Alex Goode looks at Ireland's shape and how to take on the Springboks' blitzing challenge
Before looking at how Ireland should play, consider what they do really well. Their kicking game has variation.
They use James Lowe well to go long and he gets into a position that’s like a hybrid full-back. You don’t see Johnny Sexton kicking too much these days – unless it’s an attacking kick – as they want to keep ball in hand, with attacking phase play.
Ireland back themselves to keep the ball for long periods, which other teams don’t, in order to get the outcomes they want. They do so through superior fitness, their shape and how they play. They believe that the consistency of doing what they do well again and again and again and again, will lead to a mistake by the opposition. Which invariably it does.
It might not be the first phase or the second time they go out the back to ten off the nine pod, but it might be the fourth one or the fifth that gets someone jumping out of the line defensively. Bang! They make the most of it. They get on the front and then they come alive. And their support lines are very good.
Ireland consistently throw shape at you better than any team.
Every time someone is catching the ball, there are options. An inside passing option, an outside option, there’s an option out the back. And if they do make a half linebreak, the guys out the back run such good support lines. Against England in the warm-up, Josh van der Flier gave a tip-on pass to Peter O’Mahony, and he gave it to Bundee Aki to score. The player out the back comes in, in support.
So consistency of showing shape to you in defence means you can’t just say ‘I’ll line you up and clatter you.’ There’s always an option there, which mean they don’t tend to get hit too much behind the gainline.
And then in the breakdown the guys get there – bang! – smashing that, which allow the ball to be quick for Jamison Gibson-Park or Conor Murray to play quickly. Then while you’re in retreat they throw more shape at you.
How the Irish backline play
The Irish back-three is incredibly balanced. While some teams have massive wingers or electric wingers, across the board the Irish wingers fit into shape as ball players.
You’ll see Lowe go in at first-receiver, or Mack Hansen will pop up all over the place. The equivalent of that for England would be Max Malins. Those guys can constantly step-up and be involved – they are comfortable on the ball. So across their backline, there is always a player who is comfortable playing out the back of a pod off of nine or off ten, who can move the ball. It’s not just relying on two primary playmakers and the rest are just runners.
That is Ireland’s uniqueness.
The best auerial player they have is Hugo Keenan, which is why they will use him to chase kicks sometimes, ahead of the others in the back-three. Then they’ll keep Lowe in the back-field, where he can use his long kicking game.
It doesn’t mean they don’t do the hard work: yes they chase kicks and pressurise you, but there’s not as much of that. They are smart about when they kick. And when they do, they’ll shock you and chase after it in numbers. It’s more about the consistency of workrate. You’ll see the flankers, the centres – everyone! – go.
How Ireland should play against South Africa
With the Springboks’ aggressive blitz defence, if you throw a looping pass over the top, that’s actually a win for South Africa.
It’s fool’s gold because that ball over the top allows their inside defenders to recover and scramble, to tackle you on the touchline. Then there are 14 men waiting to obliterate you when you go back the other way.
Scotland fell into that trap too much. Going wide to the touchline you might make five yards, but then they were getting annihilated going back infield and losing up to 15 yards.
If I was playing this South Africa, I wouldn’t attack outside the 15m unless you’re going to make a linebreak. Because you want to keep options either side. For example, if you have two players on the blindside, they have to have four. And someone in the backfield. If someone’s in the ruck, that’s six, and there are only nine to attack on the other side.
You will shorten then up a bit. Ireland’s tight shape can give South Africa problems, but it depends how much time they get on the ball in first or second phase.
Here’s what I mean by tight: When New Zealand beat them a couple of months ago, they kept it tight and then added in different kicks to change the picture. They were running off nine. They went closer to the ruck to negate the South African blitz. They kept running at the second or third defender from the ruck, so South Africa couldn’t bring linespeed. Then there were inside balls from a one-on-one or a half shoulder getting through.
Constantly going on the front foot forced South Africa to keep going up and back, up and back. Then when it’s really on, you can move it a bit wider and you can exploit them with kicks crossfield or with chips. It’s a really smart way of playing.
We’d like your thoughts on how Ireland should play – do you agree with Alex Goode? Let us know on social media