Friday 3 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
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'Joe Schmidt's Ireland will have analysed France to the smallest detail'
Lynne Cantwell explains what is actually involved in opposition analysis in rugby.

SOMETIMES YOU THINK you’ve done the the best bit of analysis in the world and it ends up being totally meaningless on match day.

Ireland thought we were so smart having identified a pattern England used in the 2014 World Cup where one of their big ball carriers, Heather Fisher, stood out in backline to receive a back door pass that gave her space to attack smaller players.

Joe Schmidt Dan Sheridan / INPHO Schmidt's Ireland are famous for their deep analysis of the opposition. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

We were delighted as we saw it as an opportunity to blitz up in defence harder than usual and force a handling error. Game day came and Heather Fisher wasn’t even on the pitch.

Instead, Alex Matthews – the Sergio Parisse of women’s rugby – caused havoc all day. A new back row player who can also play 12, has incredible hands and blistering pace. Just when we thought England’s backline couldn’t get any stronger, it did.

All the analysis was wasted on that occasion, but it’s such an important part of the game.

Now that Joe Schmidt and Ireland are approaching their toughest World Cup game so far against one of their most familiar opponents in France, their approach to analysis will differ in a couple of areas.

Ireland will have analysed France and Italy differently to how they would have analysed Canada and Romania. Players will still go through the same prep process of sitting down individually with their laptops looking at their opposite number, opposition scrums and lineouts, backline attacks and defence.

How they approach this weekend’s game, however, will be to focus in more detail on full system weaknesses and errors the French have shown to date in this World Cup and as far back as the Six Nations, possibly ever further into the past.

Before delving into the detail behind spotting system errors, it’s useful to understand the basic individual analysis players do on the opposition.

When players get footage of their opposite number, they will look for common traits in their attack and defence.

Grace Davitt and Nora Stapleton Dan Sheridan / INPHO Ireland's Nora Stapleton and Grace Davitt getting some analysis done at the 2014 World Cup. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

These habits would be position specific. To give examples of some of the things I’d look for as a centre: dominant foot for a side step, fending tendencies, stronger or weaker passing hand, kicking wind up or body language during strike, drift and dummy lines.

The basic backline unit analysis will consist of looking at attacking backline moves, defensive organisation and line speed.

What channels do they hit with each attacking move and where are they making line breaks? Equally, where are teams are breaking our defensive line?

The majority of the forwards’ analysis is based around the lineouts and scrums. They look for ‘tells’ that initiate the opposition attack. In lineouts, players will study the hooker’s throwing set-up and ascertain whether it changes with throws to the front, middle or tail of the lineout.

Similarly, the opposition lifters and jumpers will be scrutinised to watch when and how they move. Referee microphones can be acquired to see if the actual calls be picked up. It’s incredibly detailed and the likes of Paul O’Connell will go to any length.

He even learned Afrikaans to get the better of the Springboks’ lineout in 2009.

There are literally hundreds of details to analyse and every team will do it differently. Some players enjoy having as much information as possible, but others don’t like that detail and will confine their analysis to several key points.

Ireland will have looked in huge detail at what gaps tend to appear in the French defence. They will also have analysed their own defensive breaches to spot where teams are making ground and what system weaknesses have led to these line breaks.

Paul O'Connell James Crombie / INPHO Paul O'Connell does an incredible amount of analysis work. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Having faced France so often, the Irish players and coaches will have an excellent grasp on how Philippe Saint-Andre’s team play. Most of the Ireland players will be more than familiar with their opposite number’s triggers and tells.

Schmidt and his analysis team will have studied how France are conceding points in the World Cup so far, as indications of weaknesses and any patterns in their concession of penalties.

Ireland always focus on their own strengths, of course, and will create their game plan around them. But they will also target the system errors they have identified in the French footage.

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We know that defensive shape and understanding is highly advanced in today’s professional game, so breaching a team on first or second phase is not something that you commonly see.

Analysis looks at what happens after 10+ phases of play and what errors in defence may be creeping in. One of those multi-phase passages might be the key on Sunday.

In the women’s international game, it can be easier to identify individual weaknesses in defence. Teams’ defensive and attacking systems are not as fine-tuned as a professional men’s team. Historically, England have been the toughest team we’ve had to break down.

This is a result of the superior funding and support structures they have, which allow them to train as a collective more than any other team. Beating them for the first time in the Grand Slam-winning 2013 campaign was one of the finest days in our careers.

Losing to England in that World Cup semi-final in 2014 was the toughest.

Grace Davitt, Lynne Cantwell and Ashleigh Baxter Losing the 2014 semi-final at the World Cup was a low point.

When we played England that time, we had identified three players who commonly drifted early from the ‘pillar’ position directly beside the ruck.

This small error in their defence allowed us to breach their line on a couple of occasions early on, which shook their concentration enough for us to dominate with our attack for the first quarter of the game.

We didn’t capitalise enough on these tactics to win unfortunately; England’s attack was better than ours on the day.

Not doubt Schmidt’s Ireland will have a plan A, B and C for this weekend against the French, so that if their primary tactic doesn’t work, they can switch things up. They will have analysed France down to the smallest detail.

I have total faith that they will be fully prepared to take advantage of any French errors. One tiny detail from their analysis might be the difference.

‘We got a rude awakening on the physicality side of things’ – Sean O’Brien

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