Ireland comprehensively beat Italy at the weekend in their return to the 2020 Six Nations. It may not have been the most experienced Italian side but it's international rugby and the Irish did what they had to despite a sticky patch in the second half.
Unfortunately, with their points difference in mind and one eye on next week in Paris, Ireland tried to squeeze every last drop out of the Italians and conceded a needless try to finish the game.
The breakdown was a fascinating area of the game that I want to highlight. Ireland attempted a lot of turnovers from poach opportunities and were successful on a number of occasions.
The best part of this is that there were multiple threats all over the pitch. Porter and Herring combined for a penalty, Stander and Herring combined for another. Doris, Beirne and Will Connors all had one each, with Doris' one leading to Keenan’s second try after a tasty right boot from Conor Murray.
You would normally add a CJ Stander poach or two and one from the backline as well, mainly through Bundee Aki. Ireland’s ability at the breakdown is a major asset and something that they should use as a weapon going forward, particularly to slow the French down on Saturday.
France will cause havoc if they are afforded quick ball in Paris.
The difficulty is if you are throwing bodies into the every breakdown and the speed of ruck or accuracy of the opposition breakdown is too fast then you’re burning a man at the ruck every time which will impact the width of your defensive line.
What happens if you decide not to poach and use that extra man in the defensive line? If you think about defensive numbers and spacings you might feel that one man won’t add a lot. However, instead of thinking about one more player near the ruck, think about what that one player could do if he shuffled every defender out one metre each.
Those seven or eight metres of shuffling would add an enormous amount to midfielders and wingers in the defensive line. At the end of the line if you loosen your 13 or winger you get those really aggressive defensive reads which can also give you the turnover and force errors so there are different ways of doing the same thing in defence. The main aim is to turn the ball over. It would also free up your back field when not having to close so hard at the end of the defensive line and could sit back for a kick instead.
"The other reason to use the poach as a weapon is Will Connors. When he's not in there himself getting turnovers he’s chopping the legs of the opposition attack"
And therein lies the current coaching dilemma. Do you coach the team to stand off, create line spacings, integrity and speed and hope to force turnovers or do you go for the more direct form of winning the ball back through poaching? Even if you miss the poach you would hope to disrupt the opposition speed of ball and use that to give your defensive line time to make better decisions than the attack.
For me there are two reasons to poach. The first is the laws are allowing a lot of penalty decisions at the breakdown. If you are accurately over the ball the referee is being told to award the penalty quite quickly to avoid any player having to live in the ruck too long. The longer a player is over the ball the more likely they are to get injured by an arriving player looking to win the ball back.
CJ Stander and Tadgh Beirne were both unlucky not to get more turnovers. However, Healy gave away a penalty at the breakdown so admittedly there is a fine line.
The other reason to use the poach as a weapon is Will Connors. When he’s not in there himself getting turnovers he’s chopping the legs of the opposition attack. His line speed and chop tackle technique mean the attacker is on the ground quickly, allowing a bigger window for the defence to arrive at the breakdown before the opposition get time to react.
If you were a poaching player you’d do worse than stand next to Connors in the defensive line. There’s loads of opportunity to get accurate on the ball and the referee will reward good technique. Ireland have the ability to use Connors or Josh Van Der Flier if selected and could mimic a time when Australia used both David Pocock and Michael Hooper. However, again there is a balance between physical ball carriers like Stander and Doris and the defensive work of Van Der Flier and Connors.
The second half turned against Ireland’s favour. Both props gave away penalties around the ruck and Ireland weren't being awarded many penalties of their own in that sticky 20-minute patch. The Italians were more accurate in their attacking breakdown so there was less opportunity for turnovers, less Italian errors, more Irish errors and no easy outs. This is what it might feel like going against a top-tier nation.
The Italian defence also improved dramatically and put Ireland under more pressure, evident by the Sexton intercept. From a midfield scrum I think it is better to throw that pass from your 12 or the second pair of hands and not from the out-half. If the ball is one player further out then it has less distance to travel in the air, less distance in the air means less time for the winger to read the pass and attempt the intercept.
Less accuracy at the attacking breakdown saw Ireland with slower ball and less space to attack. That was until the Sexton try. Clearer accuracy at the breakdown getting shoulders under Italian shoulders and taking their arms away sped the ball up for Murray.
It’s the classic case of which came first. Did Ireland create the quick ball by attacking space and making the clear out easier or did the accuracy of the clear-out afford them quicker ruck ball and more space? Whatever way it happened, Doris was able to run his line into a gap after a brilliant pass by Murray and Sexton benefitted from the quick ball created to get his own try.
Italy weren’t the best breakdown team and France will be a much different prospect with more physicality and better decision making and accuracy on the ground.
All in all it was a very positive display from Ireland with two debutants scoring three tries between them and fighting it out for player of the match. The game was free-flowing for the most part and players were allowed to express themselves.
Saturday will be a much bigger challenge. The players will relish an opportunity to prove a point and have a cut at another Six Nations championship.
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