April 7, 2014
Well I've finally gotten around to look back at the 6 Nations as a whole. That last Saturday was both an epic day and an incredibly draining one. The Italy-England game was an seriously tense affair until Sarto came to the rescue and those last 5 minutes of the France-Ireland game were akin to torture! But the lads came good and they won Ireland's second Championship since the turn of the century. Joe Schmidt has continued his habit of winning at least 1 trophy per season (as is tradition) and we've sent the Magic Man off in a more fitting manner than many of us may have thought possible at the start of the season. So how does the campaign and this Irish side look in retrospect?
Ireland won 4 of their 5 games, only losing out to a very good English side by 3 points in Twickenham. Of those 4 wins only the French game was a close affair. The victories over Scotland, Wales and Italy were all convincing and we utilised very different game plans in each to take advantage of their weaknesses and nullify their strengths. Ireland proved to be a side that were comfortable with the varying nature of their game; players knew their roles in each match and far more often than not they delivered. This is something that can be said equally for our nearest competitors and the only side to beat us in this years Championship. Stuart Lancaster has forged a similar cohesiveness within the English camp and their performances have been on an upward curve ever since. What's been most impressive about Ireland though is that they delivered on that promise first time out of the gate.
WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY
Looking at the Championship from a high level there are a number of things that stand out for Ireland.
1. Ireland scored the most tries (16 to England’s 14) and conceded the least (4 to England’s 5).
2. Ireland scored the second highest number of points (132 to England’s 138) and conceded the least (49 to England’s 65).
3. Ireland’s points difference was the highest points difference in the 6 Nations since France in 2004 (+83 compared to +84).
4. Ireland had the most reliable set piece, with both our scrum and line-out being the best performing in the competition.
5. Our tackle success rate was joint top with Italy and Wales at 88%.
6. Our goal kicking success rate was third highest after Wales and England (both of whom have ridiculously good place kickers in Halfpenney and Farrell respectively).
7. Ireland made more carries and passes than any other side in the competition despite also kicking from hand quite a lot.
8. Ireland conceded the least number of turnovers and the least number of penalties.
9. Sexton was the highest point scorer and the joint top try scorer with the Player of the Championship Mike Brown.
As unlucky as England were in their opener against France, and as good as they were throughout the tournament, these stats show just how good Ireland were across the competition and really shows they were deserving winners in the end. Sexton might be a little frustrated with his kicking percentages, but given how much he created and scored (never mind his defensive presence) it’s a minor enough quibble and something that I’m sure he’ll be working on going forward.
The success at set piece is pretty impressive too when you consider that Ireland would hardly have been known as a tough scrummaging side down through the years. Add to that the fact that young players like McGrath, Moore, Henderson, Tommy O’Donnell, Ruddock and Murphy were involved and it’s hugely pleasing that our forwards were able to provide a platform for the half-backs to take advantage of. The mauls don’t feature in the stats but we saw for ourselves how good Ireland were in that facet of play too. Plaudits must go to Plumtree for his work with the forwards, as well as Greg Feek for his work with the scrum.
Ireland’s back line developed the fluidity and consistency it’s been lacking for the last number of years too, running in some very nice tries and making some very good line breaks. The familiarity in mid-field certainly helped in this regard, but I don’t think anyone can argue that this is the best we’ve seen the Irish back line play in some time, at least outside of some very good one off performances. And looking at the video below you can see Joe Schmidt’s fingerprints all -over Ireland’s running game.
However the stats show England as the side with the most cutting edge. They had 41 clean line breaks and beat 133 defenders to Ireland’s 32 and 99 respectively. Yet they still scored 2 less tries than we did. These 3 stats I think probably highlight the real difference between both teams. While Ireland were fairly ruthless and clinical inside the opposition 22, England were a good deal more profligate with the chances that they created. That aside there really is very little that separates the two sides. England have a freakishly good goal kicker but are possibly a little less disciplined (yes Mr Hartley we’re looking at you) and that’s about it. It should make for a fascinating encounter next year in the Aviva, and is one I’m eagerly anticipating already.
At the start of the tournament Joe Schmidt announced that they were looking to build some real depth in the squad and were hoping to look at giving 20+ players starts through-out the tournament. This was certainly an ambitious target seeing as the 6 Nations is Ireland’s bread and butter, and with a number of injuries to contend with it was probably not an achievable target. Especially after the first 2 weeks when we had put ourselves into a great position to win the title. Ultimately though the coaching staff are looking to have at least 2 players in each position that they trust to come in and make an impact, be that from the starting 15 or the bench. So how have they done?
Well Ireland started only 18 players over the course of the 6 Nations and capped 29. That is somewhat lower than Joe had been looking to achieve. But when you consider the injuries to the likes of Bowe, Earls and Fitzgerald that prevented them from taking part and then add in the injuries to Peter O’Mahony, Dan Tuohy and Luke Marshall that occurred mid-tournament that was always going to limit the scope of changes that could be made. Factor in to the equation the fact that we developed a healthy lead in the table early on and this would have encouraged the coaching staff to go for the title primarily, again further limiting scope for changes. The Italy game for example became about securing a strong points differential ahead of the trip to Paris as opposed to a blooding exercise. And that proved to be the right call given how well England did in Rome and how tight our game against France was.
Those players that did start, and the majority who came off the bench, had a genuine impact on proceedings though. And that is a huge positive. Guys like Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Paddy Jackson and Fergus McFadden all scored tries off the bench. Rhys Ruddock made a massive impression against Italy too and played a vital role in Sean Cronins try by turning over ball that had been stolen by the Italians only moments before. It seems that we’ve already moved on from the days of bench players plugging a hole to a situation where they can be brought on to add to the game. These guys know that if they do their jobs well they’ll be in contention for one of the 23 jerseys on match day, potentially even one of the 15.
Cian Healy & Jack McGrath
Rory Best & Sean Cronin
Mike Ross & Martin Moore
Paul O’Connell, Devin Toner, Dan Tuohy & Iain Henderson
Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson & Rhys Ruddock
Chris Henry, Tommy O’Donnell & Jordi Murphy
Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan & Isaac Boss
Jonathan Sexton & Paddy Jackson
Gordon D’Arcy & Luke Marshall
Brian O’Driscoll & Fergus McFadden
Dave Kearney, Andrew Trimble & Fergus McFadden
Then we have Richardt Strauss at Hooker, Declan Fitzpatrick at TH, Donnacha Ryan & Mike McCarthy at lock, Stephen Ferris at openside, Sean O’Brien at blinside, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald and Simon Zebo on the wing who were all injured or just coming back from injury plus Ulsters Jared Payne who becomes Irish Qualified for the AIs. Ireland are developing a fairly serious squad at the moment with those coming off the bench providing the same or similar levels of performance as those who start. We’ve some work to do at 8, scrum-half and outside centre but with 2 tests to Argentina and 2 AI games this year we should have plenty of time to bed in a replacement for Drico and some depth in the other positions.
So Joe’s first 6 Nations was a winning one. Our performances have been impressive and our squad is coming along nicely. We outperformed the other teams in the competition in almost every area and were able to implement multiple game plans effectively and confidently. Players like Toner and Trimble, who had often been labelled as not being international standard, stepped up and proved they are quality players and will continue to provide a serious selection headache for the coaches as well as competition for places through-out the squad. It was an incredibly positive tournament which puts us in a great position a year out from the World Cup.
Next up is the Summer Tour in Argentina. Here we should see a number of fringe players get some time. I’d assume Darren Cave and Robbie Henshaw will each get an opportunity at 13 while Kieran Mamion will get a run at scrum-half. Depending on fitness levels we should hopefully see Bowe, Earls, Zebo and Fitzgerald getting a run out too, plus Ferris in the pack. I’d imagine some of the Lions will be rested such as Heaslip and Sexton. A few others, like Hanrahan and Healy, will probably be rested to get them over current niggles. Hopefully come the AIs we’ll be reasonably settled squad wise and we can focus on making a push to retain the 6 Nations title and subsequently have a shot at the RWC.