When Jared Payne was withdrawn halfway through Ireland’s plucky 27-24 defeat of Australia back in November, the signs were worrying for all present in Dublin. Even setting aside the fact that Robbie Henshaw was absent after a Same Cane hit against the All Blacks, Payne in many ways had become Ireland’s defensive general, and to lose him came as a blow.
Joe Schmidt said after the match that he had been playing with an injury throughout the match, but had been asked to battle through the pain (and a problem so grisly that he was reportedly urinating blood at half-time) because he was such an “important voice” within the organisation of his side’s defence. Indeed, Schmidt’s recognition of his centre’s understated importance echoed the words of Payne’s Ulster colleague Tommy Bowe, who praised back in 2015 how “he makes it easy for us wingers and people inside and outside him to play because he’s just so consistent. His communication is very good from a defensive point of view.”
In this piece I want to take a quick look at where Ireland seem to be weaker without a player like Payne: namely in confident communication and decision-making in wider defensive channels.
After Ireland’s defeat by Scotland in the opening round of this year’s 6 Nations, Henshaw spoke of how his side had specifically missed Payne’s instruction, saying that “Johnny [Sexton] and Jared have been around a while and are masters at [communication], whereas a fewer of the younger guys, myself and Garry [Ringrose] and Paddy [Jackson] are still growing our voices.”
A detailed breakdown of Stuart Hogg’s second try from that match exposes this lack of dialogue, and reveals how Ireland’s defence could have been more decisive and confident in these wider spaces.
Here is Hogg’s full line-break from the main camera angle:
To begin with, a few cheekily loaded observations. First, as the ball is recycled, Ringrose, who has been starting in place of Payne at outside-centre, is defending as the second man out from the ruck in the body-guard position, with Sean O’Brien and Iain Henderson (hardly the most mobile of defenders at lock) standing outside him. Second, the man who is eventually beaten in the wider channel, Keith Earls, was actually the one to replace Payne at outside-centre when we was withdrawn against Australia. Make of those facts what you will.
But let’s take a closer look at Earls’ decision-making, which is among the main reasons that Hogg is allowed to score so easily here. While much has been made, and not at all wrongly, about Ireland’s sluggish defensive spacing in this snippet of play (see Murray Kinsella’s astute analysis for The 42 here), the try might have been prevented had Earls been less hesitant in his defence.
As the ball is recycled, the first thing to notice is that the defenders inside Earls are far too narrow. This much is obvious; there are four Irish defenders covering Finn Russell and the space inside him, as indicated below:
But these defenders are not coming round the corner, defeated by Scotland’s quick ball; they are static, ready to blitz up and attack the Scottish first receiver.
Bowe’s comment about Payne’s defensive communication is telling here. As the widest two defenders in the front line, Earls and Paddy Jackson should have identified the Scottish overlap and be screaming at their inside defenders to spread across the field as quickly as possible. The call to drift defensively always has to come from the outside defender, but the aggressive body positions of Ringrose, O’Brien, and Henderson indicate that no such call has come. The blitz is not on here due to the narrowness of the Irish defence, but they press ahead with it and are eventually beaten on the outside.
Once his inside defenders have rushed out of the line, however, Earls has a crucial decision to make as the ball is delivered to Russell:
He can fly up with his teammates, aiming to smash Huw Jones man-and-ball (as indicated by the longer arrow), but this risks Russell floating a trademark flat pass over his head to Hogg on the outside. Earls’ other option is to jockey backwards towards the touchline, holding off committing to a tackle until his inside defenders can cover across and shut down the space (as indicated by the shorter arrow).
As we reach Russell’s point of pass (above), it is clear that Earls has chosen to blitz up in the direction of Jones, albeit just behind his teammates. Although Jones’ hips are now facing towards the touchline, indicating an intention to drift onto Earls’ outside shoulder, I think that the Irishman actually makes the correct decision. He remains deep enough to make the tackle on Hogg should Russell throw the longer pass, but flat enough to knock Jones backwards should the Scottish out-half opt for him.
Sadly for Earls, and indeed for Ireland, Earls only half-commits to his decision. As Russell distributes to Jones, the Munster winger makes an eleventh-hour call to cancel his blitz, worried about the threat of Hogg and Sean Maitland on the outside. See how he checks his stride and starts to swivel his torso towards the touchline:
As we roll the footage on from the rear camera, it becomes clear what has happened: Earls’ decision to drift has come far too late and, having already flown up in an attempt to defend aggressively, he is left in a halfway house, caught in a defensive no-man’s land:
To be fair to Jones, the timing and accuracy of his pass under pressure is immaculate; this kind of play persuades me of the young man’s class just as much as any solo wonder-try.
Once Hogg receives the ball, though, his pace his superb, Rob Kearney buys his dummy all-ends-up, and from there there is only one outcome: the Glasgow full-back dots down comfotably for the score.
But going back to Earls: the problem is not his original decision, but his lack of confidence in making it. As mentioned above, I think flying out of the line is the best option that his inside defenders leave him, and, having re-watched the above footage a number of times, I remain confident that he could have smashed Jones man-and-ball had he fully committed to his primary defensive read and blitzed.
Indecision, rather than a poor decision, then, is to blame here. And to close, I just want to contrast this example of Earls’ defence to one of Andrew Trimble’s, the man tipped to replace him against France this coming weekend. Here is the Ulsterman’s hit on Bordeaux Bègles’ Blair Connor almost exactly a month ago, which lead directly to a turnover for his side:
In fact, before I move on, I’m just going to permit myself one more angle… what a hit.
Drooling aside, I’m well aware that there are a number of key factors that make Trimble’s decision far, far easier than Earls’, so a direct comparison is certainly unfair (for one thing, Connor has nobody outside him, which makes the decision to give him the ball under these circumstances especially poor).
But anybody who has regularly watched Ulster and Ireland in recent years know that this kind of tackle, this level of proactive aggression, is typical of Trimble’s defence. To my mind, had the Ulsterman found himself in Earls’ position on the opening day of the 6 Nations, he would have nailed Jones as solidly as he did Connor, or, at the very least, applied so much pressure as to force a mistake from the Scottish centre.
At the weekend, France will want to play a game that is fast, wide, and loose, and, if their giant forwards can secure the go-forward ball that their backs crave, Irish wingers will find themselves isolated on occasions. When those situations arise, the flying Fijian wingers wearing blue, Noa Nakaitaci and Virimi Vakatawa, will take some stopping; defensive solidity and confidence on the Irish wings is therefore imperative.
As a result, Trimble should start for Ireland. Despite Ringrose’s startling week-by-week improvements as a defensive communicator, Payne’s role cannot be his to fill alone.