You could be forgiven for not paying attention to the first minute of Ireland’s opening game of their World Cup campaign against Italy. This was a warm-up game before the big tournament with both teams naming experimental sides and very little at stake. However, as Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is well aware, the moment when no-one is paying attention is often the best time to reveal a new trick, as Saturday’s game showed.
To show how Ireland are changing their game, we must look at Italy’s first kick-off. Carlo Canna gets the game started for Italy and Ireland backrow Tommy O’Donnell, circled in red in the image below, catches Canna’s kick on the 5 meter line halfway inside his 22.
Italy, and indeed many teams in the top tier of international rugby now, will often look to target that 5 metre line for a number of reasons. For one, it creates confusion between the lifting pod and the backrow over who is going to catch the ball. It also allows the Italian defence to stay in one organised wall of defence and if they’re quick enough, push the Irish catcher over the side-line to win a turnover. If that doesn’t work, you still have a full defensive line who can rush up to hit the Irish player running the ball back. In short, Canna’s kick-off puts Italy in a strong defensive position and Ireland in a difficult attacking one.
To counteract Italy’s strong defensive position, Ireland look to work the ball away from the touchline. The rationale here is to split the defence either side of the ruck, make it harder for Italy to rush together as a line and force Italy’s wingers come up to cover Ireland running the ball back.
As you can see in the picture above, both Italian wingers have to come up into defensive the line and, Angelo Esposito-on the right wing-is signalling for his fullback to cover the zone behind him in anticipation of the kick.
During the 6 Nations, Ireland would have mostly box-kicked the ball into the white box marked in the image above from this position. The reasoning was sound. It’s a contestable kick that allows you to get possession back higher up the field, Conor Murray is a top-class box kicker for Ireland, and with the 9 further ahead of the 10 on the pitch, the 9 will get further up the pitch with his kick. It releases the pressure and you might get the ball back or even get a scrum or lineout out of it.
However, teams became very aware of Ireland’s tendency to box kick and intelligently adapted to negate this, probably best illustrated by England during the 6 Nations this year.
While Elliot Daly-circled in red-ends up knocking this ball on, what we’re looking at here is the players in front of him, and most importantly, where the chasing Irish winger is as a result.
Conscious of the strength of Ireland’s box-kicking game, Eddie Jones developed a smart way of shielding his back three players from Ireland’s kick-chasers without getting penalised. By having all of their retreating defensive players run a line towards the catching the ball without actually catching it, a natural shield is formed ahead of the catching player .
In this instance, this shielding tactic allows Daly time and space to catch the ball. Ireland’s Jordan Larmour-circled in yellow-can’t even get near him
Coming back to last weekend’s game with England’s excellent box-kick defence in mind, Joe Schmidt showed a clue of how teams may adapt to the change in the tactical landscape ahead of the World Cup. As the image below indicates, instead of box-kicking the ball, Ireland’s Luke McGrath passes the ball to Joey Carbery at 10-marked with the blue circle-who puts up a high contestable kick into space for Andrew Conway-in yellow-to chase on the right wing.
While it’s admittedly a warm-up game versus a Six Nations game, the difference in space that Conway gets here to chase the ball is massive when compared to the England game. Carlo Canna-the Italian player circled in red-is completely isolated here.
Andrew Conway would end up knocking this ball on, a rare mistake in an otherwise excellent performance from the winger, but it indicated what could signal a clear change in approach to contestable kicking from Ireland going into the World Cup. Indeed at the very next opportunity, Ireland used the same tactic again, this time with much better results.
This time Conway-circled in red-wins the ball ahead of the Italian player. This results in Ireland getting 40 metres up the pitch and creates a prime attacking opportunity for the Irish players running on to the ball against a now disorganised Italian defence.
Ireland would go on to use this tactic every time they looked to exit their 22 in this game, with the third attempt eventually leading to a try for Andrew Conway-a just reward for his chasing efforts; and the fourth attempt leading to a linebreak for Chris Farrell that brought Ireland over the half-way line. Remarkably, Ireland didn’t box-kick the ball once in the entire game.
With that in mind, while it may have just appeared to be another warm-up game with a fairly unremarkable scoreline of 29-10 to Ireland, Joe Schmidt gave a clear signal of how Ireland, and indeed other teams, may adapt to the ever-changing tactical landscape of international rugby ahead of the World Cup.
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