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Ireland missing a trick from nine to exploit gaps in high-linespeed defences

Eoin Toolan and Gavan Casey discuss Ireland’s lack of sniping threat around the ruck and Conor Murray’s future in green.

Conor Murray in action against France.
Conor Murray in action against France.
Image: Dave Winter/INPHO

‘IMPROVEMENT’ WAS THE overarching theme as Johnny Sexton took on media duties on Monday ahead of Ireland’s Autumn Nations Cup kick-off against Wales, and it was an area of focus, too, for renowned coach/performance analyst Eoin Toolan and the far less renowned Gavan Casey of The42 as they peered at Ireland’s winter schedule through a similar prism on Rugby Weekly Extra — our weekly rugby-analysis podcast available to members of The42 every Monday.

Eoin, who is four weeks into his new role as assistant coach and head of analysis at Japanese Top League outfit Kinetsu Liners, provided his professional insight into the areas in which he feels it most pressing for Andy Farrell’s Ireland to improve during their Nations Cup campaign — and it was a hefty wish list following a disappointing Six Nations conclusion in Paris.

As well as incorporating a second playmaker and overhauling Ireland’s counter-attacking shape, central to Eoin’s constructive criticism was the role of Ireland’s scrum-half, and how Ireland’s attack routinely fails to exploit holes in the kinds of high-linespeed defences against which they have struggled since 2018.

Eoin said: “I think the attack is still far too reliant on the 10. I think we need more of a running threat from our nines.

“What I’m seeing a lot is that, in these heavy-linespeed defences, the biggest vulnerability is obviously the kick space but also the space around the ruck.

With the third defender coming so hard off the line, there begins to be a disconnect between the second and third defender at times and there’s a lot of onus placed on that first defender, closest to the ruck, to stay connected with the second and third defenders, which is leaving space back on the inside of the ruck. So, we need a running threat from our nine.

Gavan then suggested to Eoin that to expect Conor Murray to be able to explode through those gaps at this juncture of his career may no longer be a realistic proposition after a two-year spell in which his position in Ireland’s team has faced unwavering scrutiny, and that it may even be unfair to demand that the Munster scrum-half rediscovers his peak form after a 10-year career during which he has attacked and defended at the coalface for both province and country.

“I have a theory about Conor Murray’s form which has been mercilessly and unceremoniously shot down by Bernard Jackman on many a podcast in the past,” Gavan said. “But I think, as much as Munster and Ireland have over the last couple of years not leaned towards a gameplan in which Murray could snipe the way he used to, I also think Murray — who to my mind has been playing quite well recently — is just not the same player as he was and actually never will be again; and it’s not really the case that he’ll eventually be able to recapture his form from 2018 and beforehand.

“I get the impression that a guy of 30-odd years of age (31) who has been playing Test rugby for the bones of a decade and plays the game as abrasively as he does, maybe he’s only 85% of the athlete he once was — just due to literal wear and tear; not only injury but the approach to the game that he brings every time he lines out. Maybe that little half yard of gas that he had when he was in his mid-twenties isn’t quite there anymore. And we see that constantly with athletes across a plethora of sports.

“I just wonder”, Gavan added, “when we’re talking about having a nine with the potential to snipe, maybe that has passed him by a little bit. And maybe if Ireland are looking to implement that and have a threat around the fringes at nine, then it is time for a changing of the guard in that position.”

Eoin, who was working as a performance analyst with Declan Kidney’s Ireland when Murray made his international breakthrough nine years ago, elaborated on the importance of possessing a running threat in Murray’s position and how such a threat can totally manipulate a defence’s reading of the opposing attack.

In relation to Murray specifically, he admitted he was uncertain as to why the Limerick man has become, relative to his own past standards, either ineffectual when attacking the space between the ruck and first defender or hesitant to do so at all. And while he was reticent to put it down to the simple passing of time in Murray’s illustrious sporting career, he stressed that Farrell would need to look towards an alternative option if the veteran Munster nine is simply no longer capable of making suitable inroads where opportunities present themselves.

“It’s hard for me to give you a definitive answer on the ‘why’ for Conor,” Eoin said.

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“I would say, when there’s an automation to your attack, when there’s a very prescribed nature to it, there’s a level of predictability in terms of your support to the ball carrier. And when your nine starts to become a running threat, the support structure around the nine becomes a little less clear [to the opposition] in terms of how your attack is set up.

“I could definitely see that with Ireland at times, where there was a significant structure to their ball carrier plus their supporting players. And when you have a running nine, that’s harder [for the opposition] to legislate for. So, I can definitely see Ireland being inhibited a bit in that regard.

I can’t comment on whether [wear and tear] is inhibiting his running game but I’d just love to see it come back into his game. I obviously worked with Conor when he first broke onto the scene back in 2011 and he was always such a good running threat. And if he physically can’t do it anymore, Ireland obviously need to look at other options there as well — if that is a side of the game that they want to start to focus on.

As well as Eoin’s assessment of Ireland, today’s Rugby Weekly Extra also consisted of chat about the Wallabies’ unlikely weekend victory over the All Blacks, some potentially game-changing off-field activity in Australia, the future of Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship, and Eoin’s first month coaching in Japan’s Top League.

The full episode is available now for The42 members. If you’re not yet a member, you can join us at members.the42.ie and gain access to The42′s entire podcast platter — including the brand-new GAA Weekly pod, Shane Keegan’s How to win at Dominoes coaching pod, and Gavin Cooney’s Behind The Lines series — as well as a selection of other independent sports-journalism offerings.

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