Strength in Numbers: An Analysis of Ireland’s Attacking Performance against Scotland

After the highs of winning both a Grand Slam and beating the All Blacks in 2018, this year has been something of a mixed bag for Ireland form-wise. Averaging 30.8 points scored per game last year; Ireland’s attack was averaging a far lower 20.8 in 2019 heading into one of the potential games of the World Cup opening round against Scotland. This analysis will look at Ireland’s attack in that World Cup opener and how they are intelligently using numerical advantages to turn forward power into points.

When we think of creative attacking play, we often think of players creating 3 vs. 1 overlaps out wide in the backline, or players sidestepping and offloading into space. So if this analysis was to start with an example of a lineout maul, it may take some by surprise.

In the picture above, Ireland have set up a 6-man attacking lineout. Flanker Josh Van der Flier-circled-is acting separately as scrum-half in this scenario but will look to form a maul once the jumper brings the ball to the ground. For the purpose of the article, we are going to call this lineout formation a 6 + 1 lineout in future.

Scotland mirror Ireland’s 6 + 1 lineout in defence with Stuart McInally performing the scrum-half role and regular scrum-half Greig Laidlaw defending the area at the front of the lineout instead.

The detail that we want to look at in particular here however is how many numbers each team commits to the ensuing maul in the next picture.

As we roll on a few seconds, we can see that Ireland have committed all 7 of their forwards to the maul, while Scotland by comparison have only committed 5, with McInally and Alan Dell-circled-hanging back. With this numerical mismatch, much like a 3 vs 1 overlap in a backline, Ireland’s forwards can use their strength advantage to now create an attacking opportunity.

As the clip above shows, Ireland’s maul powers to the right, intelligently engages Dell with Rory Best then using a half-step and offload to draw Laidlaw and put teammate Conor Murray into space.

Although Ireland do not score a try directly from this play, this creative use of attacking power forces Scotland to kick the ball back to them on the next play in a better attacking position than the original lineout.

Having claimed Scotland’s clearing kick, the ball is next moved inside to CJ Stander to crash the ball up.

Before we look at Stander’s carry, I’m going to spoil things for you a bit and tell you that he is going to be tackled by the three Scottish players circled in yellow in the photo above. Also the three players circled in red are going to stay on the blindside after Stander is tackled. The reason I’m telling you this is because I want to be conscious of where this leaves Scotland numerically in defence after the Irish 8 carries the ball.

Although Stander’s carry looks ineffective as he’s driven backwards, with three players stuck in the ruck and another 3 defenders wasted on the blindside, Scotland’s defence is suddenly short as Iain Henderson looks to take the next ball up.

With Cian Healy and James Ryan offering an inside attacking option to Henderson, Ireland have a 3 vs 2 and Scotland’s Grant Gilchrist-wearing the red scrum cap-is caught in two minds between tackling Henderson and covering the inside pass. He signals to McInally outside him to take the outside space but it’s already too late.

As the clip above shows, Henderson plays a dummy pass to preserve the space and makes the most of the confusion that the numerical advantage creates to power through the gap.

6 phases later, Ireland use another 2 vs 1 numerical advantage with Healy helping James Ryan power past the tackle of Hamish Watson to score Ireland’s first try.

Ireland’s attacking strategy here is simple. Try to create numbers up situations in contact, use your power to exploit that advantage and then score.

As we move on next to look at Ireland’s second try, we see this attacking strategy playing out again.

As some of you may notice, Ireland are using the 6 + 1 lineout set-up again here, with Jack Conan this time acting as scrum-half. As we roll the next clip on, keep an eye on Johnny Barclay and McInally-circled-and count how many players Ireland commit to the maul compared to Scotland.

As the clip reveals, Johnny Barclay and McInally stay out of the maul again and, by the time Barclay does commit to the maul counter-shove, it’s too late and Ireland’s higher numbers in the maul lead to a higher number on the scoreboard.

Ireland’s fourth try would come from a more conventional numbers-up situation as Ireland winger Andrew Conway was left unmarked on the right wing to score. However, we are going to focus on Ireland’s third try and how the power of a numerical advantage was brought to bear by Ireland’s forwards again.

Ireland’s third try starts with a scrum and a lightning-quick hook from Rory Best in the front row to get the ball in CJ Stander’s hands instantly .

As the clip above shows, with Scotland’s backrow still stuck in the scrum due to the speed of the ball delivery, Stander can now isolate Scotland’s smaller backs and bring his power advantage to bear. This forces Scotland to commit four players to the collision who then can’t defend in the next phase.

After another carry to the right, Scotland’s remaining forwards become isolated. As we can see in this picture, this allows Rory Best to latch onto Tadhg Furlong, create another 2 vs 1 contact situation and power his teammate past Jonny Grey’s tackle for Ireland’s third try.

By employing a strength in numbers strategy and maximising the power of their forward pack, Ireland showed an efficiency against Scotland that has been lacking in attack in previous performances this year.

Although they will likely face more physical teams in the World Cup, Ireland’s 27-3 win was a promising return to their 2018 attacking form that will give them hope for the World Cup campaign ahead.

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  1. As an Irish fan, so delighted with the result, I am surprised that so many analysts are saying that Ireland’s 2nd try was a great example of line out maul. The 1st example was great but the 2nd was completely illegal. All the Irish mauling players left the line out long before the throw, and were in the final maul positions illegally.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! On the 2nd maul, that’s a good shout in fairness! Wayne Barnes is refereeing the Georgia-Uruguay game next so his refereeing of mauls might be something to keep an eye on in that match.


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