Let’s get the disclosure in early: making broad pronouncements following a relatively one-sided run against a side who have lost 30 games in a row does not provide one with the sturdiest of platforms, but there was something about this Ireland side.
Not only on the park against Italy but also in the comments from people around the team, that tell you changes are in the wind.
Firstly, this got my attention.
Ex-Ireland captain and hooker Rory Best, writing in his column for the BBC, noted the following:
“CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier get through a mountain of work, but a lot of it is in between the 15s, that’s an area that you can let your front five take care of, which allows you to get the forwards that are better athletes to give you more numbers on the edge.”
Interesting concept, eh? Get the tight five to do their own jobs in the middle of the park and free up the loose forwards to have some sort of attacking role which has been missing for years.
Who would have thought?
Before commenting on what we saw in the Ireland versus Italy game, I would note that sometimes the greatest catalyst for change in a coach’s approach can be handed to them from that great selector, forced injury changes.
For the match against Italy, Andy Farrell had two strokes of good fortune with injury – in the loose forwards and at halfback, and if they can transfer this to the real-world games, Ireland may be onto something.
In this game, the loose forward trio was hybrid Tadhg Beirne at 6 (who is a whole lot quicker than he looks), Will Conors at 7 and CJ Stander at 8. No way coach Farrell is making that call of his own volition with a full cohort to choose from, and starting at halfback was Jamieson Gibson-Park with widely endorsed protégé Craig Casey off the pine.
We saw the default one-yard carry into contact largely disappear from the Ireland side in the Italy game and it was built on the numbers six through nine.
I can hear the screams from the bleachers now, “It’s only Italy”, and I accept that, but doesn’t the longest journey start with the first step? I’m sure it was someone clever who said that.
The loose forwards and hooker played a prominent role at breakdown time, in particular arriving together early on both sides of the ball and dominating offensive cleanouts.
Stretch the game, get your loose men to support the attacking structure and you are on the path to changing how your side plays the game. By definition, you are playing more quickly and creating opportunities to score earlier in the phase count.
I must confess I knew little of eight cap openside Will Conors, but I really like the lines he runs, especially going forward, and it is different to the defensive seven role Ireland and others have been using of late.
In addition to the recasting of the loose forwards, we saw what an injection of pace can do from the halfback position. Ireland is not without attacking talent out wide and has actually had the fastest ruck ball in the competition to date, but had shown little inclination to utilise it.
If it hasn’t already become abundantly clear, with the new breakdown directives actually being enforced and a focus from World Rugby on a safer faster game overall, the stocks of the halfback are firmly on the rise again.
It was always going to be hard for Ireland to replace Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton, and nigh-on impossible to replace them both at the same time, but the injury Gods have played their cards and it’s time for Coach Farrell to grasp the nettle.
There can’t be any doubt that the passing off the floor, sniping runs from halfback, speed off the back of the lineout and the willingness to take a chance on the tap penalty were positives from 9 and contributed to improved overall team tempo.
This last week we were also treated to some views of ex-international players who appear to have the scales falling from their eyes. This is from the always-excellent Off the Ball rugby podcast.
Keith Wood, last week on the OTB podcast, observed that for the last two and a half years Ireland has had to slow the game right down in order to maintain possession, also noting that you need to be able to go off your feet and seal off to make this happen.
I love this closing quote from him: “This is not how the game is designed to be played.”
Hear, hear, Mr Wood. Keep banging that drum.
Stuart Barnes joined Wood on this podcast and flamed the theme that Ireland had got slower and slower to retain the ball and then would do nothing with it.
Scathing, do we think? Or a refreshing set of observations from two gentlemen who know their code and are now feeling it’s time to speak up and are perhaps noting the changes in the game?
Scotland versus Ireland this weekend would likely have been a must-watch in its own right, but now Ireland have the chance to add a layer of extra interest.
This is a side that flirted with the top of the rankings in 2019 and are now seventh, with further downside looming with a loss to Scotland.
Time to have the courage to keep the changes against a side other than Italy.