*Please note we’ve made changes to this article to reflect more accurate data obtained from the Ireland/England game.
Ireland are the perfect opponents for Allister Coetzee’s dewy Springboks, who will on Saturday announce themselves and their new identity to a rejuvenated South African public. The Irish have had South Africa’s number of late winning four out of their last six encounters and whipping the Boks 29 – 15 the last time they met, so there’ll be a flavour of revenge at Newlands this weekend. And although they don’t present the same threat that the All Blacks do they are a clinical, well-drilled group who will quickly sniff out Springbok weaknesses. Joe Schmidt is a canny operator. He’ll teach Coetzee more about his team in three tests than a video analyst could in a dozen.
Of course data and analysis does have its place; not just for stats-happy rugby anoraks such as ourselves but also when it comes to picking out tendencies in the way a team plays. Rugby Analytics took a look at Ireland’s Six Nations match against England to see what they could find. It’s a sample of one, but some interesting nuggets came out of it nonetheless.
THE RUCK OF THE IRISH
First, let’s take a look at how Ireland defended against England to get a snapshot of their defensive DNA. They would have had match-specific tactics in this game but it’s fair to say that overall they probably employ a consistent philosophy.
A good entry point to understanding a team’s D is to look at how they approach rucks. Where do they choose to be aggressive? Do they attack you at the source – sending men into your tackle point to try and slow you down or steal your ball? Or do they prefer to stand off and use those extra numbers in the line to get in your face?
Rugby Analytics tells us that in this game the Irish sent on average 1.1 men to every ruck (compare this to the Lions for instance who send on average 0.5 men to every ruck), so they like to focus their attention there. Whereas 32% of English rucks were not contested, the Irish swarmed carries in the 9-10 channel with 79% of all rucks contested there.
What does all this mean to the Boks?
It means that the Irish are going to try and spoil our ball. If this English game is a template it tells us that Joe Schmidt likes to roll the dice and uses his numbers to disrupt your possession before you can use it. Should the Irish play like this again there is both danger an opportunity for the Springboks.
The danger, naturally, is that they get outplayed at the breakdown, which means that the Bok machine will never get going. And if the Boks try to generate momentum in the close channels they might be frustrated by the Irish presence there. If so they’ll need a plan B in their back pocket.
The opportunity? If the Springboks can get quick ball despite Irish interference then Schmidt’s gamble could be his undoing. By choosing to send his men into rucks he could find himself outnumbered in the line. This happened on a few occasions when the English went “same-way” on attack, testing the Irish ability to fold and setting up honeypot rucks that sucked in more of their defenders.
Although it’s not always as simple as that, as the Springboks themselves will have to commit cleaners to ensure possession. It also possibly explains why Allister Coetzee has gone with both Siya Kolisi and Francois Louw for this match. The openside flank’s role on attack is to be first over the ball when a tackle happens. The Boks seem to have sacrificed a traditionally bigger blindside flank in favour of two quicker ruck policemen who can hopefully get to the contact points fast.
A quick comment from a reader Daz, who says:
“Hi, just a heads up, Ireland have a new defence coach in Andy Farrell (previously England and B&I Lions defence coach), who favours faster linespeed and more aggression on D, as opposed to the soft drift Ireland have used under Schmidt for the last 3 years.”
That’s a good point and South Africa face the prospect of a far more aggressive Irish line defence at Newlands on Saturday. Either way, this first test will be fascinating because both teams don’t really know what to expect from each other.
THE IRISH ATTACK
Again, this data is based on Ireland’s game against England and they would have had specific patterns and targets for that match, but it’s still worth looking at how and where the potato eaters chose to strike. Rugby Analytics’ Attack Targets table can tell us more (click to enlarge).
The first thing we notice is that there’s a lot of grey, which indicates all the Irish incursions in the 9-10 channel. This is a team who were narrow on attack. What’s interesting though is that their next most favoured channel was outside the 15m line (the blue bits on the table), so they (mostly) played close-in or out-wide, with fewer strikes in the middle. When they did go wide they used a pod as a decoy, double tracking to fix the middle of the English line. Perhaps Joe Schmidt believes in extremes – barging up close to the ruck or stretching you out wide, eschewing more progressive strike points moving across the field.
What’s also interesting is how tight the Irish play on 2nd phase, with one-out runners hitting the blindside (light blue), the 10-12 channel (green) or the at 9-10 (grey) 60% of the time. The Springboks have some solid meat in their pack but have chosen to go without a traditional blindside bruiser. It remains to be seen whether this type of player will be missed if the Boks want to shut down these narrow carries on 2nd phase.
We have a feeling that this same Target chart for Saturday’s game will feature a lot more green and yellow, as the Irish will undoubtedly be looking to test the brand new axis of Lambie, De Allende and Mapoe in the middle of the field. On top of that Damian de Allende’s defensive positioning has long been an issue, so his role as Lambie’s outside partner and Mapoe’s inside wingman will no doubt be tested. The lad from Milnerton should expect some high-speed Joe Schmidt puzzles coming his way tomorrow.
One last interesting titbit is how the Irish played off set piece against England, because they approached their strike plays completely differently at the scrum and lineout..
From lineouts the Irish hit the 9-10 channel 67% of the time, which is no surprise as the weak seam between the flyhalf and his occupied forwards can be super profitable. But from scrums it was the opposite, as the Irish went wider – attacking outside the 13 channel 67% of the time. With the English forwards locked in the scrum and their outside backs standing deeper for kicks they took advantage of the space on offer.
In both cases – after scrums and lineouts – they would then (mostly) set up a narrower strike on 2nd phase to try and commit still more English forwards.
These close-in tendencies of the Irish – both on attack and in defence – will be something to look out for. The Boks have devastating carriers in Etzebeth, De Jager and Vermeulen so they could get go-forward here regardless, but their follow up and cleaning will have to be sharp if they want to avoid getting bogged down in a slow ball nightmare. Should they do this, Faf de Klerk will be able to hit the turbo button with his lightning fast service and the Bok backs will be brought into the game on the front foot.