Match Reaction #2: Absent Friends

O’Connell and Heaslip: how’s about you do your job, and I do my job?

It’s strange to say that somebody who’s only winning his second cap could teach somebody who has been to three World Cups and two Lions Tours a thing or two, but one of the odd pleasures of this second test was not seeing Paul O’Connell carry static, one-out ball into contact and go to ground. Brodie Retallick didn’t get on the ball much: he just went around charging into rucks and bashing things. 

O’Connell brings excellent leadership, a phenomenal lineout option, controlled aggression, top-end physicality, an enormous workrate and a huge tackle count to the Irish team – and it’s going to be great seeing himself and Donnacha Ryan in tandem next season – but for an ordinary runner he puts himself on the ball too much. It’s not just that he doesn’t make line busts, it’s that it hurts us tactically: so much ball has to be recycled by better runners and passers, none of whom would have as much impact hitting the ruck as O’Connell would.

It will be interesting to see what Rob Penney thinks of this tactic when he arrives in Munster. The All Blacks play a game where the tight five forwards are expected to secure ball for their backline. They’re all comfortable handling, but they don’t overplay it – their main job is hitting rucks and securing quick ball, or getting it in and out of their hands to somebody in more space. Look at the stat-line:

  • Woodcock: 4 runs for 4m
  • Hore: 8 runs for 9m
  • Franks: 4 runs for 2m
  • Retallick: 2 runs for 4m
  • Whitelock: 4 runs for 4m

There were very similar numbers for the New Zealand forwards in the World Cup final. Even Brad Thorn –  who played rugby league for the Kangaroos and was named one of the best twenty players to have played for the Brisbane Broncos in their twenty year anniversary celebration – only got on the ball five times in that game. Rugby league is pretty much a game based entirely on running the ball into contact, and Thorn was a world class rugby league player … but he carried the pill only four times in the final.

Munster were short ball-carriers last season in the absence of David Wallace and Dennis Leamy, and O’Connell is so physically dominant at club level that he can take on a lot of ball and make yards – he did just that against Llanelli in Parc y Scarlets in the second match of the HEC double header, for example. Against the better teams at test level, however, it’s just not an effective tactic.

One of the key reasons why it’s not effective is because there’s little doubt what O’Connell is going to do. The most passes he has given this season in an international game is two. He doesn’t have a step or a fend/offload combo. He breaks very few tackles. He doesn’t ask many questions of a good defense – he’s asking to be tackled, and most of the time, he’s obliged.

Is it by coincidence that Heaslip’s return to form over this test series has come in O’Connell’s absence? Not really. O’Connell and Heaslip have started nine tests together this season, and in six of them, the second row has had his hands on the pill more often than the No8. Is that what Ireland really need? Paul O’Connell handling the ball more often than Jamie Heaslip?

Irish matches from the 2011-12 season in which O’Connell and/or Heaslip have started. Heaslip’s stats from the Russian game in RWC11 are very eye-catching, but more or less irrelevant. The Mole thinks that it’s more interesting to see the number of games in which they have played together where the second-row gets on the ball more often than the No8. If you look at the number of passes both men make and the average metres/carry, there’s also a significant discrepancy. 

According to the IRFU website, O’Connell is just 1kg heavier than Heaslip, and 7cm taller [O'Connell is listed at 198cm tall and 110kg; Heaslip at 191cm and 109kg]. Heaslip is more compact, has better acceleration, more top-end pace, a better sidestep, superior hands … so why is Paul O’Connell carrying the ball more often?

Coaches talk all the time about the small margins at test level, and occasionally tactics require just a small tweak here and there to improve the performance of the team. Ireland largely have the right personnel in place, and the weekend’s test match showed that in the majority of elements of the game, we can hold our own against the best in the world, even without some of our most gifted players.

Heaslip has not had a vintage season, but he has been asked to play a game that doesn’t really take advantage of the things that he does well on the rugby pitch, and Ireland employ tactics that aren’t all that clever. O’Connell taking on more ball doesn’t occur by accident, or because Heaslip “disappears” – it happens too often for that. It has all the appearances of a tactical decision, a gameplan. The guy who doesn’t have good hands or much pace carries the ball into contact, and the other guy who has both those qualities hits the ruck.

O’Connell is a vital player for Ireland for so many reasons, and there’s no way he should be left out of any team while he’s fit – but he [like anybody] can improve. He’s not going to improve his impact for Ireland next season by handling the ball more; he’s going to improve by handling it less. Instead of O’Connell getting on the ball thirteen or fifteen times in the match, I think it’d be better for Ireland to see him getting it seven or eight times. Leave the ball-handling to the handlers, and concentrate on imposing himself at the ruck, smashing jackals and reefing bodies out of the way. O’Connell can be a ruck-clearing animal, but he’s never going to be a line-breaker as a ball carrier against good test teams.

Ireland have some cracking ball carriers in the pack in O’Brien, Ferris, Healy and Heaslip; Donnacha Ryan is no slouch either, and has far better hands than O’Connell [his screen pass for Zebo's try in the HEC quarterfinal against Ulster is a fine example of this]. These are the people we should be looking to get the ball to when we’re looking to get over the gainline. We shouldn’t be looking for O’Connell, and he shouldn’t be putting himself forward to carry as often as he does, especially where he does.

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7 thoughts on “Match Reaction #2: Absent Friends

  1. I wouldn’t pick Ryan and O’Connell together. They’re too similar, and it leaves the scrummage short of bulk and power. They’re all right as a partnership against the likes of the Scarlets or Castres B, but against powerful scrummaging sides like England, South Africa and France, they’ll be a liability. I think it would also be a retrograde step to pick two lineout forwards when the French have outsourced much of the lineout to the backrow and are choosing monsters like Maestri in the second-row. For me, it’s Tuohy and O’Connell or Tuohy and Ryan, or maybe O’Callaghan instead of Tuohy if the former regains some fitness and form. I wouldn’t have a problem dropping O’Connell if Ryan keeps up his improvement at the ruck, as he offers more than Paulie around the pitch.

    As an aside, Iain Henderson’s explosive speed and size hints at the power he’s going to bring to the engine-room in a couple of years or so. I hope the coaches have him on a strict regimen of Brad Thorn videos.

    • By the looks of things Henderson can do it all though, he’s a beast in contact but also has excellent feet, a great fend and the ability to offload, I’d expect to see the ball in his hands a fair bit, even the Irish u-20s give the ball to him from quick tap free kicks ahead of Conan who’s a great carrier and a prototype no.8.

  2. You’re preaching to the converted with me. I’ve said a lot of those things on lf.com Leinster have been doing that well this season, lots of rucks hit by Cullen and Browne, not so many carries. But bigger guys hitting rucks low and hard= less people in rucks. Blow past the ball if possible, get it away quickly. It slows you down a little making the next ruck, but it doesn’t slow down the poor sod under you any less. As a slow fat prop I have a mantra, the best place to get a rest is on top of their scrumhalf/outhalf/jackaling openside. There was a little bit of that going on last week, if McCaw went into a ruck, he wasn’t just pushed out of it and allowed to catch his breath at the pillar before chasing off for another phase. Any chance was taken to blow him out of it and delay him just enough to keep him out of the odd phase.

    Going back to those NZ stats, most of those carries were quick pick-and-goes, not one out pods. They know when and where to use that tactic and they use it to effect. For a team that would be good at it, we don’t all that much (anymore).

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