(NOTE: this article was written before recent cancellations and postponements due to COVID-19)
By Johnny Browne
It may be easy to say that the ‘new year, new me’ slogan hasn’t been taken up by this Irish team, as they suffered yet another humbling defeat to England after being bullied in Dublin last February and absolutely obliterated in Twickenham before the World Cup. Although you may not think a 24-12 score line was flattering for Ireland, it really was, with England dominating the match while Ireland were left flustered yet again. The English used pretty much the same game plan as they did in Dublin the year prior, aiming to hit Ireland with a try early on and just build on that lead.
Some have said that Ireland have been inconsistent, from beating New Zealand to losing to Japan within 12 months, but I believe Ireland have remained consistent when you watch them. The game plan hasn’t changed, they still play a slow, lethargic game based around the tactical box kicking of Conor Murray to almost the same quality before, with the only fault being the dip in Murray’s form in 2019. Everything else other than Murray has remained the same but other teams have now caught on to what to do to stop Ireland.
What is this method of stopping Ireland? Easy, line speed, very hard and intense line speed, making sure you get off the ground after making a tackle and running into the face of the attacking team. What does this do? It prevents giving the time and space an attack needs to move the ball into the channels out wide, bar a miraculous pass or quick cross-field kick. This works particularly well against Ireland, as the half-back pairing of Sexton and Murray aren’t renowned for their pace and their slow, methodical style works into their favour. You look at Ireland’s big defeats in 2019: England and Wales in the 6 nations and Japan and New Zealand in the World Cup. It’s almost like watching a rewind of the same stuff, as Ireland don’t look to have changed or learnt from previous defeats and can’t compete with the speed and intensity each team had against them.
The best way to combat speed and intensity is with speed itself, if you keep up pace on attack with each phase, you will suck in defenders and make them narrow in their defensive line. This will leave space out wide in which you can exploit and make yards. Ireland can easily do this, but they don’t. The plan is heavily reliant on Conor Murray and everything runs through him, to the point that when he’s not there the plan is put to a halt. I distinctly remember several occasions during the World Cup, when there was a pause for almost 10 seconds during a game after Ireland made a break because Conor Murray would be occupied in a ruck or just not there to get the ball out. The Irish forwards were left looking lost, like they had no clue what to do when the scrum-half isn’t there. Eventually, someone would have the amazing idea of picking the ball up and passing it! WOW! What a concept!
These are professional players being paid tens to hundreds of thousands of euros a year and Schmidt had them so programmed that they began to malfunction like robots. As effective as his system worked in 2018, I always felt there needed to be a bit of leeway for spontaneity and just going with the flow, which the team didn’t have.
This, however, has changed a bit under Farrell with a more positive, quick-paced attack that always tried to target space on the wings. You could see this, especially in the impressive performance against Wales in the Aviva, with Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway being very impressive in their back 3 play along with Jacob Stockdale recognising his opposing winger George North’s defensive frailties early on. I was very surprised watching that game, as, at one stage, I felt comfortable that we would win, a feeling I thought I wouldn’t get this year until Farrell had settled into his new role. But, with this, fans still need to be cautious as we all saw what England did to us. The big test now is to see how the team performs against a young, exciting and motivated French team looking for their first Championship since 2010. It will be a big challenge for the boys in green in Paris but I feel they can stop them from playing, like what Leinster did to Toulouse in the Champions’ Cup semi-final last April, preventing offloads and targeting fly-half Romain Ntamack and keeping Antoine Dupont out of the game as much as possible. It will be a very interesting game to watch and hopefully it will be an early St Patrick’s day treat for us.