Is a problem shared really a problem halved? In rugby terms, it’s a divisive issue.
Should a coach pick a second playmaker at centre? Is it best to have a barrel-chested ball-carrier outside your fly-half, or another pair of gentle hands? A man o’ war, or a metronome? There are several schools of thought in answering these questions, and these were on full display during last weekend’s Six Nations fixtures.
During his tenure as England coach, Stuart Lancaster insisted upon a burly battering-ram at inside-centre (remember Sam Burgess?), but one of Eddie Jones’ most decisive calls after taking over in November 2015 was to install Owen Farrell, one of European rugby’s premier fly-halves, there instead. We all know how well that has worked and, on Saturday, Farrell was instrumental in his side’s storming win over Scotland.
By contrast, Ireland’s system is built around a single conductor-in-chief, a role in which Paddy Jackson has very capably deputised for the past couple of seasons. But in truth, just as Ronan O’Gara was the cornerstone of past Ireland teams, the current default strategy has been devised with Jonathan Sexton at its key cog. This is unsurprising: when fit, he is one of the most reliably excellent out-halves around.
However, on Friday night’s evidence, the level of Ireland’s reliance on their single playmaker means that they struggle when he is out of action. This was clear against Wales when, after Sexton was unluckily sin-binned, Ireland’s attacking structure suffered hugely. By contrast, England’s razor-sharp attacking play against Scotland was built upon their dual playmakers and, specifically, upon having a creative ball-player in the second wave of their attack.
In this piece I’m going to compare a few moments from both matches, with the aim of showing how a team can struggle in relying on a single playmaker, before going on to look at how one can excel with two.
Sexton was sin-binned just before half-time against Wales, and, in his side’s first sustained attack at the opening of the second half, it is clear that there is no obvious candidate to replace him as the side’s offensive general. It eventually becomes clear that Simon Zebo has been asked to fill-in for Sexton at out-half, but, as the passage of play opens, it is Keith Earls standing at first-receiver:
Here, Ireland would not have been helped by the fact that Conor Murray was nursing an arm injury (for which he was shortly withdrawn), and therefore was unlikely to have been at his organisational best. Even so, two of Ireland’s main ball-carriers, CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien, are walking behind the breakdown at the top of the picture, apparently unsure as to where the ball is going. Ireland should be calling that they are attacking left, and making sure that these support runners are positioned accordingly.
However, it appears that no such call has come, leaving Earls, Kearney, and Zebo isolated on the left-hand side. There is scant room for them to play, so they take contact and accept that there is little opportunity to get over the advantage line.
As the play moves on towards the right touchline, we are reminded of one major reason for Ireland not selecting a second-five-eighth mould of centre: the consistent effectiveness Robbie Henshaw. This pedigree is manifest in a typically superb carry, during which the Leinster man shrugs off Ross Moriarty and Jonathan Davies:
We all know that Henshaw is a world-class carrier, and this example is technically perfect: his body position is low, his footwork dexterous, and his acceleration into contact aggressive. But this is his first involvement in ten phases of play; for most of the move, he is simply hovering over on this right-hand side. Henshaw is an incredibly hard-working player and always eager for work, but, with Sexton off the field, he seems oddly reluctant to boss his team-mates around the park.
Garry Ringrose, Henshaw’s partner in the centres, spoke about their role with commendable honesty after the game. Sexton also left the field for a Head Injury Assessment in the first half, and Ringrose said of that absence: “It’s up to us at 12 and 13 to adjust as best you can. Johnny is a world-class player so you’d prefer him to be on the pitch, but these things happen […] so we did our best to adjust.” Both are young players and their partnership is still budding, but you have to feel that Henshaw might have taken it upon himself to control Ireland’s game a bit more than he does here.
This might not have been a game-altering point, however, since it is actually Zebo who has been charged with filling in for Sexton. However, while the Munster man is a mischievously creative full-back and a good all-round player, his lack of experience in conducting a team from out-half is exposed here. As the ball is recycled from Henshaw’s carry, Zebo seems disinterested in offering himself as a passing option:
At first glance, this initially looks a little more structured from Ireland: while Stander and O’Brien were out of position earlier in the passage of play, there is now a pod of forwards (comprising mainly of Devin Toner, Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong) ready to carry close to the ruck. But Zebo is far too wide here; he needs to be far closer to his Murray to offer himself as a realistic option for the pass (as indicated by the arrow).
Because he fails to do this, Murray’s pass is telegraphed. The only realistic recipients of the ball are Toner and McGrath (with Furlong offering support) but Wales have four defenders covering these Irish carriers, as indicated. Had Zebo been closer, he would have posed a threat out behind this pod, spreading some of the Welsh defence by offering the possibility of a wide attack.
As it is, Ireland are only ever going to play narrowly, and attacks this predictable are easily defended. Furthermore, the Irish forwards made an inhuman amount of tackles in the first half against the Welsh, and having them make blind-alley carries like this would only have fatigued them further.
After working a few more phases infield, Ireland come back out to the right. Now, however, it seems as though Kearney has taken on the role as lead playmaker, with Zebo standing behind the ruck:
Of course, it’s perfectly normal for back-three players to roam around looking for the ball, but I would question if this is really the time and the place; with their lead attacking strategist off the field, Ireland are actually crying out for attacking structure.
If Joe Schmidt has made Zebo his stand-in stand-off, then it is unclear why he has turned down multiple opportunities to act as his side’s first receiver. A test-level side cannot expect to play structured, cerebral rugby if the main playmaker is consistently rotating, and Ireland desperately needed a single player to stamp his authority upon the game and give his side direction.
A final sign that of this organisational deficiency is Ringrose, exactly the man you want holding his width in wider attacking channels, being sent on a short crash-ball line into two front-row forwards:
In fact, this a pattern that we saw in the previous round against France. With Sexton temporarily down after a late tackle in the 57th minute, we can again see how disorganised Ireland’s attack is, as eight players are clustered within ten metres of one another:
Knowing that he has nothing resembling a coherent backline inside him, Andrew Trimble (at the bottom of the shot) can only direct his side to keep playing narrowly.
And, just as in the Welsh game a fortnight later, we then have Ringrose (whose tenacity and aggression is only to be admired) carrying into two gargantuan French forwards. The result is sadly predictable:
As a point of comparison: in the passage of play against France, Ireland made 5 metres in 15 phases; against Wales, 10 metres in 17. These figures tell the whole story, and point to an attack that is too easily suffocated without Sexton on the field.
The Irish players faced a great deal of flack after the Wales match, so I should stress that no blame should be attached to the players here. Zebo is not a fly-half, so it would be unfair to criticise him for not playing like one; Henshaw is a phenomenal player, just not a game-manager; and Ringrose impresses me week after week with his willingness to hit hard and carry into far bulkier opponents.
The issue, rather, is with the tactical system in place for Ireland. It’s all well-and-good to build a game plan around a world-class out-half, but there has to be a more coherent contingency plan when he is out of action, especially when that player is as injury-prone as Sexton. It’s always going to be tough playing with a man down but, had Ireland a second playmaker in their backline against Wales and France, I think they could have played more structured rugby and preserved energy far more effectively.
Personally, I think this calls for the all-round skills of the returning Jared Payne at full-back. With Henshaw and Ringrose set to be long-term incumbents of those centre positions, I really think the converted Kiwi has the skill-set necessary to offer a more creative presence in the second wave of Irish attackers. Zebo and Tiernan O’Halloran, while both being devilishly creative players in their own right, may just lack the authority that is required to control games under these cirumstances.
Of course, a second playmaker does far more than simply fill-in for his side when a man down. In their barnstorming victory over Scotland, we saw England execute a superb strike move that relied on Farrell’s superb decision making as a second-wave attacker. Here’s Anthony Watson’s brilliantly-executed score in the 35th minute:
As Ford takes the pass off the top of the lineout, he needs to delay his pass just long enough to fully commit Russell (circled), before slipping the ball behind the dummy-runner of Nathan Hughes to Farrell:
Ford does this superbly, and this is a pattern that I have noticed time and time again from Eddie Jones’ England: Ford’s role is often to simply pick his pass at the ideal time, with Farrell actually becoming the primary decision-maker in his side’s attack.
As we role the footage on to where Farrell collects Ford’s pass, we can see this decision making process unfold:
Jonathan Joseph has adjusted his inital running-line at the last minute: look at how he has planted his left foot to target Alex Dunbar’s outside shoulder. Farrell spots this, and so straightens his line brilliantly to conversely target the Scottish centre on the inside. As indicated by the arrows, Dunbar can either step wider in anticipation of the pass to Joseph, allowing Farrell to dummy and stride through the gap, or step in to hit the Saracens man, freeing up Joseph to take the short pass.
As we roll the footage from the front camera, we can see that Dunbar chooses the latter, and Farrell’s pass is timed to perfection to put Joseph away:
This superb move could not be executed without a playmaker at inside-centre: a second-five-eighth comfortable making decisions close to the line. This is an attacking method central to England’s gameplan, and one they consistently tweak. At times, say, it is Ford that becomes the wider playmaker, and Joseph’s first score against Scotland is a great example of this:
To finish, though, I just want to contrast this attacking pattern to one of Ireland’s most commonly used ones: the wrap-around play, or “The Leinster Loop” as it is sometimes known. Against Wales, it was the first significant attacking move that Ireland employed:
Anyone who watches Irish rugby with any sort of regularity knows how much Sexton trusts this play. But, in my opinion, a major reason for its continued use is that he lacks a playmaker outside him. By giving his ball to his centre and then collecting it again, he acts firstly as the primary distributor and secondly as the second-wave decision-maker, almost fulfilling two roles at once. It seems as though Sexton recognises the importance of creativity in these wider channels, and takes it upon himself to provide it.
All in all, this is just one more way in which next week’s clash between Ireland and England is set to be an intriguing encounter. With the Lions tour on the horizon, Warren Gatland has to decide between the one playmaker or two and, whichever system he plumbs for, the approaching showdown in Dublin is sure to have a say in his decision.