February 15, 2014
Another week and another home win. More importantly another convincing win ensuring that Ireland remain top of the table. There were plenty of satisfying aspects to the game on Saturday as Ireland were composed, disciplined and clinical in their approach and execution. And yet we’ve hardly shown our hand in terms of an attacking game. We’ve varied our game plan to suit the opposition making it incredibly difficult for opposition to analyse us and we’re now going to Twickenham looking to claim our first Triple Crown since 2009.
Irelands game plan against Wales was somewhat straight forward, but still highly effective. We rarely held onto the ball for long phases, instead we kicked in behind them, generally targeting just outside their 22m line or close to their touchline, and chased well. We trusted our defense and used our set-piece dominance, particularly our line-out and line-out maul, to generate momentum and gain the upper hand. At ruck time we identified what rucks to target and what ones not to. Wales then had to commit men to each ruck to try and ensure clean ball while Ireland could surrender the rucks they couldn’t win and spread the defensive line out to counter any Welsh attack that followed. We were also very disciplined again, finally affording Halfpenney a kick at goal after 54 minutes. That’s an incredible amount of time to go without conceding a kickable penalty.
THE TOP DOGS
Another huge difference between sides was the way in which the coaches reacted to the game as it unfolded. At 54 minutes Paul O’Connell was taken off and replaced with Dan Tuohy while Mike Ross also came off to be replaced by Martin Moore. Both O’Connell and Ross have been irreplaceable for Ireland for years now so that Schmidt showed the faith in Tuohy and Moore to take their places so early into the second half is a testament to both our strength in depth and Joes own ability to manage a game and his squad. By the time Wales made their first unforced change Ireland were making their third. At this stage Ireland were 19-3 up. In fact by 70 minutes Ireland had made 4 unforced changes, Wales had only made 2. At that point the game was over and no amount of substitutions was going to change that.
There was no noticeable change in game plan from Wales either. Ireland varied things somewhat, attempting to play more with ball in hand for a spell. This didn’t reap much in the way of reward but it did show a side comfortable in their own skin and confident enough to try something new while being able to revert back to their original game plan when it didn’t work out. There was no signs of panic or frustration. On the other hand you had Mike Phillips, an experienced and senior Welsh player, losing the rag and getting sin binned by Wayne Barnes (far later than it should have happened IMO). Most certainly in terms of a battle between the coaches Schmidt won hands down.
Speaking of coaches, huge plaudits have to go to John Plumtree yet again. Wales had absolutely no answer to the Ireland line-out maul at all. Ireland would take ball from the throw-in, pass it off before hitting the ground to prevent the sacking and then vary the point of the maul while still holding it’s shape and depth. It was wonderful to watch. It led directly to both our tries and created a couple of other try scoring opportunities besides. We may not have the biggest forwards in the world, but the level of organisation in the maul is such that any side would genuinely fear it. Plumtree has really delivered in spades here.
And Les Kiss too, the man behind the choke tackle, has helped create an Irish defensive system that has yet to concede a try in the tournament. He has now brought the chop tackle into Irelands arsenal, something the Welsh have been using for years. There’s a great article by Murray Kinsella on it here. The coaches have identified how to nullify the chop tackle too, and this is also covered in the article in The Score. It’s fair to say that this coaching team has gelled really well and are producing the goods early.
LIES, DAMN LIES AND STATISTICS!
For a game that had pretty much 50/50 territory and possession all of the game play stats suggest that Ireland were on top by a distance. We carried 98 times for a total of 329 metres compared to Wales’ 132 carries for 324 metres. Admittedly the break at the end for Boss and Jackson probably helped here for Ireland. Ireland made 5 line breaks to Wales’ 2. The 2 from our wingers in the first half in particular stand out where both found gaps in very tight spaces
. We turned ball over 10 times, where-as Wales only won 3 turnovers. We made 33 errors, but Wales made 50. We conceded 9 penalties. They conceded 16. Our completed tackles were at 94%, theirs were 87%. All of this points to a Welsh side that were restricted heavily, put under huge pressure and who ended up getting frustrated and making mistakes or giving away penalties. In fact the 6 Nations app has an interesting little feature called the Momentum Tracker, which identifies how a teams performance scores vs the points advantage on the scoreboard. It’s results for the this game are distinctly one sided:
Irelands dominance up front really showed at the line-out, line-out maul and breakdown. From the very start Hibbard was standing in line with his own players on the Welsh throw in rather than on the mark as per the below image. This was in an attempt to ensure possession from their own line-out ball. Barnes was very strict on teams maintaining the gap so this helped to shore up their line-out where they only lost 2 out of 14 throws. They obviously recognised Irelands threat from turnover ball at the set piece. This was something Ireland made Scotland pay for last week.
But even when Wales did win their own line-out they were unable to do anything with that possession. This is because while Irish players, who tackled incredibly well (O’Connell and Best in particular stood out), did get involved in rucks to slow Welsh ball down they rarely committed huge numbers to the ruck. Below Sexton put in the tackle and Best disrupted effectively. However Wales had the original carrier and 3 other men tied up in the ruck with Mike Phillips waiting to get his hands on the ball. Outside of this ruck there were 13 Irish players vs 10 Welsh. This ensured that Wales couldn’t create space out wide by sucking in defenders, a tactic they’ve regularly used to put their wingers through. Ireland refused to get involved in the rucks any more than they had to.
But when the opportunity for a turnover arose Ireland pounced, invariably through Peter O’Mahony who had another truly fantastic display on Saturday. The Welsh carrier would inevitably get isolated due to the fact that they had to commit so many to successive rucks and the Irish players got into good body positions to jackal for the ball.
This approach to opposition rucks coupled with Irelands excellent defense meant that with ball in hand Wales rarely made huge ground. This played a huge factor in the success of the kicking game Ireland employed. Whenever Ireland kicked the defensive line came up strong. And by kicking towards the Welsh 22 this meant that they couldn’t run it back huge distances before meeting our line and couldn’t call the mark and reset. The only options open to the Welsh back 3 when they received the ball was to run into contact where Ireland were winning the battle at the breakdown, or kick the ball from hand, for touch or to the Irish back 3. Both kicking options would really just be handing possession back to Ireland.
So Wales couldn’t go wide, the Irish defense meant they couldn’t go up the middle and they were constantly starting from within their own half. They had no answer to our line-out maul, but they also had no response to how we were shutting them out of the game. They couldn’t get into the game at all which led to a huge amount of frustration on their part. Ireland didn’t need a huge number of scoring opportunities because they denied Wales from having any more than 2 or 3.
THE MAN IN THE MIDDLE
I normally try not to gripe too much about the referees performance, and though there were some dodgy calls from Barnes the one I most want to highlight is one on 73 minutes. It wasn’t a game changer but it was, in my view, a howler. According to the Laws of the game:
A maul begins when a player carrying the ball is held by one or more opponents, and one or more of the ball carrier’s team mates bind on the ball carrier.
So maybe someone can explain to me why the below was not a maul. Barnes called it as a “just a tackle” after it went to ground, but to me it is clearly a maul and he is looking directly at it. No?
He also didn’t deal with Mike Phillips at all well in my view. There were a number of occasions where Phillips was spoken to, and once where he got a final warning that wasn’t a final warning. At 13:50 after Lydiate was pinged for side entry at a ruck Phillips not only refused to hand over the ball (after repeated instructions from Barnes to do so) but he took the penalty himself despite it being an Irish penalty. Barnes at the time was too concerned with O’Driscoll, who was down following the hit from Scott Williams, to address it. But less than 10 minutes later after O’Mahony was penalised for going off his feet Barnes did speak to Phillips about his backchat.
Early in the second half Barnes explained to Warburton that Phillips’ back-chat cost his team 10 metres and that he may not stay on the pitch if it happens again. At 63:10 he was spoken to briefly again before finally being binned at 73:00 after going out of his way to get involved in the row after Jacksons try. He had been aggressive and mouthy all game and when Barnes gave the warning at the start of the second half he should have followed up on it on the hour mark. That said Gatland would have been best advised to give Phillips the hook before it got to that point.
Ireland are now in as good a place as they could possibly be at the top of the table with a healthy points advantage. But there’s a long way to go yet. Next up is England in Twickenham next week and Lancasters men will prove our toughest opposition yet. They were desperately unlucky against France in their opening game and although their performance against Scotland left a lot wanting they are a well drilled side and the fact that it’s a home game for them gives them an added advantage. But seeing as Ireland have been able to completely shut out our opposition 2 weeks running now it looks like it will take a serious team to beat us. And England are still a young enough side, in the backs particularly.
We’ll need to vary our game again to compete with them but should we win this one we might be able to start whispering a certain term with initials of G and S. I have a good deal of faith in our coaching staff after the last 2 weeks to believe they can identify a game plan to win in London. I also believe England are a beatable side. But such is sport that nothing is a given and a narrow English win is a strong possibility. They need the win to stay in the championship. A Welsh win against France would be great regardless of our own result though as we can afford to lose one of our away games. That could mean that coming into the last weekend 4 of the 6 sides in the competition will be on 3 wins and 1 loss. And what a Super Saturday that would be!