Tuesday, February 25, 2014

So close yet…

What can Ireland do differently against Italy & France? asks Ryan Cullen…

Ryan Cullen logo

Full commitment and effort in professional sport are something we justifiably take for granted. Professional athletes are paid well and as such dedication should be taken as a given.

Sometimes, though, the effort put in, particularly in rugby, goes beyond the call of duty. That is what we saw at Twickenham on Saturday and why I know all rugby fans will have the utmost respect for all participants – respect I hope obviously permeates through this piece.

On Saturday Ireland left Twickenham empty handed despite the majority of stats favouring them. 59% of possession, 53% of Territory, a higher percentage of rucks and mauls won, 100% on their own scrum (in comparison to England’s 55.6%), a perfect lineout (although England matched this from half as many throws). (Source: ESPN Scrum)

I am always dubious about stats trotted out in isolation but it’s clear Ireland had a pretty strong grip on the game. And yet they created just one clear try scoring opportunity, off an excellent pre-planned strike move, and a few half chances besides. Why the attacking impotency in open play?

The first question that generally springs to mind in such situations is ‘was the quality of possession poor despite it being plentiful?’. The answer to that has to be no. Whilst perhaps not as quick as against Wales and Scotland, Ireland’s pack certainly produced plenty of quality possession for their half backs.

It was there, I believe, that Ireland’s attack stuttered. Conor Murray has improved immensely over the past 12 months but this was one of his poorest displays in this period. His previously excellent tactical kicking reverted to the aimless, improved in appearance only by Ireland’s consistently excellent kick chase. The sharpness of his passing was also lacking though and he made none of his previously notable line breaks.

Whilst his solidity in defence was laudable, Murray at his best is a nice blend of the physical and tactical. We did not see this on Saturday.

Nor did we see the summer’s Lions fly-half put his best foot forward. Jonathan Sexton is Ireland’s most important player these days. He has the ‘all-court’ game to pick apart any opposition at his best and Ireland is now reliant upon him producing close to his best to compete at the highest level.

Saturday’s performance was far below what the Racing man in capable of. Whilst the botched restart has been given far more coverage than it merited, it did exemplify a performance which was below-par at best. Sexton’s passing wasn’t as sharp and accurate as we have seen from him, his tactical kicking was poor and his punting to touch even worse.

Why Ireland refused to use Rob Kearney’s left foot repeatedly is a mystery given the lack of distance Sexton was achieving down Ireland’s right. An even greater mystery was why Paddy Jackson was on the bench if Schmidt refused to use him. Jackson may not have done anything which changed the game but he deserved 10 or 15 minutes to try given the lacklustre nature of Sexton’s attacking play to that point.

It is somewhat unfair to Sexton that his performance so often determines Ireland’s results but that is the situation in which he finds himself. Ireland’s forwards do not possess the necessary bulk to dominate teams like England up-front. Indeed that is an area Joe Schmidt may want to consider more closely prior to the French test.

Whilst Ireland’s forwards have performed exceptionally well so far there is a distinct lack of ball carrying power without Sean O’Brien. As a unit the backrow have been the match of all so far but their lack of dynamism to truck the ball up is notable. Moreover looking at the stats again, Chris Henry and Peter O’Mahony appear to have swapped roles in certain facets of the game.

Whilst Henry is certainly still the link man, he has made far more tackles to date than O’Mahony (36 v 21), whilst O’Mahony has been much more prominent at the breakdown. Does Ireland have two 7’s rather than open and blindside flankers?

Neither have been capable of making many metres running with the ball either (Henry 20 and O’Mahony 22. For comparison Jamie Heaslip has made 88 and Cian Healy 55), posing the question do Ireland need a better ball carrier at 6?

I’m not suggesting any changes should be made currently but it is surely something Joe Schmidt will be thinking over.

One other area we may see a change is the second row. Whilst I have been massively impressed by Devin Toner’s improvement in the past year, he simply isn’t a ball carrier. From 6 carries he gained 3 metres. When you compare that against Iain Henderson you find that the Ulsterman made more metres (6) from his 3 carries. Further, Toner has made just 14 metres in three games.

Nor is he the lineout option it can be sometimes assumed, trailing behind O’Mahony he received only 5 of Ireland’s 16 lineout completions.

Whilst he puts in a terrific shift (14 tackles and a turnover) it might just be that the likes of Iain Henderson, or Donnacha Ryan for that matter, bring a harder edge which would benefit Ireland more.

It is undoubtedly harsh to single out Toner when O’Connell’s stats don’t read much, if any, better, but O’Connell’s influence cannot simply be measured by post-game stats and is nigh on untouchable anyway.

I doubt at this stage Schmidt is likely to veer away from his settled pack without injuries intervening but there is a case to say others might provide more at this stage. Saturday could’ve gone either way and an Ireland victory may not have stirred such criticism despite a few below-par performances.

It is to be hoped, though, that Joe Schmidt and his team will look beyond the results and realise the areas Ireland need to improve in to make a real dent at next year’s world cup. I certainly would be surprised, given their pedigree, if they weren’t.

My name is Ryan Cullen and I am a 25 year old Ulster season ticket holder. I was introduced to the game around 15 years ago and have loved it ever since. I have an interest in pretty much all sports though so don’t be surprised to see a few football (Liverpool), Golfing and Racing interests (to name but a few) thrown in from time to time.

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