Territorial Army

You might say that this is a one-off incident, but it betrays all the hallmarks of a team that are not thinking on the pitch, or don't understand what they're doing, or are badly coached.

It seems from his post-match comments after both games that Kidney is very, very big on establishing position on the pitch before every attack. No shit, eh? Well, sometimes it’s interesting to hear the coach talking about how Ireland are trying to play the game, because it can be difficult to make out from the action on the pitch. 

“There was a bit of wearing down that had to be done in the first 50 minutes, as there is in all test matches. We could probably have done a little more of it in their half rather than ours, but I can’t fault the boys for trying to play. We had the courage to play, but what we need to do is get the balance right, It’s easy for us up in the coaches box to say ‘Oh, why didn’t he kick it?’ … That’s the balance we’ll be working on. We probably didn’t get that quite right against Wales and it’s an area we’ll obviously have to do a little bit of work on.” 

Declan Kidney, Sunday Times 26.02.12

Loose Lips Sink Ships

I’m always interested when the coaching staff ‘give something away’ – Kidney runs a tight ship on what information gets out to the media, so I feel that whenever something goes public, he has okayed it. The first incident was Kidney’s press conference comments after the Welsh game, the second was Tainton’s interview with the Independent  in the aftermath of the same game and the third were those comments which came after the weekend’s game against Italy.

We gave away a huge amount of kickable penalties last year to France, which cost us the game. We leaked four kickable [and converted] penalties in our own half in the first half hour. Rightly or wrongly, Kidney’s strategy of ‘not playing too much rugby in our own half’ [as he always describes it] looks to minimize those risks.

Territorial Army

This is the so-called ‘territorial game’ and for the most part it means that you kick a lot of ball away. Unless you regather the ball in the same phase, i.e. a chip and chase, a grubber, a successful crosskick or a reclaimed up-and-under, you are kicking the ball away.

Sometimes that’s better than it sounds. If you can find a touch eight metres out against a weak opposition lineout, you’re going to be able to put some pressure on. If the fullback is having a bad day and fumbles the ball or steps into touch, you can reclaim possession. However, you simply can’t count on these things happening at international level. Test fullbacks are normally pretty darn sharp on the basics, and most lineouts are well-drilled. When you kick the ball away, in general you’re giving the other team the ball.

Against a team like Italy, that’s not a horrendous decision. They’ve very little invention and really pose little threat from a long way out, especially for an international team. Kidney’s remarks about playing in their half make a lot of sense; Italy having the ball back there isn’t terrifying. Masi is a forceful but predictable counter-attacker, and Peter O’Reilly is absolutely spot on in his appraisal of Giovanbattista Venditti as a “big and uncomplicated wing who runs straight lines, not particularly quickly”.

Still, Brunel is an experienced and perceptive coach, and you’d imagine that he’s well able to instruct his wingers to drop back if our outhalf kicks the ball every time he’s deeper than his own 10m line.

Kicking the ball away against Wales is a different story. It’s interesting that Tainton mentions the Welsh lineout in the Independent article: Ireland stole three Welsh balls that day through O’Connell, Ferris and Heaslip while losing none of our own. Bradley Davies, Ian Evans and Ryan Jones isn’t exactly a terrible lineout, so it speaks volumes for the work done in training … but also that it wasn’t a particularly successful technique. How many lineouts do you have to steal or spoil before you start seeing the rewards? Five? Eight? It’s a huge ask.

Keeping the ball in play against the Welsh poses problems of its own, however. North and Cuthbert take crosskicks entirely out of the equation, because they’re as tall as second rows. Rob Kearney had some success against Leigh Halfpenny for the contestables, but how many times did Ireland regather the ball? You’re putting a kick in the air and letting two people contest for it: there’s always going to be a huge element of chance involved.

So you look at ways where you don’t ‘play too much rugby in your own half’:

1] Kicking for touch

Radge, doing what he does best – corkscrewing the ball back over the heads of opposition wingers and into touch.

The immediate disadvantage is that you give away the put-in to the set-piece. Ireland has an average-to-good defensive lineout. We don’t have a Richie Gray or Harinordoquy who is an absolute ball-hawk on the opposition throw, but O’Connell is a very good operator. Kev McLaughlin is the best defensive lineout option in Irish rugby; Peter O’Mahony could be as good if he works on it specifically – he seems to have a natural spring, is very easy to lift and is agile in the air.

Still, for the most part you’re going to give away possession to a half-decent lineout and then have to rely on a strong defense to turn the ball over. The choke tackle is one method of doing this, and relies on bad posture from a ball-carrier and a physical mismatch on the defensive side. Ireland do not have a Pocock/McCaw/Warburton openside on the park, and O’Driscoll is out, so turning ball over at the tackle is less of an option for us than some other teams. Our defensive line speed and relative lack of hitting-power in the backs means that it is less likely we will generate either contact turnovers [from big hits] or intercepts.

2] Kicking for distance

Sexton is a far better kicker than he has shown for Ireland, but that's sort of the point. He's being asked to replicate what O'Gara does, and that's not his game.

If the opposition back three are well-organised, you give them the chance to counter-attack. Again, without O’Driscoll our defensive line is nothing to write home about this year, and I wouldn’t be going wild about our scramble defense, either. We have conceded four tries in two home matches, which isn’t rock-solid by any stretch of the imagination.

So, while the opposition back three are getting the ball back behind the rest of their team, unless

  • i] our kick is excellently placed;
  • ii] our kick-chase is good;
  • iii] the coherency of our line is maintained; and
  • iv] all individual tackles are made,

this is about the worst option of all: it gives the nightmare scenario of agile runners like Medard, Clerc, Foden, Poitrenaud, North, Halfpenny, Hogg etc. running at forwards like Mike Ross or Donncha O’Callaghan in space. Those are a lot of factors to get right for the kicking team.

3] Kicking ‘contestables’ 

Up-and-unders have a new name: 'Contestables'. They're still garryowens, though.

We have amongst the very best high-ball contesters in the world in Rob Kearney [honourable mentions go to Cory Jane, George North and Kurtley Beale] and both Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe are well up there in this regard. This will generate the least distance if you’re considering the ‘not playing too much rugby in our own half’ mantra, but has the best chance of regathering possession.

These sort of kicks generally come from three sources: a scrum-half’s box-kick, an outhalf’s up-and-under off either first phase or multi-phase possession, or a bomb from a counter-attacking member of the back three.

‘Contestables’ rely on the three key elements: appropriate kick [length, height, hang-time, placement], energetic chase [from more than one player – what happens if we regather the ball and are isolated/they regather the ball and have a dog-leg in the defensive line to exploit] and genuine contest for possession.

There are also two issues with regards to position on pitch of the kicker and/or his team-mates. The first, highlighted by Munster’s recent game against Cardiff, concerns what happens when your fullback chases, doesn’t regather, and then the oppo kick to where he should be; the second concerns your forwards retreating from an offside position if the kicker is behind them.

4] Going around the corner 

Keeping the ball tight to the ruck makes sure that the opposition defense have to commit men narrow rather than fanning out wide. There are less chances for knock-ons or turnovers than going one-out which, as a tactic, is becoming increasingly irrelevant. That it seems to be a go-to move of the team is puzzling: while in theory it ‘moves the point of attack’, in practice it simply allows the defenders to line up a likely ball carrier and knock him down for a loss of yards.

Too often the ball is delivered to a static or near-static receiver, because taking ball nearer the gainline [and thus nearer the tackler] increases the likelihood that it will be knocked on. It seems more and more to me that going one-out should be more of a subterfuge strategy – for example, aligning a pod one out and then ether passing behind them [using them as a screen] passing to a member of the pod, who then passes behind to the back line [again, using it as a screen] or passing one-out, and then that man passing two-out to genuinely move the point of contact.

However, this guileless one-out to static carriers seems to be the rock on which Declan Kidney has built his church.

The Crux

“Rugby can be a simple enough game if you want to make it so. There’s usually a better chance of scoring if you start from inside their half rather than outside. But you have to have the courage sometimes to go after it as well then too.”

Declan Kidney, Irish Times 01.03.12

This is the crux of Declan Kidney’s managerial policy. He wants to play a territorial game, but doesn’t want to spell it out like that or be accused of being unambitious, and then doesn’t pick the appropriate team to play the game he wants Ireland to play.

If you want to play the game in the opposition half, you’ve got an outhalf in Ronan O’Gara who is the best territorial kicker of the professional era. Hands down. He naturally plays the way that Declan Kidney wants Ireland to play, but has big holes in his game, i.e. he’s not a significant breaking threat and he’s a poor defender.

You can no more turn Jonathan Sexton into Ronan O’Gara than you can Ronan O’Gara into Jonathan Sexton. Sexton has different physical attributes, sees the game differently and makes different decisions than O’Gara. From everything The Mole has read or heard Declan Kidney say since Christmas, O’Gara is fundamentally more suited to play the game the coach wants to play it.

On the other hand, Sexton plays under a coach in Leinster where he’s encouraged to play a different sort of game than Kidney wants him to play. He naturally would play a different game anyway, because he’s big, quick and strong, physical attributes that O’Gara just doesn’t have.

If Kidney wants to play the game the O’Gara way, he should just have the courage of his convictions and pick him, rather than try and push a square peg into a round hole. It’s a small but telling contrast that when PSA [a neophyte as an international coach] sees something wrong in his team’s game, he tries to address it by bringing in a player who is better at that aspect – i.e. their lineout has been more vulnerable than he expected it to be, so he brings a real lineout artist in Julien Bonnaire back into the team at the expense of Louis Picamoles.

On the other hand, Kidney doesn’t seem to think that you can adequately address tactical or performance issues by changing personnel … you stick with the same team and try to train/talk the issue out of them.

This is not an Irish team that looks to be making any progress; it’s an Irish team standing still. With every press conference, The Mole is more and more convinced that he has taken this team as far as they’re going to go together.

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17 thoughts on “Territorial Army

  1. I remember early in Kidney’s reign we had to beat Argentina in a November test (late 2008?) to make sure that we were a second seed in the World Cup. It was one of the toughest matches of rugby (to watch) Ireland have ever been involved in. It was a real bowl of dogshit. And it was all based around playing territory against a limited Argentina team stripped of all of their key playmakers. We basically made sure that if they were 70-100 yards from our line, because without their best kickers, passers and runners they weren’t going to score then. Eventually we scored in the last few minutes from a crossfield kick to Bowe.

    It made sense that day in a very short term-way. We needed a result that we could use to plan the next few years around (the much feted “World Cup Cycle”). The fact that ultimately, we are still playing with the same ethos is disappointing. Moreso that we aren’t even doing it that well!!!!

  2. We actually won the game much more comfortably than that.

    Pragmatism is the order of the day with Kidney, and that won’t change. It isn’t a trait exclusive to him though, or exclusive to rugby. Roy Hodgson built his career around the tenet of not losing a game of football in the first half.

    • Roy Hodgson has never achieved more than middling or at times mediocre results in his “35 years of managerial experience.” When he’s taken a step up to the big time at Internazionale and Liverpool, he’s fallen flat on his face. He’s the man you get in to get a mid or low level team performing as such, stably and occasionally decently. He’s a man you’d get to manage a team of the Irish football team’s standing, not a team of the Irish rugby team’s standing. Playing pragmatically is not the problem, playing a pragmatic game really, really badly is the problem. It is the worst of both worlds.

    • I do recall that the Argie game was wrapped up by the time Bowe scored by sleeper-hold rather than Bowe’s pin. I only brought it up as an example of us playing a territory based game-plan to exploit the weaknesses of our opponents.

      Against Italy, aimless kicking didn’t hurt because of their lack of a counter, but up-and-unders a go-to manouevre reminds me of the Eric Elwood days of the early to mid-nineties when we celebrated like mad if we even scored a try, let alone a victory.

      • No coach want a team to kick aimlessly. Most coaches want their players to make sensible decisions to kick when it is necessary (the only exception is Deans’ recent Oz team and his possession, possession, possession strategy, which has had varying degrees of success).

        Aimless kicking is a result of panic and poor execution.

  3. Great article. ‘kicked and lost possession’ should be a standard stat and I would love to see those stats at the end of the 6N.

  4. Perhaps “aimless” isn’t the right word for me to use. The aim of the kicking game was to get territory, the aim of the particular kicks wasn’t nearly as important as it would have been against a team with a more potent counter-attacking team, such as the French team, where you would at least if kicking away, want to ensure that they cannot run directly back at you, that you turn them by kicking over their heads if possible or get the ball to touch to put pressure on their lineout.

  5. Great conclusion re. J10,Radge and gameplans. In my own humble, ill-informed opinion the man for the geansaí is Sexton, the man for the coaching position is not Kidney.

    Still, roll on Sunday and hopefully a delayed birthday present.

  6. Great piece. Pundits and Deccie alike love ‘playing in the right areas’ but are unwilling to call it what it is – a 10 man kicking game where you give the ball back to the opposition. I remember the game against Scotland last year when Lenihan went spare because Sexton attempted a pass on his 10m line. We needed to be playing in the right areas, apparently. Scotland at the time we’re well on top and getting over the gainline on every phase, so we needed to give them another go, apparently.

    Before this year’s tournie all the talk was of more ball-in-hand attack, but Deccie has talked about ‘playing in the right areas’ after both games so far. No wonder the team looks confused.

    Absolutely love the first pic by the way. Talk about a picture saying a thousand words.

    • I take it you don’t recall what happened to Reddan when he attempted to run out of Leinster’s own 22 in the Magners Final.

      In case you don’t remember, it was Try Time (and it wasn’t Leinster scoring!)

      Don’t think anyone can come up with a plan of ‘Play by Numbers’ rugby – which is what you seem to suggest you can do.

      How about playing some heads up rugby?

  7. Kidney is a dreadful coach who has a soft spot for Munster players who he believes have the right mentality to play the game he was so successful with in the 2005-2008 era. What he doesn’t realise is that the game has moved on. Kidney keeps playing s**t Munster players like O’Callaghan and Murray and starts the worst first choice provincial 13 in Keith Earls because he believes they will play the Munster way. Its pathetic and its ruining the team. I’m an Ulster fan and I’ve never had a problem with Irish selection policy. But Kidney’s favouritism for Munster players is turning into a joke. O’CALLAGHAN over Touhy? the lad doesn’t even start for Munster. How is O’Mahony there ahead of Henry? And can someone please tell me how the f**k Murray is the Irish starting 9 ahead of not only Reddan (which is a complete joke but lets not go there) but Marshall as well? Why does Zebo get a wolfhound start but Gilroy is nowhere to be seen?

    I’m beginning to dislike a large section of Munster fans as well who blindly defend Kidney and the selection of their players. The dog in the street can see that this is a joke shop. I will not cheer for Munster anymore until that man and his munster favouritism selection policy (and a large swath of their fans who have revealed their true colours) are banished.

    • 2 Heineken Cups and a Grand Slam, a dreadful coach is right. Typical Ulster fan hypocritical bulls**t. You get out of your group for the first time in about 600 years and feel like world beaters. Have you actually seen O Mahony and Zebo this season? They have been a revelation in Munsters UNBEATEN group run.

  8. Great article.

    Exactly sums up exactly how I’ve always felt about Kidney’s coaching tenure at Ireland.

    In addition to the fact that you illustrated why his tactics were from the wrong era, I think you absolutely nailed it with your point that Kidney doesn’t believe changing personnel can bring about a change in tactics.

  9. I think you’ve gone a bit a, b,…….z here mole and I can’t agree with the crux of your argument. I would have a bit more faith in sexton that he will continue to develop his game management skills and get better at it. It’s not “playing the ogara way,” it is just an important aspect of being a world class fly half. Sexton has a good variety to his game (although he isn’t the world leader in any particular facet) and yes he is in a good environment to develop his creative instincts (scmidt, berquist), but don’t think Schmidt is not working with him on how to keep it tight, or that berquist is saying “Nah, den just runs it bro.” Sexton is maturing brilliantly overall in what I see and there is no doubt he is now the number 1 number 10 for Ireland.

    I am really hopeful that ogara will be a help to him in doing all this. The guy has shown he is prepared to fight tooth and nail for the jumper and he has no reason to apologise for that, …..but …it is probably time to start being more a mentor than a competitor. It would be useful for a legacy that he very obviously puts Ireland ahead of himself and would put some of the unfair criticism of him in its proper light.

    I would also suggest that you haven’t considered the chip into space behind the centres into your (otherwise excellent) analysis of “not playing in your own half.” Wales are particularly vulnerable to it, because of their obsession with the blitz, and we under used it against them. Farrell had some joy with it (although he then got carried away), even bowe’s grand slam try came from a gap behind the centres. As I’ve already agreed with you before though, the cross field would be the weapon of choice against France. A few garryowen’s on poitrenaud would be fair enough for kearney, but i absolutely share AJ’s view on the kick which has no stated aim (glengarry glen Ross). Box kicks can come pretty close to that at times, unless they are being done perfectly and by a number of people. I don’t like them.

    One last thing…..don’t kick against Charlie hodgson! He looks more dangerous when opponents are thinking of kicking the ball than he does when he actually has it!

  10. well thought out and put together article.

    lets do a very simple analysis of France. Strengths – counter attacking, offloading, lineout. weaknesses – defensive system, mentality.

    scotland played against them the right way but were effectively beaten by two sucker punch trys. they kept hold of posession and attacked in wave after wave. they made some big holes and scored 2 trys. france are not very good on the back foot against a team with good ball carriers. we have better players than scotland so should mimic their game plan

    all of this talk of not playing in your own half worries me. every player mentioned it in the interview post italy. granted we had aimless periods of play but i would put it to you that was not necessarily due to where we were playing but the fact that we did things at such a slow pace. Of course we need to mix up the game and there is a role for smart kicking. however given the soundings coming from management and players i fear we will return to the first half v wales where we booted the ball away almost everytime we got it. if we do this v france in paris we will be beaten comfortably. they will waltz through our defence if they get over 60% possession

    given what kidneys side has served up over the last 18mths a right old beating may eventually make it clear that rugby has moved on since our grand slam win and we have to adapt

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