Donal Lenihan: Three key areas where Ireland must improve

Ireland must win key battles in the contact zone, writes Donal Lenihan.

Tadhg Furlong, left, and Cian Healy during Ireland's captain's run at the Aviva Stadium. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong, left, and Cian Healy during Ireland's captain's run at the Aviva Stadium. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Platform progress

Ireland’s struggle to impose themselves against Scotland started with the setpiece. While the scrum came in for criticism — with the focus on Cian Healy who was harshly pinged for two scrum penalties - I was far more concerned with the return from the lineout.

This is where the statistics lie. While Ireland achieved a 90% success rate, winning 9 out of ten line outs, the ball won was far too static to be of use to Conor Murray. Ireland set up a maul off eight of those lineouts but Scotland succeeded far too often in either negating the drive or turning over possession.

Ireland need far greater variety off their lineout and must keep the Welsh guessing as to what is happening next. In order to build any momentum, the setpiece has to deliver especially as most teams know exactly what Ireland are going to do off the three phases following the setpiece. If the platform is static to begin with then the initiative is handed immediately to the opposition’s defensive system.

The scrum is likely to become a key factor today given the adverse weather conditions which are forecast for Dublin.

Wind and rain leads to a higher error count when it comes to handling, hence more scrums. With French referee Romain Poite in charge, it is always vital to be picture perfect for him from the outset of the scrummaging contest.

To his credit, Poite tends not to fuss around for too long with re-sets after scrum collapses. He makes his mind up early as to who is transgressing and sticks with that view. Winning him over early is crucial. Healy has the opportunity to amend for the perceived sins of last weekend by doing a number on Welsh tighthead Dillon Lewis who is not as good a scrummager as regular tighthead Thomas Francis, who is out injured.

Ireland not only need to exploit that potential advantage but also must be more astute in the way they operate at the lineout. Setting the right foundations from first phase will make it easier to win the key battle in the contact zone, an area where they struggled against Scotland.

Momentum building

The brutality that Eddie Jones spoke about prior to England’s opening game against France is, whether we like it or not, part and parcel of the modern game. The fight to generate momentum depends largely on winning the gain line battle, one team driving forward towards the try line, the other backpedaling.

The more pronounced that momentum is, the greater the implications, none more so than in the ability of the team without the ball to set their defensive line. The multiple statistics on offer during the game now differentiate between two types of tackle - the traditional one where you stop an opponent and bring him to ground, and the dominant one, where you drive him backwards in a momentum-shifting hit.

The big challenge Ireland has faced in recent times is that when they meet teams - think England twice last year, Wales in Cardiff in the Six Nations and New Zealand at the World Cup - that stop them at the gain line, they haven’t been able to cope.

To address that they need to spread the load when it comes to carrying. There was an over-reliance on CJ Stander last weekend once Caelan Doris was forced off, something that Wales will have noted. They will seek to double team on Stander and take him out of the game physically.

One of the most astute additions new coach Wayne Pivac made on his appointment was the introduction of former Lions captain Sam Warburton to his coaching team. He is a student of the breakdown, has the respect of the players and the knowledge to coach the subtle tweaks that can make all the difference in generating quick ball for his own team or delaying the recycle for a vital second or two when the opposition have it.

Having Taulupe Faletou back in harness after a two year absence is another big plus for the Welsh back row even if he looked a bit off the pace against Italy. He will be more influential this time out.

In their march towards the Grand Slam last season, Wales were technically superb at the breakdown. A key in that was the twin threat posed on the ground by Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric. From that perspective Navidi is a loss today and Ireland need to capitalise on his absence.

Tadhg Furlong was outstanding last week but needs to put in another big carrying shift today as do James Ryan and Iain Henderson.

Given how well served Wales are at half-back in Tomos Williams and Dan Bigger, if Ireland lose the gain line battle today, they will be in big trouble.

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Back three opportunities

Over the course of a disappointing 12 months from an attacking perspective, perhaps the most frustrating aspect has been the lack of opportunities created for a back three with proven scoring pedigree.

Whether it be Jordan Larmour, Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale or Andrew Conway the one thing we know they possess is an ability to beat the first defender and score tries. Sadly those opportunities are becoming few and far between.

Earls travelled to the World Cup as Ireland’s record try-scorer at that tournament yet, the fact he returned home without adding a single touch down to add to the 8 scored at the 2011 and 2015 events said everything about the paucity of Ireland’s attack.

While Stockdale has gone through a barren scoring spell for Ulster and Ireland, we know he has a poacher’s instinct while Larmour and Conway look far more menacing for Leinster and Munster than they do with Ireland.

Conway barely got a pass against Scotland and while Larmour reminded us what he is capable of from a counter-attacking perspective, he didn’t get enough touches to really impact the game. That has to change.

It would help if others were more in sync in broken play when the opposition kick to Larmour as you know he is going to challenge the first defender with his dancing feet. The back three not only need to work in unison but also need a licence to roam in order to contribute more from broken play.

There is a reason why Josh Adams, a relative unknown on the international stage this time last year, has scored 13 tries, including a record 7 at the World Cup, in his last 16 tests. His workrate off his wing is incredible. Witness the last of his third try against Italy last Saturday.

Positioned on the left-wing, he ran a brilliant line off a ruck 10 metres from the right-hand touchline to power his way over the line.

To have the awareness, energy and workrate to deliver that when the clock was in added time says everything about his mentality.

Ireland have a trio of talented finishers but must get on the ball more.

The weather conditions today might mitigate against too much migration out wide but, regardless, you can be sure Adams will be on the prowl. One poached try could prove the difference in what is sure to be a tight contest.

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