Ireland’s performance against Wales showed this team is able to produce technically and tactically under the pressure of a home Six Nations game.
That’s three consecutive matches where this side has performed well and although that’s not a long run it is probably the first time since 2009 that we have seen that.
The All Blacks, Scottish and Welsh performances showed that Schmidt is very pragmatic in his attacking strategy. While he felt we could dominate the Scots by playing a direct ball-in-hand game, when he looked at the Welsh strengths and the stage he is at in terms of development with this Irish team he decided it would be foolhardy to take Wales straight on. That’s why he decided to play a game based on a lot of tactical kicking.
It was a kicking game that had the perfect mix of playing for territory and contesting the ball. With accurate kicks from Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton and an organised and frenzied kick chase we caught the Welsh by surprise.
Alex Cuthbert and George North are quality athletes and finishers but neither are world class under the Garryowen or for their positional sense.
Gatland described Ireland’s game plan as basic after the game but Wales have been one-dimensional under him for years and it was a surprise to see that they had no plan B when things were not going their way.
I have watched Joe Schmidt-trained teams consistently since 2008 when he was at Clermont through to his tenure with Leinster and I never saw one kick so much. It’s great that he felt comfortable enough to forgo his natural philosophy which is targeting pressure points in the opposition.
It’s not that hard to implement a quality kicking game once you have world class kickers like we do but you still have to defend for 80 minutes and be able to generate and take scoring opportunities.
Ireland have a rock solid well-disciplined defence at the moment which hasn’t conceded a try in the Six Nations. But its in the ruck and maul where we have improved hand over fist in six months.
Ireland’s defensive ruck is the most impressive facet. It combines good decision-making, incredible technique, bravery and singlemindeness which is making us a real nuisance. Joe Schmidt has 11 or 12 players who are jackals (more on that later) but what’s impressive is the fact that his side can vary the technique leaving the opposition struggling to predict what they are going to do.
His strategy is a ‘Chop and Barge’ tactic where Ireland force the opposition to commit more players to keep the ball. The result is usually slower ball so the opposition is forced to commit numbers and clear the ruck quickly. The key is that we don’t use that tactic repetitively. There were plenty of examples in the Welsh and Scottish matches where no Irish player committed to the ruck which meant there was a dense defensive line ready to dominate the next collision and defensive breakdown.
Rugby is a numbers game and if you play a side that doesn’t contest the ruck you can put the ball carrier with one or two players in attack and you should be able to get over the gain line. That’s down to the unpredictability of what your team is doing. Because Ireland are varying their numbers at the defensive ruck, when they do decide to flood that area they are getting rewards and we have seen some key turnovers or penalties won from players ‘Jackaling’.
The ‘Jackal’ is the term given to the player who contests the ball on the ground at the ruck. The key from a law point of view is that you must not have been part of the tackle or release the tackled player before contesting the ball and you must be able to support your own body weight with your knees off the ground.
If you are the ‘Jackaler’ you will be the focus point of the opposition cleaners and as your head will be below your hips your back is generally an open target. It leaves you open for a lot of punishment.
Generally the best ‘Jackalers’ in the world are small squatty body shapes like George Smith or David Pocock but the best Jackaler we have seen in the competition so far has been Peter O’Mahony who has taken the opportunity in the absence of Sean O’Brien to show he is a world class back row.
The other strong point of our attack at the moment is our lineout catch and drive. The timing of the throw, lift and catch has been very impressive but when Ireland have decided to drive they have managed to motor the opposition back almost without fail.
Once a lineout maul starts to move forward it is almost impossible to stop it without conceding a penalty. Ireland have shown excellent variation here as well as they drive off the front, middle and the back. Once they start they also use a shift drive which changes the point of contact and makes it harder to defend. It takes real detail to get it right though. Referees, despite there having been no official change in the laws recently, have become much more tolerant of the ball being shifted to the back of the lineout quickly and we have seen very little ‘Truck and Trailer’ offences given. That makes it even harder for the defensive side.
Ireland aren’t the biggest of packs but through quality communication, organisation and body height they look like they can dominate any side with this tool and even though the game is constantly changing the old adage that ‘forwards decide who wins the match and the backs decide by how much’ still holds through.
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