There are many variations to Ireland’s tactic of playing their 3-3-1 pattern.
Here is another example of the play from a set piece, except it ends with a decoy move this time, rather than a looper play.
It should also be noted, that the two “three-pods” do not always go the same way. Often, the number nine will pass left to a three-pod, allow the ruck to be formed, then reverse the direction of attack and pass right to the next three-pod.
The second three-pod go into contact before running the decoy play. Or in the more usual option, the ten can take the ball out the back from this three-pod and release the decoy play outside of him on the same phase.
Bear this in mind as it’s quite a fundamental play, but we will look at the decoy usage post three-three pattern.
The ball goes off the lineout and is passed from the number eight to Robbie Henshaw on a crash ball where it is secured. This is shown below.
The ball is then passed to Rory Best via a tracking run from the number nine who does an interplay more likely for the set-piece move, then nearly stops halfway through.
This move usually results in a wing coming from the openside to receive the pass from Best using the nine as a dummy loop. However, it seems to have broken down so Best takes the ball to contact. He is by himself and as such, multiple forwards go in to ensure the ball is secured quickly.
The ball is then passed out to the two-pod. It’s a two-pod due to the over-commitment of players to the Best ruck on the prior phase. Regardless, two players from the prior ruck move over to assist in clearing it out.
Once the ball has been secured, Ireland then reverses the attack direction, slipping back with their next three-pod to the openside taking it into contact. Here you can see they have Jonathan Sexton behind the pod.
Sexton is there as a potential pop option from the pod to release the wide play quicker. Simultaneously, you can see the one-pod outside of Sexton, ready for the next phase.
The ball is secured and comes to Sexton. Sexton takes the ball to the line and uses the one-pod as a decoy runner, passing behind to Henshaw who then gives the short ball to Garry Ringrose.
It’s the same principle as the 3-3-1 looper, just a screen pass rather than the loop.
The splitter pattern was being shown at the beginning of last year. Since then, it has been modified, not only in terms of interplay but more importantly, with the players who execute it.
In the splitter variation, the three-pods work in a similar fashion to other setups. However, there is some very clever work that happens around the pod in order for it to be effective.
Notably, there is a switch of direction between the three-pods to kick-start an attack where a three-pod can switch the direction of attack from the blindside to the open side instead of going the same way.
This often combines with the same openside three-pod passing directly behind to the number ten as a second receiver instead of going to contact. The ten will then pass out to the backline on the openside who will be running a looper or decoy play.
The difference between the splitter and this pattern is the angle and intent of the switch three-pod, and finally, the defence reacting to the same play outside of the ten. This combination causes the early in-to-out drift and creates a hole for the ten.
The first three-pod goes to contact as shown below and not much has changed in their objective. They do go to contact, though the back two are tracking out which tries to draw some defenders away from the lead runner. Joey Carbery, a very fleet-footed 10, is out back directing traffic.
The next three-pod then come around to the blindside.
The ball is then switched. There is a change of direction to the open called by Carbery who starts tracking out, ready to take the pass behind the pod.
Normally in Ireland’s attacking pattern, this would be a switch to try and use the backline off the ten as described above. The one pod forward would be integrated with the backline, as to ensure the ball is retained when the ball goes wide.
With the splitter, it’s a little different.
As Carbery is tracking out, the outside decoy play starts running as well, attracting the attention of the outside defence.
Now, pay attention to the three-pod. This is what separates the splitter from the standard out to the backline looper or decoy play.
The decoy and usual backline option off Carbery is on if he wants it, or, there is an overlap which he could use. But another option has been created via some very subtle trickery by the prior runners.
The three-pod have caused an obstruction for the inside defender. If you have a look at the three-pod, you see two Fijian players (green) up next to each other. This is because the Fijians have been stopped moving across as the three-pod are blocking him which has opened up a gap for a very fleet-footed number ten.
He takes it. The decoy runner off him is up flat coming through to become an immediate support player and they go onto score the try on the same phase.
Very effective, very clever, and very innovative. The outside defence is watching their arcs and in the heat of the moment, they don’t know their inside defence is obstructed because they don’t hear the call.
All their analysis has pointed at the number ten taking the ball from the switch three-pod and passing down the backline – as such they act accordingly. It’s a simple variation of a switch move.
In the past, defences have seen Ireland switch the direction of play to a three-pod attacking on the other side of the ruck, thereby switching the direction of attack. They usually know this pod will pass to the ten, who in turn will use the backline outside him, in turn, starting the premature drift. They don’t see the inside defence compromised by the three-pod, creating space for the ten to exploit.
This in itself, is another example of multiple options, similar to England’s patterns under Eddie Jones. The same principle, executed differently.