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There is a subtle balance that must be reached in Australia’s gameplan during the Irish series.
Warren Gatland implied during the Six Nations that Ireland were a significantly weaker team when the ball-in-play time was high.
“We looked at the stats over the years when we have played Ireland and anything over 44 minutes, we have won the games, and anything 37 minutes or below, they have won the games,” the Welsh coach said after Ireland’s win over Wales – a game in which the ball-in-play time was a mere 32 minutes and 57 seconds.
I’m inclined to agree with Gatland and this is borne out by the stats.
Ireland’s only two losses in 2017 coincided with the two games with the highest minutes-in-play stats. This was 43.03 minutes for the Scotland game and 46.13 minutes for the Wales game. The Irish win against an unbeaten England in 2017 had the lowest minutes-in-play stat of all Ireland’s Six Nations matches.
These stats make perfect sense when you watch Ireland. A great phase-play and set-piece team, that struggles with width both in defence and attack.
As good as Rob Kearney is, teams have the option of kicking the ball in-field without having to worry about being severely punished by counter attacks.
There is an argument for playing a wide, expansive game with a high minutes-in-play stat. Even more so when you consider Ireland are at the end of their season. The risks in this come in the form of two individuals: Six Nations player of the tournament Jacob Stockdale and new sensation Tadhg Beirne.
Stockdale is continuously improving his technique in the tackle and defensive reads. The winger scored three intercept tries during the Six Nations and takes risks that not many other players in Northern Hemisphere rugby are willing to take. If you go wide against Ireland, make sure every pass is accurate.
Beirne is at his best when teams play a wide-wide gameplan. He floats in the outside channels and can single-handedly destroy the width a team tries to play with. He might not have out-and-out power at the breakdown, but his intellect is akin to the great George Smith.
If Beirne gets enough game time, he is my prediction for player of the series. The remarkable Kildare-born second rower won the most number of turnovers of any player in any pro 14 season since 2010. According to Opta’s stats, Beirne won 39 turnovers (including 24 jackals) and was also the top-scoring forward (seven) in the pro 14.
To put Beirne’s turnover stats into context, he won 17 more than any other player in the competition. In a league containing Hamish Watson, Sam Warburton, Ellis Jenkins, Chris Cloete and Dan Leavy, this is no mean feat.
On top of that, Beirne also won the most number of turnovers in Europe’s premier club competition.
While Beirne’s stats are elite, it’s his footwork that stands out. He always takes the ball at speed and unlike many other locks, he attacks space when he carries. An example of this is the Champions Cup try of the year that he scored for Scarlets against Bath. Instead of trying to run over Anthony Watson, he read Watson’s body angle as he approached and sidestepped him.
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His size may count against him when it comes to his prospects of playing international rugby at lock, but his versatility means that he may see game time at 6 or 8. His presence in the squad may mean that Peter O’Mahony is overlooked for the captaincy, due to competition for the blindside position.
Leavy could benefit most from Beirne’s inclusion. A guaranteed starter and a huge breakdown presence, Leavy would be my choice as captain. He has experience captaining national underage teams and Ireland need strong communication with South African referee Marius van der Westhuizen on the breakdown.
Getting on top of Beirne and the Irish breakdown threat will be key for Australia’s hopes of playing an expansive game and keeping high ball-in-play time.