One of the areas that has best highlighted the difference between the Lions and the Wallabies’ game plans so far has been counter attacking. The home side have been particularly threatening on the counter, with Israel Folau’s first try in the first Test being the best example. While the Lions have scored a memorably brilliant try on counter attack through George North, overall they have been far less ambitious after turning over possession.
Counter attacking in rugby is all about identifying where the space is and ruthlessly targeting it. When the attacking team loses possession, they become immediately vulnerable defensively. Having been focused on attacking, their defence is obviously not an ideal shape. For the team who wins the turnover, it is of critical importance to strike quickly.
Let’s go back to that Folau try for an example. The Lions had gone through 23 attacking phases before the Wallabies won the penalty to turn the ball over. The Lions were fatigued after such a long passage of play and they had no defensive shape whatsoever. Will Genia recognised that immediately and burst away after taking a quick tap. The Lions were scrambling to get into defensive position and we know the rest.
Jim Greenwood is an advocate of the idea that “not all space is equally valuable” on a rugby pitch. But identifying space on the counter attack is certainly high up on the list of precious spaces in rugby. When the defending team makes a turnover, very often the space for a counter attack will be wide on the opposite side of the field. If the team who has made the turnover can get the ball there quickly, they’re in an excellent position to score or at least make lots of ground.
Many coaches use the ‘two pass rule’ for counter attack, whereby they encourage their team to make two quick passes after winning a turnover. That normally gets the ball into space, and very often allows the elusive back three players to demonstrate exactly the skills they’ve been picked for.
Counter attacking clearly holds risks and possible negative factors. Long passes across the pitch are open to being picked off by intercepts; an isolated player on counter attack can be turned over; and your team will need high fitness levels to attack immediately after defending. But the risks are worth the rewards. If a team does it with intelligence, ruthlessness and support, counter attacking can be match-winning.
At the end of the video above, there are two examples of the Lions winning back their own contestable kicks. This presents situations which are similar to winning a turnover in contact. It means that the Wallabies defence is in a bad position, working hard to get back onside before tackling. Again, the focus should be on moving the ball away from the area where the Lions have retrieved the kick.
Warren Gatland’s side need to go out and try to win Saturday’s game, rather than taking last weekend’s approach of trying not to lose. There are risks involved in counter attacking ambitiously, but the rewards certainly outweigh them.
The RBS Six Nations released the shortlist for their Player of the Championship this week. The winner is to be decided by the public’s online votes, with 12 candidate to choose from. The candidates are the 12 players who were awarded the RBS Man of the Match in each match in the first 4 rounds of the tournament. It’s a silly way to choose the shortlist, as the Man of the Match award is decided by the naturally biased host broadcasters at each match. Check out the official list here.
Julien Malzieu doesn’t deserve to be anywhere near the shortlist, with only one good display against Italy over the course of the Championship. Yoann Maestri made an impact for France, but having him ahead of Richie Gray is ridiculous. Donnacha Ryan did make an impression for Ireland, but he didn’t start the first three games. There’s plenty of holes to be picked in the shortlist, and it’s arguably missing some of the strongest performers of this year’s Six Nations.
So, The Touchline has decided to make our own shortlist for Player of the Championship. 12 players is too many, so we’ve gone for the 7 players who we feel have stood out in the first four rounds. We’ve put a poll in at the bottom of the piece so you can let us know who you would pick! Next week, we’ll reveal who you voted as The Touchline’s Player of the Championship. Please feel free to comment, letting us know why you went for the player you did, or if you would have included other players on the list…
Kearney has made more clean line-breaks than any other player in the Six Nations so far. (c) Ken Bohane.
Kearney has been in superb form for Leinster all season, but he has stepped his game up to new heights in this Six Nations. While there have been questions marks over his covering tackling (Fofana’s try and Richie Gray’s effort), the 25-year-old’s fielding and counter-attacking have been inspirational for Ireland. The fullback has played almost every minute in Ireland’s campaign, only coming off with 8 minutes left against Scotland.
Kearney has looked supremely confident throughout the tournament, and the stats clearly back up the positive impression he has made. With 411, he is top of the ‘metres gained in possession’ stakes. He has made the most clean line-breaks with 6 and he is joint-top of the ‘defenders beaten’ list with George North, both on 15. Every time Kearney touches the ball, he looks like creating something. Hopefully, his confident form continues against England on Saturday.
With 4 tries in 4 games, Fofana has had a dream start to his international career. The Clermont speedster has come from nowhere this season, taking his chance with his club side during the World Cup, and never looking back. Originally a winger, Fofana’s move to inside centre has been a massive success. His pace and awareness of space make him a constant threat in attack, and while he’s not the biggest man, his natural power and speed make him a competent defender (2 missed tackles from 31 attempts).
Despite Fofana’s excellence in the centre, Philippe Saint-Andre has decided to move him to the wing for this Saturday’s game in Wales. It seems a strange decision, but the 24-year-old did damage there after Clerc’s first half injury against England. Having beaten 14 defenders in 4 games, ‘The Cheetah’ (his nickname in France) will do damage wherever he plays. Keeping George North quiet will be a difficult task, but the French man has passed every other test so far.
Gray on the way to scoring a brilliant individual try against Ireland. (c) Ken Bohane.
The 6’10” second-row has played every single minute for Scotland in this Six Nations campaign, and has been brilliant in every single one of them. Still just 22, the 20 stone monster gets better with every game. He is a definite 2013 Lion. With his obvious physical advantage, Gray is a lineout king, and has the most number of lineout takes of any player, with 18. While he hasn’t been too prolific with clean steals, he makes opposition ball constantly scrappy out of touch.
Added to that, the Warriors’ second-row has been hugely influential in open play. His athleticism and skills are spectacular for a man of his potentially awkward dimensions. His try against Ireland is an obvious example, and Gray is joint-top of the Scottish clean line-breaks table. His offloading game has been intelligent and accurate too. To top it all off, Gray has yet to miss a tackle in the tournament, making all 33 attempts. He has been a truly complete performer for Scotland.
The English wonderkid was the source of plenty of hype coming into this tournament and he has lived up to much of it. Starting the first two games at outside centre, the 20-year-old was defensively outstanding if a little unspectacular in attack. His move to outhalf for the Wales and France games have seen him look a lot more comfortable. The entire English game has benefited from having Farrell direct play at 10.
For a young player in his debut international tournament, Farrell’s defensive game has been world-class. He has only missed 2 out of 33 tackles, but it is the power with which he hits that has impresses. His huge tackle on Harinordoquy last weekend was a perfect example. His distribution is steadily improving, and his place kicking has been very good. Kicking out of hand is one area where the youngster needs to improve, but he has plenty of time to do so. Farrell is already a guaranteed first-choice for England after this superb introduction to the international game.
Parisse scoring against Ireland. (c) Ken Bohane.
It’s pretty much a given that Parisse is included in shortlists like this every single year. The Stade Francais man’ contributions for Italy are always magnificent and it’s hard not to feel sorry for him. His frustration at teammate’s poor efforts has been a little more evident this year, but it’s hard to blame him. It would be fascinating to see the No.8 operate within a better team. Imagine him with the Lions next year? He must do so himself. However, Parisse continues to give his best for Italy though.
The 6’5″ back-row has been Italy’s top ball carrier so far this tournament with 40, although Andrea Masi only trails by a single carry. That makes Parisse the 6th most regular ball carrier in the Championship. He has also made 5 turnovers in the 4 games so far. That said, this has not been Parisse’s best ever tournament. Uncharacteristically, he has missed 6 tackles. Still, he has stood out for Italy and is always one of the finest players in the Six Nations.
It really is hard to fathom the fact that North only turns 20 next month. The Welsh winger is already one of the best wide men in world rugby and could easily become the undisputed number one. At 6’4″, well over 17 stone and with pace to burn, he is a beast of a teenager but that often masks just how good a rugby player he is. While it’s inarguable that North’s physical prowess gives him a huge advantage, he is also an intelligent player with a strong understanding of how he can best use his assets. He comes off his wing to great effect and is always looking for work.
North began the campaign with a brilliant try-scoring display against Ireland. His beautiful offload for Jon Davies’ second try showed his skills at their best. The Scarlets winger hasn’t scored since, but he has been hugely effective with ball in hand. Alongside Kearney, he has beaten the most defenders at 15. Defensively, he really hasn’t been called into action that much but has looked solid on those rare occasions. A definite Lion next year, and a phenomenal rugby talent.
Ferris has been equally strong in defence and attack this season. (c) Ken Bohane.
Samoa beat New Zealand in the Las Vegas Sevens cup final last weekend with a thrilling last-second try. (c) Chris Dickey.
Watching 21-year-old Alex Cuthbert counter-attacking with confidence during Wales’ 27-13 win over Scotland on Sunday, it was easy to see his background in sevens rugby. Every time Scotland sent a poor kick to Leigh Halfpenny at fullback, Cuthbert was immediately off his right wing, head up and spotting openings. While lots of attention focused on the 6’6″ winger’s strength to go through Greg Laidlaw’s tackle for his try, there was less applause for the three occasions Cuthbert scythed through Scotland on the counter-attack.
Added to that understanding of space was the intelligence and footwork the Blues wide man showed to set up Halfpenny’s first try. Cuthbert spotted Lee Jones (Scotland 14) coming up hard off the defensive line, so slowed almost to a halt in order to give himself the time and space to burst around his opposite number and supply the scoring pass for Halfpenny. This fleeting piece of skill again betrayed Cuthbert’s sevens history. In the seven man game, preserving space then bursting past opposition is essential.
Cuthbert played for the Wales sevens team during the IRB World Sevens Series in both the ’09/’10 and ’10/’11 seasons, as well as at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Alongside him in that squad was another star of last weekend’s clash with Scotland, openside Aaron Shingler. Indeed, looking at the list of ex-Wales sevens players it’s clear why Wales coach Warren Gatland says that the code “has been an avenue for a few of our players.”
James Hook, Lee Byrne, George North, Andy Powell and Josh Turnbull have all turned out for Wales sevens teams in the recent past. The electric 18-year-old Harry Robinson is the latest man to have made the step up after being included in Wales’ Six Nations training squad. Wales use the sevens game in an intelligent manner, giving young players with potential the chance to play for their country in a relatively pressurised atmosphere as well as increasing certain skills that are key to the union code of the game.
The example of Wales is used here because they are a rugby nation with relatively similar playing numbers to Ireland. According to the latest IRB figures, there are 25,440 senior (over-18) male rugby union players in Ireland. Wales is slightly behind with 22,408. So despite having less players to choose from, Wales makes far better use of the sevens code to increase the quality of players in their international union squad.
Ireland currently has no sevens team. The last time Ireland were represented internationally was at the Sevens World Cup in 2009. James Coughlan, Paul Marshall and Felix Jones were all involved in that tournament as Ireland lost to Zimbabwe in the Bowl final. Six Nations rivals England, France, Scotland and Wales are all part of the 12 ‘core’ teams in the Sevens World Series at the moment.
Despite the IRB’s announcement last week that they will be increasing this core group to 15, we have still heard nothing from the IRFU. The qualifying tournament for those three new places will be held on 23rd-25th March at the Hong Kong Sevens. That event is probably too early, but the IRFU seriously need to consider the advantages of having a sevens team on the world circuit.
The commonly accepted excuse is that the IRFU doesn’t have the necessary funds to run a sevens team. By changing their priorities they surely could. Wales chose to have a sevens team rather than an ‘A’ team like the Irish Wolfhounds. Having only played one meaningless friendly against the English Saxons this season, how worthwhile is the Wolfhounds team? Bringing a group of players together for a one-off match with no chance of real reward is basically what the Wolfhounds set-up entails right now.
Someone like Simon Zebo would be an ideal candidate for an Irish sevens team. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.
That money could be better spent on allowing young Irish players to get out on the sevens circuit alongside continuing development with their provinces. Another potential avenue of funding a sevens team is being more selective in giving central IRFU contracts to players in their 30s (eg. Paddy Wallace, Denis Leamy). How much more can these players really offer Ireland at international level? Would that money not be better spent on increasing the quality and exposure of talented young players?
Getting a team into the IRB World Sevens Series would open up a potentially massive money-making event in the Dublin Sevens at the Aviva. The government should be pushing this idea to the IRFU, as they too would benefit from the influx of tourists attracted by an event like this. The excuse of funding doesn’t really apply here and the IRFU must stop resting on their laurels around this issue. With good planning, an Ireland sevens team could benefit our economy as well as, most importantly, our senior international side!
The prospect of guys like Simon Zebo, Andrew Conway, Fionn Carr, Rhys Ruddock, Tiernan O’Halloran, Peter O’Mahony and Ali Birch playing sevens in an Irish jersey is an exciting one. The IRFU needs to get a sevens team up and running. Hopefully, they start to see the advantages it could bring. As the Welsh model has shown, the sevens code can give union players unique and relevant skills.
If you missed the game on Sunday, here’s all the tries and kicks from Ireland’s 23-21 loss to Wales, including Leigh Halfpenny’s match-winning penalty in the last minute:
The first try (2.00) is fine example of how passive and reactive the Irish defence was on Sunday. All afternoon, Ireland seemed happy to let Wales run at them. It was rare for the Irish to get up hard off the defensive line and make dominant hits. Wales smartly went back down the blindside where Ireland had basically left themselves with a 5 v 2 to defend. Mike Ross and Tommy Bowe were in an awful defensive situation, but ultimately they made no real decision, just let Wales come at them.
Their first steps were sideways and then backwards, allowing Priestland to use his pace to get outside Ross, and get his hands through the despairing tackle for the offload. Watching the clip, the most surprising thing is that Ross and Bowe aren’t screaming for some their teammates to get across to the blindside. Pause the clip at 2.27 and you see how bad a position Ireland left themselves in. Only then do Gordon D’Arcy and Rory Best try to get to the blindside, too late. That lack of urgency affected Ireland badly on Sunday.
Rory Best’s try (4.09) came after Ireland had put together some quick phases and attacked Wales around the fringes with quickly recycled ball, a rare commodity on Sunday. Good hands then allowed Ireland take advantage of a slip-up by Wales. Pause the video at 4.43 and you will see that Priestland has made a bad decision to bite in on D’Arcy, which allows the Irish centre to put Bowe away on Priestland’s outside shoulder.
Wing Alex Cuthbert is left in no man’s land and decides to grab Bowe, but the Ospreys wing has his hands free to send Best over. A good try from an Irish point of view, but one Wales will be unhappy with. Ireland were clinical that time and it shows that they can be an effective attacking force.
Wales were strong at the breakdown again on Sunday. (c) Joslyn Layne.
The next try was Davies’ second, made by George North (7.18). Wales run a simple spot behind Jamie Roberts to North, in off his wing. The pass goes early enough to allow D’Arcy to step up on North. Pause the clip at 2.23, just after North gets the ball. There’s D’Arcy in front of him, and that is the Ireland centre’s tackle to make. McFadden must concern himself with his opposite number, Davies, who is holding his width.
However, McFadden makes the decision to step in on North. He gets completely bounced off, but he shouldn’t have had to even make that decision. Whether it was lack of communication from D’Arcy, or McFadden’s lack of confidence in D’Arcy, he decided he had to help his midfield partner stop North’s run. As you can see, D’Arcy completely slips off North, not even slowing him down. McFadden still should have done better with his hit. North’s beautiful offload did the rest.
Bowe’s try (9.37) came with Wales down to 14 men and Ireland dominating possession. After battering the Welsh tryline with forward runners, Sexton showed intelligence to move the ball wide. Kearney’s pass was perfect and gave Bowe the space to dive over. From that point, Ireland should have been able to finish Wales off with Bradley Davies still in the bin. But it was Warren Gatland’s side who scored next.
To concede the North try (11.53) with an extra man on the field simply highlighted Ireland’s lack of urgency. It was a shock to see Paul O’Connell miss a tackle on Ian Evans in the build-up. That got Wales in behind the Irish defense and gave their backs lovely front-foot ball to run on to. It’s hard to stop this Welsh back division with that kind of ball, but Ireland managed to get three defenders out to North in the corner.
The manner in which North bounced over exemplified how Wales won the physical battle on Sunday. Watching the tries Ireland conceded, it’s clear that they will need to increase the aggression and urgency of their defence for Saturday’s date in Paris. Julien Malzieu, Louis Picamoles and Aurelien Rougerie will offer plenty more of what Wales served up.
Wales were deserved winners at the Aviva. (c) Paul Wallace.
Disappointment will be the major feeling for this Irish team after their 23-21 loss to Wales. That disappointment will be directed at themselves. Wales were the better team at the Aviva and fully deserved to win, regardless of whether or not Wayne Barnes made the correct call on Stephen Ferris’ last-minute tackle. Warren Gatland’s men played all the rugby and their physicality was spectacular at times.
In a strange role reversal of the World Cup quarter-final between these sides, Wales dominated in terms of possession and territory. Ireland struggled to put together phases for extended periods. Once again, this was in part down to Wales’ intelligence at the breakdown. How many times did we see Welsh tacklers and defenders lying on the wrong side of the ruck, slowing down the speed at which Conor Murray could move it away? Wayne Barnes was particularly tolerant in this aspect of the game, although he did penalise Fergus McFadden for the same offence, allowing Leigh Halfpenny to knock over a penalty.
As pointed out on The Touchline during the week, the breakdown was always going to be one of the key factors in this game. Wales came out on top and this helped them to overcome problems with their lineout. Allied to that was their aggressive line speed in defence. Welsh defensive coach Shaun Edwards has always preached the benefits of a proactive defence and we saw his work at first hand again today.
In complete contrast, Ireland were largely reactive in defence. The shape of Ireland’s defence is almost always good, in that they consistently have the numbers needed to defend any situation. The problem against Wales was that even though the defence was in position, the line speed was not there. Ireland’s first two or three steps up in defence were quick, but then they seemed to sit back on their heels and allow Wales to run at them. Too many times, Wales won the physical collisions. While it’s true that they have some prime specimens, particularly in the backline, that is no excuse.
Wales' Paul James and Jamie Roberts had plenty of reason to smile after an impressive team display. (c) Phil Rogers.
The late withdrawal of Keith Earls didn’t seem to alter the anticipated Welsh game-plan as they continually attacked the 13 channel. Fergus McFadden had an extremely busy day defensively, and must be credited for his 16 tackles. However, the manner in which George North bounced him off for Jon Davies’ second try was disappointing. McFadden went in far too high on the freakishly strong 19-year-old. The tackling for North’s own try was again weak, as he went through three defenders in the left-hand corner.
We must applaud the Welsh skills for their tries. Rhys Priestland’s offload for Davies’ first try was gorgeous and North’s flick after bouncing McFadden was even better. With that flash of creative skill, the prodigy showed his game has more to it than sheer brutishness. Tommy Bowe was completely outplayed by his opposite number, although the Monaghan man did show his fine finishing ability for Ireland’s second try.
The frustrating thing is that both Irish tries showed what this team is capable of doing. They just couldn’t impose themselves over the Welsh enough to do it regularly, the ten minutes where Bradley Davies was in the bin aside. That ten minutes saw Declan Kidney’s men get on top and score through Bowe. Still, the immediate feeling was that they needed to get more than the 5 points they managed in that time. That would prove to be the case as Wales battered their way over through North and then won the game in controversial circumstances.
Would Ferris’ tackle have warranted a penalty and yellow if Davies hadn’t been sent to the bin earlier? Probably not, but it’s beside the point really. An Irish win today would have felt like an escape. Obviously the Irish players would have gladly taken a victory, but would it have been deserved? The euphoria of a win would have masked the deficiencies of this Ireland performance. Surely the end product of combining our undoubtedly strong provinces can produce more than what we saw today? Perhaps it will. This Six Nations is only just underway and it would be foolish to write off Ireland straight away.
Wales won this game because they dominated the physical battle, beat Ireland at the breakdown and produced moments of creative skill at crucial times. Declan Kidney has plenty of improvement to draw from his team and there is a lot they can learn from Wales.