Bernard Jackman: Expansive approach reaping rich rewards for southern stars

Scotland’s heartbreaking one-point defeat to Australia yesterday ended a miserable weekend for northern hemisphere rugby fans, writes Bernard Jackman.

Their defeat means that next weekend’s semi-finals will be contested by four southern hemisphere sides: New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, and the Wallabies.

But should we be surprised by this fact? Sadly the answer is no.

I analysed some stats comparing the fundamentals of both northern and southern hemisphere rugby before the Rugby World Cup and the differences in philosophies and styles were clear.

The southern teams all have a much more attacking mindset and look to win games by scoring tries.

The All Blacks, who put in the most impressive display of attacking, running rugby that we have ever witnessed in their demolition of France, scored 61% of their points from tries whereas Ireland were at only 36%.

In fact none of the Six Nations teams were at more than 50% whereas all the teams from the southern hemisphere bettered that figure. The ball-in-play stats for matches featuring southern hemisphere teams were significantly higher than their northern counterparts and, therefore, their players are used to having played at a higher pace for longer and have executed their skills under fatigue.

They have a better skill base because they play in a competition without relegation (Super Rugby) and also play in better weather conditions and with referees that reward the attacking team more so than the defending team.

But at the heart of it all, they seem to believe that attacking rugby will outperform a defensive approach in the long run.

When Michael Cheika and David Knox came to Leinster in 2005, they had us playing a brilliant attacking brand of rugby before adapting to a more conservative style (around 2008) that led to a Magners League and Heineken Cup title.

The Argentine team that ran us off our feet yesterday are the first Argie team that I have seen that play 15-man rugby. They realised that, once they were accepted into the rugby championship, they had to adapt and evolve.

They brought in world class coaches like Fabien Galthie (Stade Francais at the time), Dave Rennie (Chiefs), Jamie Joseph (Highlanders), Michael Cheika, and Graham Henry (New Zealand) to coach the Argentine coaches.

Henry told them that they need to improve their skill-sets and learn to keep the ball alive in contact. And how they took his words to heart.

It is interesting that all four countries playing in that competition (SA, NZ, Australia, and Argentina) beat defenders at a higher rate than the Six Nations teams.

On an incredible 26% of their carries, the Pumas are beating a defender at this tournament. That is the highest rate in the competition.

None of the Six Nations quarter-finalists are at 20% in defender beaten per carry. That ball-in-hand style and their ability to beat defenders had seen Argentina score 22 tries before they put four past us yesterday.

But while Ireland are good at scoring points when they make a line break, they do not make many, only adopting the tactic 1.4% of the time on carries.

That is because our mentality is to seek contact. This Irish team has almost taken the offload out of our toolbox as we are afraid to make errors.

We kick the ball a lot (and we are very good at it) but the problem is when you play against a team from the southern hemisphere you won’t get the ball back as quickly as you would against a team from this side of the world. Also defending is much more tiring than attacking, especially for the forwards who have to try and get close to the ruck to protect themselves from being caught one on one with a quicker player.

Ireland’s strategy has been very successful and it has led us to two consecutive Six Nations’ titles. It is an attacking game built on relentless pressure. It is a relatively low-risk attack that involves making a pass close to the defensive line and then high-efficiency rucking. It tests the opposition’s discipline and fitness. During Eddie O’Sullivan’s reign, we won Triple Crowns and quickly the player ambition turned to Six Nations titles.

Having won back-to-back titles it was only natural that the squad’s ambition will turn towards winning a World Cup. A greater variation in our attacking style will be the next step to achieving that dream.

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