The abiding memory from Cardiff last weekend was of Ireland hammering at the red brick wall thrown up in heroic fashion by Wales and barely making a dent.
Converting possession into points
The Irish stats from Saturday’s game are worth repeating: 64% possession, 66% territory, 22 defenders beaten but only three line breaks and a penalty try to show for it, just their fourth of the championship.
Ireland, whose kicking game has come under much scrutiny, also have the highest pass tally of the Six Nations, their 719 passes outnumbering nearest rivals England by more 150. Yet there’s another interesting stat: Ireland may have the fewest line breaks in this year’s tournament, a paltry dozen, yet they have the second best ratio in terms of conversion to tries scored. Italy lead the way with five tries from 14 line breaks, a ratio of one every 2.8 line breaks with Ireland’s ratio at 3.0.
England lead the way with 11 tries scored but from 39 line breaks, a ratio of 3.54, while France have the worst ratio of 4.5. So, clearly, if Ireland do break lines, they have clinical finishing to convert those try-scoring chances. It’s having the cutting edge to make those line breaks that’s stifling Joe Schmidt’s side.
“It’s funny because people were talking about us not making enough line breaks, not making enough passes even though we’d obviously made more than any other team and I think it’d definitely be true after today,” Schmidt said after Ireland’s defeat last Saturday.
“I felt we showed fantastic endeavour but that accuracy is what we’re going to need and that’s what we’ll work on this week. We didn’t quite get our rhythm and if you don’t quite get that right against a defensive side that Wales have, particularly their ability to be very physical, it’s often hard, or harder to load an attack than it is to load off a tackle defensively, because you’re getting off the line and aiming at someone, whereas they’ve got to transfer a small oval shape amongst themselves to try create space and make sure they don’t get knocked backwards.”
Staying the right side of the referee
If Ireland are to prevail and emerge with a successful title defence at the end of Super Saturday then they simply have to avoid the sort of start they put in against Wales last weekend in Cardiff.
Paul O’Connell’s side conceded four kickable penalties in the first 13 minutes and with Leigh Halfpenny in imperious form with the boot, were duly punished, Wales jumping out into a 12-0 lead inside the first quarter.
Ireland conceded eight penalties in that opening half, the same number they gave up against England over 80 minutes in the previous round and forwards coach Simon Easterby pinpointed discipline as a serious area for improvement.
“We pride ourselves as a team, and have done for a long time on making sure that we don’t give sides that type of momentum that we gave the Welsh. Playing in Wales, playing in Cardiff, playing in Murrayfield, wherever it is, especially playing away from home, you give a side, three, six, nine, 12 points then things start to pressure you and you start to put a bit of pressure on yourselves because the opposition stretches into that lead and also it allows them to get their backs up with the crowd behind them and that’s exactly what we did at the weekend.
We were very well prepared for the referee (Wayne Barnes) and I think his consistency was pretty good in the second half. Maybe we had some of the opportunities and some of the go-forward in the second half we weren’t afforded some of that consistency and as the game developed, we felt we had some momentum and didn’t quite get the same decisions at times.
That being said we can still be far better at certain things in our control. Unfortunately we can’t control the one guy out there.”
The guy out there on Saturday will be Frenchman Jerome Garces, a referee whose consistency has not been obvious in the past, sending off Ulster’s Jared Payne for a tackle in the air last season, issuing only a yellow in January to Wasps’ Ashley Johnston when Dave Kearney was taken out. Perhaps not damning examples but further indication Ireland need to tread carefully.
Remember Murrayfield last time out?
Lest we forget, actually winning in Scotland is no mean feat, just ask the Ireland team which visited Edinburgh two seasons ago in the belief they could get their campaign back on track after defeat to England and came away on the wrong end of 12-8 defeat in round three of the 2013 championship.
There are only seven survivors from that starting XV sent out by Declan Kidney that day, the back row the only unit that remains intact, and so it is hoped they remind their comrades about the potential minefield that Murrayfield can become.
The current crop have certainly been on message this week, careful to play down talk of chasing favourable margins of victory in the final day’s action with the title seeming destined to be settled on points differentials, even if the Scots have yet to record a win in this year’s championship.
Insisted Jared Payne on Tuesday: “They’re going to be physical, they’re going to be passionate in front of their home crowd and we’re going to have to really get out there and perform well.”
Making a difference off the bench
Just as in Paris a year ago, when Ireland twice came from behind against France to win the title, the replacements will have a huge contribution to make if Schmidt’s side are to get over the line and throw down the gauntlet to England, who play the French straight after in the final game of the championship.
Against Wales last weekend, there was some real impact off the bench from the likes of Sean Cronin, Iain Henderson, Eoin Reddan and Ian Madigan, who helped lift the tempo and freshen things up as minds and legs tired in an immensely physical and attritional confrontation in Cardiff.
Whether deployed to close out a game or mastermind a come-from-behind victory, the demands on substitutes are strikingly different to those of the starting 15 and not every player is capable of making an impact.
Schmidt recognises variance in attributes required and clearly players capable of being game-changers. It may not please those players to be regarded as supersubs, as scrum-half Reddan underlines here, but Ireland need them to be just that. “I think you trust the coach,” Reddan said this week.
“You know you’ve got smart coaches who know that coming off the bench presents different challenges to starting and in some ways it’s almost harder, so you hope that they know that if you can do it off the bench, you can do it from the start and you trust that and you go for it.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved