After all the talk about defence this week the extraordinary policy of ceding ground to Wales last Sunday will surely be revised against France. Here are four other things that need to change along with it.
1: Box Clever
France will have noted how little protection Conor Murray received when he was box kicking against Wales, and they will look to exploit this. I’m not sure if Saracens were the first out of the traps on this front but they effectively use an extra body on the back of the ruck/maul to put a crucial two more metres between box kicker and blocker. The Saxons operated it against Ireland in Exeter two weeks ago and gave added protection to debutant Ben Spencer – a Saracen, as it happens. An early block-down in Paris and you can write the rest of the script yourself.
2: Choose When and Where to Choke
The choke tackle has received so much airplay since its introduction in the 2009 Grand Slam season that it’s up there with Riverdance now as quintessentially Irish. Even if it was introduced by Australian Les Kiss. Like the clack attack that is the chorus of the stage show, however, you can see this one coming, and may feel like moving on. It still has a place in the Irish repertoire but it needs to be much further down the billing.
Instead there is almost a frantic vibe to it. Donncha O’Callaghan springs to mind as a man who has the periscope up, looking for people to strangle, wherever he is on the pitch. If it goes wrong – and the victim gets to ground for a quick recycle – then the chokers have not only lost ground but are numbers-down on the next phase as well.
You need heavy traffic to choke with safety. So maybe 10 metres either side of the breakdown is fertile territory. The further wide you go the riskier it becomes. You don’t get the impression that Ireland have bought into this, but they need to, and soon.
3: Get after Parra
Of the many unsettling things about Ireland’s set-up against Wales was the freedom afforded Mike Phillips. It was as if suddenly they had come up against this scrumhalf they knew nothing about. And by half time they still hadn’t worked him out. When you have a big, physical scrumhalf with a short fuse your starting point has to be confrontation, and irritation. And when you have a smaller scrumhalf who is the fulcrum of the team, with an excellent running game, then equally you need to close him down and beat him up if possible.
So as soon as the nine picks and looks to run off the ruck, the second defender off the breakdown must have licence to break the line and attack into the space where the scrumhalf is headed, preferably making contact. So the pillar stays put, and everyone else shifts inward to fill the gap vacated by the defender who has attacked the scrumhalf. If Ireland aren’t aggressive here they’re doomed.
4: Figure a Way Out
Teams who are not in control whack the ball out of their 22 with no idea how or when it might come straight back at them. You need an exit strategy. For example, twice against Wales Jonny Sexton had to bang it downfield when he didn’t want to. Why? The first was in the opening half after Gordon D’Arcy, just after a Wales restart, got the ball in his 22 and then worked his way about three metres outside it – whereupon the ball had to be taken back in to be cleared, and couldn’t be cleared direct to touch. So Sexton, under pressure and looking plainly pissed off, whacked it downfield. And Wales attacked.
The second, after the break, saw Rob Kearney field a Garryowen just insideIreland’s 22, from James Hook. He could have marked it, but instead looked to counter. That counter took him a few metres…….outside the 22 again, and again the pass-back law forced Sexton to whack it. Wales lost four of their 10 lineouts, so putting the ball out of play seemed a reasonable method of putting them under pressure. So why not do it? If they scramble the ball out of their 22 against France they’ll be in the same trouble all over again.