With the passing of the torch from Munster’s Declan Kidney to Leinster’s Joe Schmidt, Ireland’s course, in many eyes, was set to change.
A shift from the Munster, forward-dominated game plan to a more free-flowing approach founded on Schmidt’s highly successful Leinster backline seemed a fait accompli. But the crafty New Zealand-born coach is proving more than just a one-trick pony.
Besides, it would be a falsehood to say under Kidney Ireland were purely based on Munster’s grunt up front. Kidney meshed the players he had coached at Munster with the fleet-footed backs previously under Schmidt’s charge at Leinster to good effect. His tenure as head coach brought a first Grand Slam since the 1940s, after all.
It is too simplistic, therefore, to summarise any changes to Ireland’s tactical approach as simply more blue, less red with a smattering of the white of Ulster thrown in for good measure.
We must dig a little deeper to find the tweaks and adjustments the new man has made that have, so far, proved to be successful.
Let’s have a go.
Under Declan Kidney, Ireland’s maul was a powerful weapon built on a bedrock of Munster-born belligerence.
But it was Peter O’Mahony, the current Munster skipper who played out of his skin on Saturday against Wales, who revealed after the match that under their new coaching setup, their driving game has been taken to new heights.
Speaking to the Irish Times, the 24-year-old heaped praise on new forwards coach John Plumtree for his new ideas on lineout and maul.
John has put a big emphasis on our maul and our lineout, he wants us to be a great mauling and line-out team,” said O’Mahony. “You’ve guys there like Paul O’Connell, Devin Toner, Rory Best, Sean Cronin and Dan Tuohy - these guys spent an awesome amount of time on laptops and a savage amount of work. Credit has to go to all of them. John has put in great structures but the players are really driving that on.
This work has borne fruit in the Six Nations with two tries already from driven lineouts, one apiece against Scotland and Wales, plus the monstrous shove late in the win over Wales that eventually saw Paddy Jackson slide over.
The selection of Devin Toner has also strengthened Ireland’s lineout with the 6'11" Leinster man able to operate at the front or the tail and securing clean ball wherever he jumps.
Plumtree has also drilled his men well in how to organise themselves once the jumper hits the deck to give their opponents no time to repel the drive. In a thorough breakdown of how Plumtree has done this, Mark Reason analyses their first try against Wales on therugbysite.com:
Wales, fooled into thinking the attack was coming in one place, were literally powerless to stop the new wave. Ireland had set up a fake arrowhead in one place, and then pierced Wales’s defence with the real thing. People gurgle about dummy runs in the backs, but it its way, this fake rolling maul was every bit as pretty.
Under Declan Kidney, Ireland’s defensive strategy became famous for the use of the ‘choke’ tackle.
Big, strong back-row players like Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris became experts at slamming into their man, standing him up and wrapping their bulging biceps round player and ball, with teammates quickly arriving and a turnover being forced by keeping the ball off the floor.
It’s still a weapon in the Irish armoury, but under Schmidt, it was clear on Saturday that their instructions were to get the man down and get over the ball—or ‘jackal’ in modern parlance—get their hands on it and wait for the shrill whistle from the referee.
This strategy is much better suited to the strengths of the current incumbents of the Nos. 6 and 7 jerseys, Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry.
Both men beat the Welsh back row all ends up in the ground war on Saturday, and you would not bet against them doing so again against England, who in Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood do not possess a player in their back row whose natural game is to do the same.
Schmidt's defensive ruck approach is explained well by former Irish hooker Bernard Jackman in this piece in The Irish Examiner. Jackman says:
His strategy is a ‘Chop and Barge’ tactic where Ireland force the opposition to commit more players to keep the ball. The result is usually slower ball so the opposition is forced to commit numbers and clear the ruck quickly. The key is that we don’t use that tactic repetitively. There were plenty of examples in the Welsh and Scottish matches where no Irish player committed to the ruck which meant there was a dense defensive line ready to dominate the next collision and defensive breakdown.
Schmidt's ability to field a dynamic, fluid attacking backline is nothing new. He has done the same as coach of Clermont Auvergne and Leinster. Perhaps new to the Irish team is how he has preached to them that they can also see the way they defend as the starting point for an attack.
The prop revealed that under their new coach, Ireland do not concentrate on defence in its own right, but rather see it as a part of a game-plan that seeks opportunities constantly. As a result, defence is not about keeping the opposition out but lining them up for a counter-punch. ‘You have to be able to attack when you are in defence and not just be on the back foot and let people run at you,’ said Healy, a scarlet scar on his nose one piece of evidence pointing up his effort on Saturday.
This concept of offensive defence requires a high level of fitness and organisation should the chance to counter present itself.
We saw on Saturday that Schmidt’s Ireland will not just be about pretty patterns out wide once their forwards have secured dominance.
They battered Wales up front in Dublin, and you might have expected them to use that platform for Jonny Sexton to unleash D’Arcy, O’Driscoll, Kearney and Co. out wide.
Instead, Schmidt had calculated that the wet ball and Wales’ brutish runners would be best countered by instructing Sexton to leather the ball long.
In doing so, it turned Wales’ menacing back three round, and a keen chase from Ireland’s wide players ensured they never escaped on the counter.
If the ball wasn’t being fielded by a deep-lying red shirt, it was fizzing nicely into touch somewhere deep in the visitors’ 22-metre area. It was a simple plan executed accurately, and it showed that Schmidt’s team will adjust its tactics suited to the task rather than stick to a predetermined ‘style.’
Again, Bernard Jackman pinpoints this in The Irish Examiner:
I have watched Joe Schmidt-trained teams consistently since 2008 when he was at Clermont through to his tenure with Leinster and I never saw one kick so much. It’s great that he felt comfortable enough to forgo his natural philosophy which is targeting pressure points in the opposition.