BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Efficiency key to Ireland’s rugby evolution

"Non," said Philippe Saint-Andre two weeks ago.

“Pretty much what we expected,” Stuart Lancaster suggested yesterday.

The questions, like the answers, were identical: did Ireland do anything today that you didn’t expect? The obvious follow-up, then, is why neither team, in this age of endless video analysis, could not do more to stop it.

So, we asked James Haskell just that.

“It’s like any team, in the age of video analysis, you know what you’re going to face. In international rugby, the physicality, the size of the players and everything else like that is all pretty equal. It’s down to the ruthlessness, the finesse at the end of it.

“I think Ireland kicked 44 times. That’s a clever tactic. You can’t play rugby if you haven’t got the ball and you’re chasing it all over the place. Sometimes that works out very well.

“Sometimes if teams get a bit of kick pressure, that’s going to be a hindrance. Credit to Ireland today, they did very well and that’s the end of the story.

“We know we’ve got a lot of work to do. We weren’t on the money today. It’s simple as that.”

Ireland’s play may not be breathtaking, but their evolution is fascinating. Last year, they adopted a handful of different tactical approaches on their way to a championship, but uniformity has been their default setting this month.

After three rounds, they have scored three tries and are on their way to matching their lowest tally in the history of the Six Nations, one that was put together two years ago when Declan Kidney’s injury-ravaged side managed to touch down just five times.

That aside, Ireland have never failed to reach double figures and in the 15 years since Italy joined the party, Wales in 2013 were the only winners not to score 10 or more in claiming ultimate honours. Warren Gatland’s side managed just nine two years ago and the 16 bagged by Ireland in usurping them a year ago went against a grain that shows the champions are having to score less and less five-pointers to come good in late March.

How Ireland do it — win but score so few tries — remains a bone of contention.

George Hook and the rest of the RTÉ panel got bogged down in a debate about semantics yesterday evening after the former Connacht coach described the team’s style as “efficient”, which seems accurate enough.

Conor O’Shea’s take was more wordy. An “almost inexorable march toward a win”, the Harlequins coach said. But why? How can a team playing exactly as their opponents expect still win through? And relatively comfortably at that?

“I wouldn’t say we are predictable,” said Tommy O’Donnell. “Joe thinks up some great plays and he has ways of exposing players and he is great the way he studies the game. I wouldn’t say we are predictable, we are just incredibly good at what we do.

“When a ball hits the ground, we go for it and make it ours, 50-50 balls, a lot of balls we shouldn’t have won today. When England got a few clean catches, they came back at us. It is all about winning the 50-50s and who is willing to go for it.”

Hook was bang on the money in describing this team as efficient. Yes, there were signs of some set plays beginning to gel which would have developed into line breaks of considerable worth, but Ireland succeeded in making just the one.

Efficient shouldn’t be seen as a slur. Think of the time, thought and effort that goes into practising those complex running moves, how many pairs of hands the ball must go through at speed and traffic in order for one man to look up and see open grass.

Then consider the potential benefits to be accrued from Conor Murray or Jonathan Sexton lifting the ball skyward with their boot and how many times Ireland made yards yesterday that would have been considerably harder on terra firma?

Lancaster put it best yesterday. “I think there were 44 kicks (by Ireland) in open play so we had plenty of it to deal with,” said the England head coach whose side sent 27 of their own into the stratosphere around the Aviva Stadium’s distinctive glass roof.

“We didn’t nail every one but when you have the likes of Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney, Simon Zebo and the kicks are on the money, then it is always going to be a 50-50 or 60-40 contest. The crucial one in the corner when they scored, we missed out on that, but overall we dealt with it pretty well.” Not well enough.


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