Anatomy of Ireland’s near-perfect performance against England

Ronan O’Gara says Ireland could have kicked a lot more against England, and chose not to.

Anatomy of Ireland’s near-perfect performance against England

Watching Ireland completely dominate England last Sunday provided all the evidence I need to prove why Joe Schmidt has revolutionised rugby coaching.

The New Zealander has, in my opinion, been a complete game-changer for coaches like me, just coming into the game, and careful analysis of that first half against Stuart Lancaster’s side at the Aviva Stadium presents plenty of proof in that regard.

What is clear is that Ireland’s ball carriers are the most important piece in the Schmidt jigsaw. Take the kick-off, caught by Simon Zebo. The Munster wing went off on a slalom run that gave the opportunity to pick a soft spot to run at, in this case between Dan Cole and Joe Marler, England’s props. That was a common theme throughout the game, how good the carrying was.

Zebo’s carry was so good that only Sean O’Brien needed to go to the ruck and the English did not even contest it, so they’ve already lost this breakdown contest before it starts.

Off that opening ruck, Conor Murray hit Johnny Sexton, who then hits up Jack McGrath and another fast ruck ensues from which Murray launched his first box kick, down the right flank. England fly-half George Ford would catch it, but here’s what I found very interesting — when the ball was in the air it was four English players who were closest to it: Ford, Jack Nowell, Luther Burrell and Ben Youngs.

So when Ford was tackled by the chasing Tommy Bowe, the nearest three players were English but had no interest in the ruck. Compare that to the Schmidt-instilled attitude of Peter O’Mahony, Devin Toner and Jordi Murphy, who blitzed that ruck and succeeded in turning over ball.

Murray sent a pass to O’Brien, whose poor pass found Jared Payne, who moved it on to Zebo. Zebo accelerated into contact, again looking for the space between two players, Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph. He has no right to win the contact but does it again, cleverly attacking English arms, getting fast ball and then producing excellent ball presentation, putting it on a plate for Murray.

The scrum-half finds his fly-half who again passes to McGrath, and once more O’Mahony, Murphy and Toner are very effective at the ruck. This results in very poor discipline from a frustrated Chris Robshaw (the England captain is a metre and a half offside) and it’s a penalty to Ireland, effectively three points after 53 seconds.

Ireland were as completely dominant as that throughout that opening 40 minutes and it’s down to the coaching, because it’s drilled into them during the week, in the video analysis and on the training field. If they’re not getting that detail from Schmidt and his coaches, they’re not going to improve the way they have.

Ireland were monopolising the ball and it continued after the second kick-off, which Ford sent long to Zebo again. This time he runs into four English players, James Haskell, Marler, Joseph and Dave Attwood but the ruck gets sorted by O’Brien, Payne and Murphy, with Rory Best there in an insurance role.

Murray passes to Sexton, who passes to McGrath, the prop gets tackled and this time the ruck is sorted by Toner, Paul O’Connell and Mike Ross, who again produce fast ball, yet again prompting English frustration and another poor decision — this time from Billy Vunipola — who is penalised for side entry.

A great kick from Johnny Sexton and it’s an Ireland lineout 40 metres from the English line.

From that lineout, the ball is won at two and Murray box kicks. From 40m out, it should land two metres before the 22 but it’s a poor kick and only goes 10m. Yet Watson knocks on under pressure from Zebo (although it’s not serious pressure), and who is first to react but Toner, all 6ft 11” of him. It’s a brilliant, hungry reaction, complimented by the fact O’Brien and McGrath are first to clear the ruck.

Murray passes to Henshaw, who gets his hands on the ball for the first time and it’s a really good, explosive carry. There’s quick ruck ball, from Murphy, Payne and Best, as a result of excellent leg drive.

Murray to Sexton, inside ball to O’Brien after intended target Rob Kearney overruns it. O’Brien runs into two English defenders and McGrath and Ross are the first to react. Murray finds O’Connell, whose strong carry dominates Joseph and Cole. Zebo, Toner and Murphy blitz the ruck, and it’s a one-second ruck. Murray hits McGrath and it’s really quick ball again thanks to O’Mahony, Ross and O’Brien at the clean-out. Murray finds Sexton who launches a bomb for Tommy Bowe, and with all those quick rucks, ball on a plate and moving the point of contact, English full-back Alex Goode has not had time to assess the situation and has been dragged out of position, which leaves Bowe in a one-on-one with Nowell, whose been left to deal with 50 yards of open field. Nowell does well but Goode gets tackled into touch and goal, and it’s a five-metre scrum to Ireland.

The ball shoots out of the scrum and Murray’s pass goes behind Henshaw but he still has a great carry. They’re going after Ford and it’s another one-second ruck. Murray goes alone but if he’d found Peter O’Mahony, the flanker is in a one-on-one with Ford and would be very hard to stop.

Still, Murray’s carry is followed by more quick ball from a blitzed ruck, the forwards hammer away at the line and eventually Rory Best was held up over the line.

The five-metre scrum leads to a great carry by Kearney who wins the contact with Vunipola, which is incredible. The ruck is cleaned by O’Mahony and O’Connell and Toner pops it to O’Brien, the English tackler is caught on the wrong side, doesn’t roll away and it’s 6-0 after eight minutes 38 seconds.

All of this highlights the difference between the two sides because England’s detail around the ruck was nowhere near as effective as Ireland’s. In the 31st minute, both second rows, Attwood and George Kruis missed their cleanout after Robshaw carried, and both locks slipped off. It was the perfect snapshot of the day in one ruck.

The variety in Ireland’s attack game was great to see. It has been such an inaccurate statement to accuse them of not being attack-minded or exciting because on Sunday there were some of the best powerplays I’ve seen in a long time.

The creativity of their plays excite me. Everyone has been going on about how much Ireland kick the ball but the way I saw it, they could have kicked an awful lot more if they wanted to and chose not to. Like in the 32nd minute, when O’Connell reversed into contact to create a maul, joined by Ross and Murphy who were straight onto him.

Tommy O’Donnell got on the ball to slip it to Rory Best, and then Devin Toner, Jack McGrath and O’Mahony added the impetus. The imagination to set up a rolling maul made it a great play and it deserved three points but for a terrible decision not to penalise the English.

I’ll leave you with one more: in the 38th minute, off a short lineout, and like a steam train, Robbie Henshaw picks a great line to go through a hole off a slip pass from Tommy O’Donnell. To break through under that kind of pressure shows why he’s going to be a superstar.

Ireland broke England in that first half and it was close to perfection, nearly 40 minutes of nailing your job which meant there was never going to be any other winner in what was supposed to have been a close game. It allowed them to cruise through the final phase of the game, although I think they’re a team that can sustain those high levels of intensity for the 80.

Under Schmidt, Ireland have blasted out of the traps in every game except against Australia back in 2013, his second game in charge. This was not a once-off, they are so clinical in what they are doing and crucially people around the world are taking notice.

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