Ireland are facing a mental, as much as physical, test, writes Donal Lenihan.
1. Set defensive marker
Despite all the success Ireland had in 2016, the team still conceded 36 tries in 12 tests. That is too many for a side as good as this and it means that to win games, they have to score a lot of points themselves.
New defence coach Andy Farrell wasn’t on board for last season’s Six Nations championship — Joe Schmidt assumed responsibility for that aspect when Les Kiss departed for Ulster after the World Cup — and Ireland failed to fully absorb the lessons from the quarter-final defeat to Argentina when the Pumas exposed defensive issues out wide in Schmidt’s side.
With Farrell in harness on the summer tour to South Africa, things started to improve before Australia exploited a similar vulnerability last November. Much of Ireland’s defensive issues that day were explained away by the fact the entire back line had to be reconstructed due to a bizarre sequence of injuries.
Reserve out-half Joey Carbery played most of the game at full-back with back-up scrum-half Kieran Marmion pressed into service on the wing amongst other enforced positional changes.
The fact Ireland matched last year’s average by conceding another three tries in Murrayfield was deeply disappointing. For Stuart Hogg to score out wide after only two phases was inexcusable at this level. Effective defence comes down to clarity, communication, trust and a collective will to get back into the defensive line and get your spacing right. Ireland failed miserably at times last Saturday in this regard. The collective malaise that appeared to paralyse the side for large parts of the Scottish game are unlikely to be repeated today.
It was no surprise to hear Farrell declare that he wants “a better defensive attitude from the players”.
The line speed that suffocated New Zealand in Chicago was nowhere to be seen in Edinburgh. Much of that can be attributed to the fact the Scottish pack had Ireland on the back foot for most of the opening half. That is the first area for the Irish forwards to address. The fatigue that resulted in Ireland slacking off in the last 10 minutes can also be traced to the obsession with a collision-based game that has to take a physical toll over 80 minutes. That too needs to be addressed.
2. Less collision — more evasion
The one thing we know about Italy is they will arrive today fired up and ready for a physical battle. They are far more comfortable competing in a narrow, one out, game with targets to hit rather than being dragged around the field chasing shadows.
The problem here is that Ireland favour a game based on collisions as they unleash the likes of CJ Stander, Seán O’Brien, Tadhg Furlong and Jamie Heaslip around the corner in an effort to suck in defenders and free up space for the midfield and back three to exploit.
That is all well and good when you devour yardage beyond the gain line and put the opposition defence back on its heels. However, if your big ball carriers are halted in their tracks and fail to generate momentum, as Scotland succeeded in doing last Saturday, it can prove counter-productive.
Even when successful, the physical energy expended can be exhaustive. Ireland had to work extremely hard for all their scores in Murrayfield. It took 19 phases to create the opening try for Keith Earls, eight for Iain Henderson’s touchdown and 16 for Paddy Jackson’s score.
Is it any wonder Ireland were out on their feet in the final 10 minutes when the game was ultimately lost? Tired teams tend to concede penalties and Ireland offered up four in that period alone, the same number conceded against New Zealand over 80 minutes last November.
Italy will be thrilled if Ireland continue to run into them today and therefore need a better balance to their game. The time has come for the likes of Stander and O’Brien to be used as decoy runners on the odd occasion as they will certainly attract and pull in Italian defenders, creating holes for others to exploit. They should also be encouraged to offload on occasion, prior to the tackle, to others running lines off their inside or outside shoulder. Louis Picamoles did this with spectacular success in Twickenham. Equally effective as O’Brien and Stander in carrying and making yardage, it is the Frenchman’s ability to keep defenders guessing as to whether he will offload or run a direct line that creates uncertainty in the tackler. When our provinces play against Treviso and Zebre — who between them supply 17 of the Italian squad today — in the Guinness PRO12 they continually shift the point of attack and make the Italian forwards work hard in open play. They generally crack, conceding soft points.
Ireland should seek to do likewise, especially as their set piece should enjoy a marked advantage.
3. Get the mental challenge
Despite all the technical and tactical nuances required to win international games, if you turn up for battle off the pace mentally you are on the back foot straight away. For whatever reason Ireland were guilty of that last weekend. On the flip side, Scotland got their preparation absolutely right and found the perfect physical and mental pitch coming into that key opening fixture.
They knew that, on the back of the decent form shown by Glasgow and Edinburgh in Europe and that narrow defeat to Australia the previous November, it was now or never for them.
On the other hand, Ireland had achieved some significant milestones over the previous months and perhaps were feeling a little too good about themselves.
Another small but not insignificant factor for me was the presence of Warren Gatland at some of the Irish training sessions during the week.
I am aware he will replicate that with the other home countries over the tournament but having him on site before the opening game was a disadvantage.
It’s inevitable, with the Lions head coach floating around camp, individual minds drift to New Zealand. You see him talking to some of the players and wonder why he isn’t talking to you.
Subconsciously your mind drifts to a target far removed from the one immediately in front of you.
That’s not good. Players need to take ownership of these issues.
Likewise, there was far too much talk about the bus arriving at the ground late. These things happen. They were still in the stadium over an hour before kick-off.
The players and management need to adjust, like you have to do on the field. I have no doubt that Irish players heads will be spot on today.
Italy’s plan coming into the tournament was to beat a Welsh side that is always slow to find its rhythm.
Italy led at half-time but, yet again, indiscipline let them down.
They missed a great chance and that makes them mentally vulnerable. Ireland need to cement those doubts from the outset today and make them count.
Manage that and a winning bonus point beckons.
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