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.
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
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
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’
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.
“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.