our skills were as good as, if not slightly stronger, than the All Blacks on the day,” says Ireland skills coach Richie Murphy. “One week to the next that can change, but the skill level is still the skill level of the player.

“Time and pressure changes a lot when it comes to the skill level. If you’re allowed time and space, people will make good decisions. When time and space is crowded and there are bodies in front of you, that’s when things will change.

“If you’re forcing things and you think you can get it there rather than know you can get it there, that’s probably the difference between a ball staying up or going down.”

Valid points all of them, and perhaps an explanation of how Ireland didn’t allow the All Blacks’ to utilise their outstanding skills consistently throughout the 80 minutes last time around.

Richie Murphy Murphy is Ireland's skills coach. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

More defensive pressure from Andy Farrell’s charges will be required at the Aviva Stadium.

The stats – rather surpisingly – show that Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong, Donnacha Ryan, Devin Toner, Finlay Bealham and CJ Stander only passed once each in Chicago, while replacement forwards Ultan Dillane, Josh van der Flier, Cian Healy and Sean Cronin didn’t pass at all.

Ireland’s forwards and their passing of the ball is an interesting topic.

In last year’s World Cup, only 13% of the passes made by Joe Schmidt’s side came from forwards. In the 2016 Six Nations, there were signs of a growth in that, as Ireland hit 16% in the opening clash with Wales.

However, against the All Blacks, forwards made only 10% of Ireland’s passes. Against Canada last weekend, that figure was back up to 16%.

What we’re seeing here is a statistical illustration of Ireland’s ability to change their game plan from week to week under Joe Schmidt. Pinning one style of play onto this team is inaccurate.

In simple terms, a different game plan against Canada meant more forwards passing the ball than against the All Blacks, with many of the passes in last weekend’s game coming in incidents like the one below.

JOD

The above is actually the phase on which Luke Marshall has his pass picked off for DTH van der Merwe’s try on Saturday, but we’re more interested in Jack O’Donoghue’s involvement.

This was one of six passes from the Waterford man as Ireland continually used their forwards to provide these links to a back waiting in behind the carrying pod. Indeed, Peter O’Mahony passed nine times last weekend.

Ireland very often use this attacking wrinkle in their game plans against relatively poor opposition – Italy, Romania, sometimes Scotland – as a means to exploring wider channels and stretching the opposition defence into making errors.

However, this shape is not as common from Ireland against the very best nations and it was far less prevalent against the All Blacks in Chicago. It will be fascinating to note whether Ireland use this layer in their attack on Saturday in Dublin.

Certainly, there is belief in Ireland’s set-up that they have forwards capable of passing the ball accurately.

“There’s always a focus on handling and passing when the guys are in here in Ireland camp and that’s the same for the provinces,” says Murphy.

“Maybe they’re a little bit more comfortable but we’ve never told our forwards not to pass. Why do you pass? Because there’s a guy in a better position than yourself. It’s up to the guys to read that and make good decisions on the back of what they see.”

Ireland’s Conor Murray Conor Murray's passing has improved steadily in recent years. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Murphy suggests that players feeling “a little bit more comfortable” in the Ireland environment may be helping to bring out better passing ability, but he and his fellow coaches don’t believe that anything has greatly changed.

“It’s really pleasing but if I think back to last year or even the year before, I don’t think there has been a massive change in how we’ve been trying to play the game and I don’t think there’s been a massive change in the skill level of the players,” says Murphy.

“I think the skill level of the players is still in and around the same level as it was. Yeah, we went to Chicago and we probably played a little bit more, and we were able to hold onto the ball.

“Our ball carrier was good in the contact area and our cleanouts were good, which meant we could secure possession on our own end and kick on our own terms, rather than kicking on the opposition’s terms.

“So that gave us an opportunity to play around at our end a little bit.”

Schmidt and Murphy will have been drilling the basic details of handling and passing this week at Carton House and will hope to see evidence of Ireland’s growing confidence in this area on Saturday.

Joe Schmidt Joe Schmidt has always placed great store in basic passing skills. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

However, as they look to notch 40 points again, and potentially improve on that haul, Ireland must bring attacking pressure from all angles.

“Five tries every week would be lovely, but I think if you look at how they came, there are differences in each of those tries,” says Murphy.

“We’ve obviously got one or two up front, we’ve got one from Conor [Murray] going through at the breakdown, a set-piece try which was off a set-piece play with Robbie [Henshaw] coming back underneath.

“From an attacking point of view, we want to be able to attack teams in many, many different ways, whether it be through our set-piece – and that’s scrum or lineout or maul – be able to expose teams that are playing tight with our kicking game to the edges and be able to go through teams when they spread to counter-act our kicking game.

“So, it’s a matter of us being able to try and amalgamate those different pieces and have an attacking structure that guys can make decisions on in the heat of the moment.”

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Murray Kinsella

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