It seems really distasteful to criticise Les Kiss. He comes across as a hell of a nice guy and a chap absolutely brimful of integrity. He has been the most innovative defense coach in Ireland’s history and his demeanour, his depth of knowledge about how the game is played at the highest level today and his record all point towards ideal head-coach material.
However, on Sunday’s evidence he is being stretched too far. Nothing about Ireland’s defensive gameplan was convincing, and there didn’t seem to be any real coherence in their attacking strategy.
This was probably the most disappointing defensive display of a Kiss team that The Mole can remember, certainly on a strategic and tactical level. We may have had days when we have conceded more tries and missed more tackles, but it’s difficult to recall a defensive approach that was so patently wrong from the offset and was shown up in play after play.
The Welsh selection loaded their three-quarter line with huge backs:
- North 193cm [6’4”] and 104kg [16st5lbs]
- Roberts 193cm [6’4”] and 110kg [17st4lbs]
- Davies 185cm [6’1”] and 103kg [16st3lbs]
- Cuthbert 198cm [6’6”] and 104kg [16st5lbs]
That would give them certain advantages, and certain disadvantages. For example, outside of the ridiculously gifted George North, sleight of foot isn’t a strong point. If you rush up on them, their quick feet aren’t going to make you look a fool with a vintage sidestep. On the other hand, if you let them get into their stride, their bulk and pace makes them very difficult to stop on the gainline.
I’m not denigrating the Welsh backline as simple bosh-merchants: they bring a lot more than that to the table, as witnessed by their crisp passing throughout and North’s outrageous offload in contact for Davies’ second try. They’re always going to be a difficult side to defend against. However, Ireland’s defensive approach seemed custom-tailored to give them every opportunity to showcase their wares in a favourable light.
The backline initially came up at a reasonable lick, but then seem to take a split-step [to borrow some tennis terminology] to establish their base and then push out towards the touchline and concede the ground and the gainline, rather than coming up fast to put the centres in danger of collecting man-and-ball, or coming from the outside in to cut off the wings. As a result, those big Welsh backs were well into their stride before the tackles went in and the gainline was broken over and over again.
Mike Phillips and Rhys Priestland were massively influential in shaping the game in their efforts to take the ball flat. Phillips was the dominant figure in this respect, posing a huge breaking threat that required double-teaming from the Irish defense, but also capable of firing out beautiful flat passes into the middle of the pitch for charging Welsh forwards or for those big three-quarters. As mentioned in the preview, it takes great skill and great confidence to play that close to the gainline: you have to worry about taking the pass and the tackle, and you can look an awful twit if it doesn’t come off and you either knock it on or get smashed. You could count the Welsh knock-ons on one hand. Again, those big centres are more than just bosh-merchants. Or if they are bosh-merchants, they’re bosh-merchants with hands-that-do-dishes-and-are-soft-as-your-face mitts.
Attack Attack Attack Attack Attack Attack Attack Attack Attack Attack Attack
The idea of a duo taking control of the attack coaching in the absence of Alan ‘Riff’ Gaffney has its pros and cons. Two heads are better than one, right? They can bounce ideas off each other, point out flaws and work together to really fine-tune a strategy.
On the other hand, design by committee never works. Too many compromises are made, the essence is lost and ideas become over-complicated and muddled. You can have too many voices on the training field or in meetings saying different things.
This was the first match Ireland have played under their new attack coaches, something that might be forgotten in the post-match furor because both are familiar faces in the coaching set-up. However unfortunate for the pair, the scheduling of the Welsh game demanded that Ireland’s attack hit the ground running … and it failed to do so. There’s the distinct possibility that what was on offer on Sunday was essentially a dress rehearsal to far more coherent and effective performances later in the championship, but the mood of the public was influenced by Kidney’s stodgy squad announcement that emphasized consistency and carry-over from the World Cup. Had he brought some new faces fresh from provincial success into the line-up initially, there would probably be a greater sense of a new start, and perhaps a little more willingness to forgive error. When he stuck with ‘the old reliables’, so to speak, he lost this margin.
On review of the game, there are so many questions regarding our attacking strategy that the action on the pitch fails to answer.
Where were we supposed to be attacking? It was noticeable that Jamie Heaslip got good mileage through Rhys Priestland’s channel. The Welsh had stuck to their earmarking of Ferris and O’Brien from the quarter-final, but you can’t double-team every player on the pitch; Heaslip was the one who benefitted most, and turned in an eye-catching performance.
How did we look to create mismatches? Normally you’d look to get backs running around forwards and forwards running at backs, but the sheer size of the Welsh backline – the majority of them are easily as big as the Irish backrow, who aren’t small men – makes the latter less of a viable strategy. We needed to suck those big threequarters into rucks and hold them there, not allowing them to return to their places in the defensive line. Sure, it’s gamesmanship and it’s easier said than done, but it should have been part of our plan from kick-off.
Find the fatties and run around them – Adam Jones and Rhys Gill were the most immobile defenders in that Welsh selection, and Priestland the weakest. When they’re there, take the chance and go at them.
What questions did we ask of the Welsh defense? Those big strong centres are a brick wall when you run at them, but with all that height and weight they should have been slow to turn, especially when they were shooting up so fast to close down space. Make them turn, then! Roberts’ enormous wingspan makes dinks over the top quite risky, so amid all the kicking that Sexton indulged in, a few dribbly grubbers through could have been well disguised and turned down the gung-ho volume on their defensive hoorahs … just dribbly little kicks in behind them that make the fullback come forward into no-man’s-land. It may not look pretty, but it would have put doubts in their respective minds.
How flat did we play to the gainline? Not anywhere near flat enough, is the answer to that one. We seemingly gave little thought to screens either, which is a viable way of asking questions of the defense when your backs line up deep.
Did any of our overload strategies pan out? Some did, in fairness, and we scored tries off them. However, too often we went into contact just providing a single threat. Heaslip was the leading exception to this generalization, as he consistently looked to offload to support players. Again, it’s obviously easier said than done when you consider the strength – both individual and tactical – of the Welsh defense, but we needed to flood the contact with support-runners asking questions and provoking indecision. If that meant playing a narrower game, so be it; with the physicality of the Welsh three-quarters, a wide game risked turnovers.
Did we keep their defense guessing, or even ‘honest’? Not really. Contrary to some commentators, I’m not at all down on bombing the fullback as a legitimate strategy. Halfpenny is 5’10” and Rob Kearney is an absolute hero in the air. The bomb plays to our strengths and looks to exploit the comparative weaknesses of the Welsh back line: we put the ball behind their big centers, forcing them to turn; we get our wings and fullback past them without engaging them in contact; and we put Halfpenny under pressure from bigger men. It may not be pretty, but it certainly is logical. Unfortunately, we couldn’t think up many other ways to avoid their strengths.