by Brent Pope
The RBS 6 Nations victory over England was an important result for Ireland but if it proved anything for the game as a whole, it is that something has to be done about the creeping trend towards Rugby League-influenced play.
The ruck, the lineout and, to a lesser extent, the scrum are essential parts of what makes the sport of Rugby Union unique but the ruck in particular has been devalued by recent adjustments to the laws of the game.
In light of what is happening in these phases, it is no accident that what we have seen so far in this Championship is the dominance of Rugby League-style defences and that trend was particularly evident at Croke Park.
As Declan Kidney has pointed out, there is a particular problem surrounding the breakdown. Basically, he pointed out that the attacking team now has to put more men in the ruck than used to be the case, while defending teams are often only committing one or two.
Defensive sides can fan out across the field
That means the defending side can fan out across the field with a numbers imbalance in their favour. Part of why it is happening is because of changes that were made to the laws or, more specifically, the interpretation of the laws.
There are other issues: standards of coaching and fitness mean defensive re-organisation nowadays happens very quickly and, on the tactical level, defending teams are making an early decision to basically abandon rucks they consider unwinnable. Even when they do that, the guys at the breakdown can still spoil the ball for a couple of seconds, allowing the rest of the defenders to spread out across the field. When that happens, the attacking team is basically forced to run into a brick wall.
That is not how Rugby Union has traditionally worked.
In the past, space was created because of the numbers that got involved in rucks. You also had genuine quick rucking; teams could blow over the ball much more aggressively than is now the case. That meant you had one backline against the other in a decent amount of space. That has been replaced by a situation where you have congestion in the middle of the field and slow ball at the ruck. Things are also happening more slowly because attacking players are having to be more careful not to go off their feet.
That means space is much harder to find and teams are having to look for mis-matches instead of focusing on creating overlaps and gaps.
New rucking directive was meant to create space and contest
It's unfortunate because the intention of the new rucking directive was to create a more genuine contest at the ruck, with more numbers involved and more space for attacking teams. It has not panned out that way. In fact, even the mis-matches are becoming harder and harder to create because all the teams are so well drilled. The maul performed a similar purpose in that it sucked in defenders but it has also been devalued by the recent changes to the laws – you are now allowed to pull it down.
The obvious solution is to speed up the attacking team's ruck ball but the problem is that referees are not yet giving the benefit of the doubt to attackers, who are still being over-refereed.
The Rugby League trend can also be seen in the types of tries we are getting.
Ireland, conceded two similar tries against France and England. Maxime Medard's for France and Delon Armitage's for England both came from lateral chips down the attacking side's right wing. What happens in that situation is that a team makes a linebreak and a front-row forward – it was Marcus Horan against England and Rory Best against France – ends up on the wing with a back opposite because the defence has not managed to re-organise.
I don't know exactly how Ireland are working their defensive system but a lot of coaches nowadays operate grids across the field with players in each grid in charge of each different area. Unfortunately, Marcus Horan ended up in that area on the wing without cover behind him.
What you would try to do is to get a winger or outside back to work across and replace the front rower in the wide position. However, if things happen too quickly you don't necessarily have the chance to do that and you then get the mis-match. If it is spotted – as it was by Andy Goode on Saturday – you are then be in trouble.
Ireland - mental sharpness allows them to take advantage
Ireland are very switched on in how they exploit mis-matches and they are also looking to take advantage of them quickly. A different type of example of that was Brian O'Driscoll's try against England, in that you had O'Driscoll driving in underneath a big second row forward in Nick Kennedy, while Jamie Heaslip's try against France and Luke Fitzgerald's from Stephen Ferris's offload against Italy both resulted from back row forwards running at guys who couldn't handle them one on one.
We did also see a classic, old-fashioned try from O'Driscoll against France - and that was the way rugby was played much more frequently even just a few years ago.
Unfortunately, those gaps are increasingly rare and until something is changed in the contact area that will most likely remain the case.