THERE’S BEEN MUCH discussion of Ireland’s attacking game under Joe Schmidt in recent times, never more so than in the aftermath of last weekend’s defeat to Wales in the Millennium Stadium.

Johnny Sexton had a rare poor performance against Wales. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

While it seems obvious that Ireland could add an element of creativity in phase play, Schmidt’s side are certainly still doing good things when in possession of the ball.

The Wales loss shows that Ireland need to be far more clinical in the opposition 22, but it’s worth stressing the quality of the defensive effort from Wales. Not only did they rack up an oft-cited final tally of tackles, there was also real excellence in the majority of them.

Some stunning moments of defence kept the Welsh line intact at crucial moments, while Ireland’s general inaccuracy on Saturday was restrictive in other instances. Ireland will be better against Scotland, but there is certainly general improvement to come in this area.

* By ‘attack’, we’re referring to the times when Ireland attempt to break the opposition down by keeping the ball in hand.

Schmidt’s plans

Some of the most impressive moments of Schmidt’s time in charge of Ireland since 2013 have come with the power play tries they have scored.

Think of Rob Kearney against England last year, Andrew Trimble against France in Paris, Rhys Ruddock versus the Springboks or Tommy Bowe’s score against the South Africans.

These were highly-detailed, pre-planned strike plays that involved every single player in Schmidt’s team understanding their mapped-out role over one, two, or three phases. When the various factors combined, the magic flowed.

Unfortunately, these power plays haven’t quite worked yet in this championship for a number of reasons.

France fail

Source: RBS Six Nations

You’ll probably remember the incident above from the France encounter, when Ireland ran one of these ‘Schmidt plays’ and just failed to execute at the final moment.

A fully-fit and match-sharp Johnny Sexton [have Ireland had that in his championship?] would likely have dummied and run the ball himself in this instance, either scoring or allowing Ireland to do so on the next phase of attack.

A try here would have seen Ireland into a 22-6 lead [including the conversion] with 56 minutes played in Dublin, and we probably would have seen Schmidt’s side win far more comfortably than they did in the end.

The play was almost carried out to perfection to seal the game, but Ireland’s execution let them down at the vital moment.

Italian incision

Source: RBS Six Nations

Ireland did actually execute one of their pre-planned and detailed power plays in round one against Italy, as we see above.

The lineout functions perfectly [giving the platform], the support players are ideally in position to hit the rucks, the follow-up carry is effective and then Conor Murray backs himself to score from close range, even with options for another phase to his left.

Earlier in the same game, Ireland had attempted another of their large menu of pre-planned, multi-phase attacks against the Italians, but this one was unsuccessful.

Source: RBS Six Nations

On this play, Ireland send Robbie Henshaw smashing up in the middle of the pitch on first phase from a lineout and then bounce back down the narrow side on the second phase.

Most sides play their second phase off lineout towards the far touchline again, so it seems that Ireland have mapped out that Italy’s forwards will indeed fold around the corner and leave Schmidt’s side in an advantageous position on the left.

Instead, the Italians have bodies in place on Ireland’s left and are in position to make a dominant hit despite Sergio Parisse buying Murray’s dummy lopping line around the passing hub of Rory Best.

Simply put, it oftentimes happens that the opposition read Ireland’s mapped-out plays and shut them down before they can even get off the ground.

French read

That’s exactly what happens in the instance below against France, as Ireland attempt to run a lineout play that has worked for a Schmidt side in the past.

Source: RBS Six Nations

The intention here is to throw to Toner at the tail beyond the 15-metre line, with the lock then popping the ball down [yellow arrow below] to the arriving Simon Zebo [red arrow] in the space Toner has just passed through.

By throwing beyond the 15-metre line, Ireland essentially end the lineout and that means Zebo is entitled to burst up from his initial position 10 metres behind the lineout.

As with the attempted loop play against Italy we highlighted previously, this is a move that Schmidt is fond of. The Kiwi’s playbook is brimming with intelligently-constructed starter plays such as this pair, and he sometimes revisits the old classics.

Die-hard Leinster supporters may recognise this lineout play as the one that led to a wonderful try for Jamie Heaslip against Biarritz in 2013, when Schmidt was in charge of the province.

Source: LeFauconCrecerelle/YouTube

Examine the video above not only for the memory of a breath-taking try, but also for evidence of what Schmidt was hoping would happen against France when Ireland called this play just last month.

In the Leinster video above, we can see that Biarritz do react and attempt to prevent Toner’s popped pass [yellow circle below] down to Isa Nacewa [red arrow], but unlike France’s Guilhem Guirado, the counter-measure is unsuccessful.

That frees Nacewa to burst through, unlike Zebo for Ireland, and find Heaslip running the most intelligent of support lines [yellow arrow below] having started at the front of the lineout.

Switching our attention back to Ireland’s attempt against France, take a look at Heaslip’s actions in the image below as the throw from Rory Best sails over the head of the dummy jumping pod of Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien.

In the bottom left corner of the image above, we can see that Heaslip already has his head up scanning the defence even before the ball is near Toner at the tail. The number eight knows exactly his role in potentially finishing off a try chance.

It’s an excellent read from France hooker Guirado that denies Ireland the chance to carry out their play, but it’s also worth noting the reaction of prop Rabah Slimani at the tail.

Briefly going back to the Leinster score against Biarritz, we can see that the now-Pro D2 side get their rearmost jumper fully into the air [red circle below], buying Leinster’s dummy jumping actions in that area.

Naturally enough, that ties down both lifters, or more importantly that lifter behind the Biarritz lineout jumper. Now return to Ireland’s attempt against France this year, and note how alert Rabah Slimani is.

The tighthead prop sacrifices his lift on Bernard Le Roux before the flanker is really off the deck, recognising that the overthrow from Best is entirely deliberate. That leaves Slimani in a decent position to tackle Zebo if Toner pops down, although we’d have backed the Munster wing to break through had the pass come.

Back to the point we started with – the opposition naturally enough have a big part to play in the success of these Schmidt power plays.

Guirado and France make good reads in this instance, and the weakness Ireland have identified or planned for fails to transpire. On another day against a difference opponent, it might have resulted in a try.

England cling on

Against England too, we saw Ireland attempt a number of promising starter plays from set-piece, but again there was a lack of end result with them.

That said, many of Ireland’s set-piece plays served to stretch England, or demanded of them intense defensive focus. Even when an attack is not scoring, it must be asking demanding questions of defenders, forcing them into good decisions.

Source: RBS Six Nations

The incident above most likely sticks in the mind for many supporters, given that Robbie Henshaw was incredibly close to breaking through for Ireland.

Ireland play off a shortened four-man lineout on the right, running Tommy Bowe and Jordi Murphy as decoys close in to the set-piece [yellow arrows below].

Tommy O’Donnell [red circle] is the central hub around whom the dummy loop of Sexton [blue] will be run, Henshaw [green] instead receiving a superbly disguised short pop from O’Donnell as he turns his back to the English defenders.

Luther Burrell and George Ford both buy Sexton’s dummy looping line, being so aware that the Ireland out-half loves to use this type of play to get the ball into wider channels.

Chris Robshaw inside them initially buys Sexton’s dummy line too, his gaze appearing to be on the out-half as he travels across the pitch. It takes an amazing last-second reaction from the England captain to get a tackle in on Henshaw.

Actually, this would have gone down as a missed tackle on the stats sheet – therein lies the occasional folly of such statistics. Without Robshaw’s ‘missed’ tackle, Ireland would have had a fine opportunity to score.

Murphy has continued his line inside and is ahead of play in a position to potentially support Henshaw, while Jared Payne is ideally situated to turn on a burst of acceleration and gets to Henshaw’s outside.

England have two players in the backfield in the shape of Alex Goode and Jack Nowell, but even if they had completed a covering tackle, you’d have to back Ireland to finish on phase two against a shattered defence.

Ireland don’t cut through cleanly through Henshaw on phase one here, but their second phase is mapped out nonetheless, Sexton hitting Bowe on an inside pass which goes to deck.

Too much power in the pass? Bowe taking his eye off the ball? Either way, it’s a failure in execution and means frustration for Ireland.

What of Wales?

Despite some gloom around Ireland’s attack post-Wales, they did do many good things with their possession in that game, as well as many bad things.

We’ll come to the latter shortly, but let’s take a look at an example of the good stuff in the video below.

Source: RBS Six Nations

A strong set-piece is again the foundation, Ireland playing off a scrum that serves up an ideal angle to play off and allowing Sexton and his backs to make 15 metres straight away.

Take note of Henshaw’s movement after he passes to Payne. Despite being the nearest man to the outside centre as he enters contact, and therefore the ideal player to hit the ruck, the Connacht man backs away to keep himself out of contact.

The next phase is where Ireland’s pre-planned structure is hoping to lead to a clean linebreak against a Wales defence in retreat. Henshaw is the designated strike runner.

Again, a dummy loop play is involved as Murray passes to Peter O’Mahony and heads around seemingly looking for a return pop.

Instead, O’Mahony passes back inside to the arriving Henshaw, who had dropped off after his pass to Payne to hover in behind the ruck, away from the gaze of the Wales defence.

Henshaw beats the despairing tackle attempt of Sam Warburton on the fringe of the ruck, but Jamie Roberts gets across from the inside to complete a covering tackle. Ireland’s plan meant Roberts shouldn’t have been in that position, but a small inaccuracy allowed him to be.

The image above is taken as Murray’s pass to O’Mahony is in the air, and we can see Heaslip on the right-hand side of Ireland’s ruck attempting to engage Roberts, who has started on the left-hand side.

Heaslip has to make his blocking action stick just that little bit more. He risks bringing attention to himself by actually blasting Roberts off his feet, but a little more contact is needed.

To do so would be illegal of course, but almost impossible for the match officials to spot. Instead, Roberts gets beyond Heaslip and saves what quite probably would have been a try.

As we can see above, Sexton and Rob Kearney have already burst beyond the Welsh defence on pre-emptive support lines, fully aware of where Henshaw will be if he does break through as planned.

Roberts fights to get into position and makes his tackle.

The above play comes with less than 20 minutes on the clock in the Millennium Stadium and Ireland 12-3 down. Success in this instance would naturally have flooded Schmidt’s side with confidence and it’s likely we would have had a very different game.

The tiniest detail is off and Ireland fail to score.

Into the phases

More positively, the passage that follows as Ireland drop into their general phase play is extremely effective and in contrast to what we will look at further below.

Jack McGrath loses the gainline on third phase, but then Sexton makes a good decision [in contrast to other times in Cardiff] to carry himself and earn metres, before Simon Zebo and Heaslip also make good contributions.

Next up, Ireland provide Sean O’Brien with a little time and space on the ball [red arrow above] by running him behind a Best decoy line [yellow arrow]. The results are obvious as O’Brien wins the contact and produces that rare Ireland offload.

Too often since his return, O’Brien has been battering into well-prepared bodies on the fringes of rucks. Instead, Ireland must afford him this type of opportunity in phase play, or even manufacture one-on-ones for him.

Do so and watch the collective metres gained and offload stats rise.

Ditto for the very next phase, as Sexton provides Payne with time and space [red arrow below] to make a half-break by screening his pass behind the lurking figure of Henshaw [yellow].

Again, this is when Payne thrives. An extra split second on the ball and he is free to assess the shape of the defensive line and individual defenders and produce one of his excellent late changes of running line.

It’s simple stuff from Ireland but it’s very effective. The option is always there to hit Henshaw [or Best] for a more direct carry; it keeps Wales guessing until the last moment and makes the contact more favourable for Ireland.

By now Ireland are deep into the Wales 22 and the home side give up their third penalty offence of the passage, Dan Biggar failing to roll away.

Nine phases of attack over the course of one minute, and Ireland have gained around 50 metres of ground. The phase play has been varied, multi-optioned and allowing players to demonstrate their strengths; this is the phase-play blueprint for Ireland.

Unfortunately, it’s followed by another failed Ireland set-piece launch play, as Rory Best’s throw is off the mark after the penalty is kicked to the right-hand corner. We won’t go into detail, but Ireland had a nice mauling play up their sleeve had the ball gone to Toner.

You don’t need us to tell you again how different a game this might have been had Ireland been accurate with their lineout detail at this relatively early stage.

We go again

Ireland lost another lineout in the Wales half in the 26th minute, this time due to the Welsh reading their call superbly and stealing through Luke Charteris.

Who’s to know what sort of play Ireland had planned for this situation? Another lineout failing costs them another opportunity to claw their way back into the contest at an earlier stage.