Analysis: Ireland’s phenomenal back row

Date published: November 22 2016

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Our resident analyst returns to break down the positives from all of Ireland’s back-row during their loss to New Zealand.

I wish Ireland had won on Saturday. Not for any partisan reasons, New Zealand deserved their victory thanks to a fantastic defensive effort and ability to stay on the right side of the ref despite being reduced to fourteen men on two occasions.

The reason why I wish Ireland had won is because the historic effort of the back-row, of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier, would have been given the credit it deserved. Instead, it will be talked about briefly and then shelved due to the fact it was in a losing effort.

When Paddy Jackson came on to replace Jonathn Sexton the Irish backline lost its impetus but the efforts of the back-row almost single handedly kept the green clad team in the game.

They made 28 percent of all the Irish tackles, missing just one, and, they made 40.2 percent of all the Irish metres in 33.3 percent of all the carries made. I would go as far as saying that I have not seen a better back-row effort this year and I would struggle to think of one in the last few years.

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Within the first minute, Sean O’Brien had been down injured and got back up to steal Kiwi ball at the breakdown. The flanker was then ever present as the All Blacks attacked for the entire first three minutes after the possession he’d gathered was kicked away by Conor Murray.

The Leinsterman was often found in the guard position and halted Kieran Read from one metre out to force the cross-field kick which eventually led to the first try. As you can see below, O’Brien doesn’t have any help here yet he’s able to halt the number eight’s run.

Because Ireland didn’t have to commit extra players to the fringes they were able to spread out in defence. This is one of the main reasons why they were able to limit the All Blacks to their lowest points total of the year.

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The first two carries by the back-row quartet almost led to a try within the first ten minutes for Ireland. Tadhg Furlong stole the ball at the back of the lineout and went on a short charge, the ball was slow from the ensuing breakdown so Murray shipped the ball about 10 yards out to hit Heaslip who had O’Brien with him.

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O’Brien has two jobs here, firstly if Heaslip gets tackled he’ll clear out and set-up quick ball for Murray. During the game, the Irish lost just five rucks across the entire game, New Zealand lost seven despite having 84 fewer rucks!

His second job was to get on the number eight’s shoulder if he broke through. As you can see below, Heaslip did slip through and O’Brien almost had the legs to scamper over for the try.

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After the five-metre scrum that followed, Heaslip and then Stander combined for two more carries which ended up with Ireland once again over the line but held up for another five-metre scrum. The back-row continued to pile pressure on by running from the first receiver position which meant the All Blacks needed to draw more men into the tight areas.

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We will come back to look at more examples of strong carrying but O’Brien was also strong in the link play as we can see from the below example. By moving him to first receiver and pushing Murray out, they were able to get width on the ball and also have bulk if they wanted to set up a maul.

Despite moving from his traditional scrum-half position, Murray still added to his 133 passes on this play. To put that into context, Aaron Smith made 99 fewer passes. Smith and TJ Perenara combined made 74 fewer passes in the game.

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Stander’s spell was unfortunately short-lived, he was forced off after 22 minutes. However, during that spell he showed the same ability to mop up possession that was in danger of putting Ireland on the back foot and turning that to their advantage. In the below example, with Ireland going backwards, Stander simply picks it up and runs directly at Anton Lienert-Brown to cross the gain line.

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The Irish scrum had parity and occasional dominance throughout the game but when it was driven backwards either Heaslip or O’Brien, or a combination of them both, were there to turn a retreating scrum into an attacking platform.

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Although Van der Flier didn’t start, when he came on he contributed significantly with 51 metres, the most in the back-row, with 12 carries and three defenders beaten also a high. As with the last two examples though, some of his better plays came when he was fighting to put his team back on the front foot.

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In the above image, the gold line is the gain line and the purple line is where Van der Flier gets to. Negative yardage yes, but he gets hit only marginally ahead of his position in the above image and still manages to make it to the purple line, turning what would be an attack stalling hit into just a slightly slow ball situation.

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The Dublin-born, but Dutch named flanker, was also exceptional defensively when called upon. He made the joint most tackles in this group, without missing one, but with the below GIF, he wasn’t called on to make a tackle but he did latch onto Julian Savea and held him up for long enough to turn the ball over. After starving the world champions of possession for so long they were able to once again limit them to just one phase before claiming the ball back.

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The last example, and frankly there’s a good few that I have missed out here, is another from O’Brien towards the end of the game. Once the ball makes its way out to him he notices that he has Beauden Barrett in front of him.

It would’ve been hugely tempting to have dipped his shoulder and run straight through the All Black fly-half, but instead he drifts onto his outside shoulder and then puts on the afterburners to gain yet more yardage.

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Conclusion

A few weeks ago I took a US visitor to watch Richmond play Leinster ‘A’ in the British and Irish Cup. Around ten minutes in I realised that the flanker, who was dominant with the ball, looked familiar and was, in fact, O’Brien. It was great to watch someone stand out as so clearly better than anyone else on the pitch, until he was taken off at half-time. Against New Zealand, the Irish back-row had the same impact that O’Brien had that day. They were utterly dominant and their performance deserved more support.

Unfortunately once Sexton departed, the quick ball and front-foot attack started to be less effective and ultimately they weren’t able to score a try. Aside from this game though, it’s hard to imagine that at least three of these four back-rowers won’t be on the plane in Lions gear next June. Immediately after the game I posted an effusive Facebook post about these four players and the first comment I got just said, “Lions back-row?”

That might be sacrilege for fans of Billy Vunipola or Sam Warburton, but, if these Irish players continue turning in these kind of performances it will be incredibly difficult to ignore their case for the starting berths.

by Sam Larner

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