— The Chase (@thechasesport) January 31, 2019
The respective Autumn campaigns of Ireland and Australia sat at opposite extremes of the stylistic spectrum: Michael Cheika’s side alternated between incisive wide attack and moments of frustrating indiscipline and poor decision-making, while Joe Schmidt’s carried powerfully and was exceptionally accurate at tackle and breakdown. Despite claiming wins over New Zealand and Australia, a number of issues in attack which have been present throughout Schmidt’s tenure recurred in the 12 point loss to the All Blacks in Dublin, during which they spent long periods deep inside opposition territory and came away with no tries. This performance comes with the caveat that Jonny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and CJ Stander – three key figures in their attack in Chicago – had all left the field within half an hour, but we have seen enough of Ireland’s attack with those players present over the past three seasons to tentatively assume that scoring five tries against the world champions was the exception that proves the rule: in order to be so ruthlessly successful, the attacking system they operate requires accuracy and intensity which is unsustainable over a series, season or World Cup cycle.
Contrast this to Australia, whose 1-3-3-1 system looks to have been enhanced by the addition of former New Zealand skills coach Mick Byrne to the coaching staff; in amongst the senseless infringements and maddening turnovers, they have been able to create wide line breaks regularly and finish these chances rather clinically. Their offloading game has clearly developed as the season has progressed, but Reece Hodge’s two ill-advised efforts in the first half are evidence that their decision-making and execution in this area still needs work. Sefa Naivalu’s effort on the left wing in the last five minutes of the test is another excellent example of their required technical progress: after manipulating his arms above the tackler he attempts to transfer the ball without readjusting the height of his hand, and the ball follows a path from high to low which is impossible for his teammate to regather. (Compare this to the supreme work of Anton Lienert-Brown – as Will Greenwood highlights here – who excels at lifting the ball into space for his team-mates from low to high.) As these skills continue to develop, however, Australia’s wide phase attack – which is already one of the best in the world – will continue to grow, and gives Michael Cheika a clear focus around which to build his gameplan.
The diagrams below (inspired by the stellar work of Dutch football blog 11tegen11.net) represent an attempt to visualise both teams’ attacking styles by mapping common passing combinations from November’s test match. Each line between players represents two or more passes between these players (with passer and recipient indicated by the direction of the arrow), and the width of each line corresponds to the number of passes. Where a line emanates from one player but does not have a direct recipient, it indicates that the player made two or more passes from that position to a multitude of players but no more than one to any single player. The diagram does not attempt to map the x- and y-coordinates of each pass; arrows pointed in the direction of the right touchline indicate passing combinations made when the team was playing from left to right, and vice versa.
Before Connacht’s inspirational run to the Pro12 title this season, the last side to capture the imagination of the Irish rugby public was Joe Schmidt’s Leinster of 2010-13. While Pat Lam will find it tough to equal the three consecutive European trophies achieved by his compatriot in Dublin, his domestic title was founded on similar principles to Schmidt’s success in that period: a superbly executed attacking system, high skill levels and an aversion to kicking away possession. The zenith of this Leinster team was perhaps the run to their first Heineken Cup in the 2010-11 season; after negotiating a difficult pool fairly comfortably, they beat Leicester and Toulouse in the knock-out rounds before a famous comeback victory over Northampton Saints in the final at the Millenium Stadium.
Before last week’s first test at Newlands, I wrote this piece for Ultimate Rugby on Ireland’s attack over the past 3 seasons under Joe Schmidt. It was great to see Ireland come out and move the ball wide effectively early in the contest – Paddy Jackson at 10, Robbie Henshaw at 13 and Jared Payne at 15 were all important to their success in this regard. Henshaw exhibited the passing ability that has been clear from his play with Connacht, while Jared Payne’s positional play attacking from fullback was far superior to that of Rob Kearney during the 6 Nations. The red card to CJ Stander in the opening quarter obviously caused Ireland to narrow their attack and implement a more conservative gameplan, but it will be fascinating to see how they approach the second test with a series win there for the taking.
This was originally a guest post on Ultimate Rugby.