Irish Rugby, Six Nations 2021

The Curious Case of the Undroppable Out Half

Every couple of years the same question rears its head. Why don’t Ireland offload more? The weather is often a solid jump off point in looking for an excuse. Yet Pat Lam was able to nurture one of the best offloading games in club rugby in the windiest, wildest outpost of Western Europe.

So what is it then? The chief proponents of the off load hail from two distinct geographical locations and cultures: the gloriously laid back island nation of Fiji and 10000 miles away, the self-proclaimed great entertainers of France. The French and Fijians have thrilled in their own ways throughout modern rugby history and while France are now probably the greatest beneficiary of the unbelievable pool of Fijian talent, outside historical poachers Australia and New Zealand, it shows that there are no specific prerequisites necessary for the development of an attacking style.

We wring our hands every few years and wonder why it can’t be done and the answer is almost certainly conservative attack coaching. The recently published stats from the Daily Telegraph showed Ireland with the worst pass to offload ratio which is not really a statistic which is open to interpretation. Our back line play has long seen crab like shifts from side to side with our wingers, most notably, Keith Earls having little or no space when they come on to the ball.

Intermittently, during Joe Schmidt’s tenure, there were murmurs of a lack of an offloading game perhaps becoming an issue down the line, but it wasn’t until very clear cracks appeared that critics became comfortably vocal. To be fair, Irish rugby does not lend itself to criticism, where most journalists who convey even objective critiques are shunned. Neil Francis is neither interesting nor objective, and does not offer anything resembling constructive criticism, so he can be excused.

Schmidt’s game required extraordinary attention to detail, all with a view to retaining possession and seizing on the eventual mistake from a tiring defence. And, while the approach bore unprecedented success for four years, the game has moved on and now territory trumps possession. Defensive systems have become more adept at handling a team like Ireland, and new laws mean it has become increasingly difficult to retain the ball for lengthy periods. For those who enjoy 15 carries for 20 yards and endless rucks this is a sad day but for everyone else a brave new world beckons.

Andy Farrell doing ‘the offload’. (The 42)

Ireland’s victory over New Zealand in 2018 represented the zenith of Schmidt’s tenure, but it was also the last time the Irish rugby team would physically dominate one of the heavyweights of world rugby. Since then, Ireland’s record against teams ranked in the top four in the world reads one win, Wales 2020, and six losses, England 2019 twice, New Zealand 2019, England 2020 twice, and most recently the deceptively narrow defeat to France.

It seems that Ireland are struggling to emerge from five years of soft-authoritarian rule where players were, by all accounts, encouraged to play what they see. The catch being if they erred they were gone from the team. Fancy a one handed flick out of the tackle? Fine, Simon Zebo, but if the ball goes to an Australian player and they score, you’ll never be seriously considered for selection again. Thus, it was that Zebo, in outstanding form, watched from the stands as Argentina cut a listless Irish team – saved temporarily from humiliation by the enforced introduction of Luke Fitzgerald – to pieces by spreading the ball wide early and often.

Ireland obviously regrouped between 2015 and 2018 but when the pressure came on in another World Cup, as has been the case before, the wheels inexplicably and spectacularly came off.

That’s a very skewed, shallow interpretation of how things went, but following the exceptional standalone victory against New Zealand, Ireland were exploited badly by England in February 2019 and from there the decline gathered momentum. Both of the coaching tickets under Schmidt and current head coach, Andy Farrell have failed to introduce either new ideas or new faces to a group that so desperately requires both. There is a temptation after each failed attempt to reach a World Cup semi-final to suggest that we place too much emphasis on the tournament, however, that’s a plainly bizarre line of thinking. The Six Nations has its own romanticism and, now more than ever, we miss its unique combination of excitement and familiarity as winter beckons in spring and old rivalries are reignited. But the World Cup is the one true yardstick.

There is also a strange tendency to abandon a tactic after one failed attempt, Robbie Henshaw’s full-back cameo against England in 2019 a case in point, rather than obtaining more of a sample size with which to work. England exploited Ireland and Henshaw with their kicking game that day, but the identical tactic worked 12 months later when Jordan Larmour filled the back field.

Back to the Irish attack, whose primary drivers at this point should be Sexton, the seemingly undroppable out-half and Mike Catt, the seemingly invisible attack coach. To objectively criticise Sexton’s performances over the last two years is not to take from his exceptional career but the coaching staff’s unwillingness to consider a replacement, save for when injury intervenes, seems counter-intuitive. Making Sexton captain has made dropping him more difficult, but Farrell came to this decision too with his eyes wide open.

The position at present is messy and clarity is unlikely to emerge. Ulster’s number ten, Billy Burns, is not the answer. He is a good club player but no one aspect of his game stands out at international level. Ross Byrne, who has been dumped into Twickenham in two thankless assignments, was polished when he replaced Burns against France, but he is criticised for taking the ball too far from the gain line and failing to engage the defence.

It’s worth noting that Sexton wasn’t pulling up trees in his first season in the Irish squad and while Byrne may not be the answer, it’s impossible to tell until he gets a run of games in the starting team. If Farrell doesn’t trust Byrne to guide Ireland in Rome next weekend, then he obviously doesn’t rate him all that highly.

On the flip side, those clamouring for the younger Byrne brother, Harry, to start in Rome, are equally deluded. Harry Byrne has 19 caps for Leinster, all in the Pro 14, so to start him next week would be akin to New Zealand starting an out half who has yet to play Super Rugby. The reports are glowing, but as with Ben Healy in Munster – who has at least appeared in Europe – there is a steep learning curve and the step-up to international rugby is perhaps taken too lightly.

And, for some reason, Jack Carty, who has been in excellent form for the last three months, has become the forgotten man. Like John Cooney and Tiernan O’ Halloran, Carty appears to be one of those players who, through happenstance and the conservative nature of coaches, will never receive as many international caps as his talent and body of work to date deserve.

Whoever replaces Sexton – there is still hope for Joey Carberry – the succession plan has been handled miserably. It’s not clear what Sexton would need to do to lose his place, and he seems to enjoy a rarefied status in Irish rugby where anyone who criticises his performances is rounded on by his cheerleading supporters in the Irish media. Again, this is nothing to do with Sexton, but like Ronan O’ Gara before him, his game has deteriorated since his age 33 season.

Up until this year, David Nucifora was very comfortable reminding people that he was the sheriff and his town was prospering. And, we are constantly reminded that the Six Nations is the cash cow and if we don’t win, we can’t put bums on seats. Well, the pandemic has inadvertently obviated the requirement for any concerns in this area, so why not treat this as an opportunity to forget about Nucifora and the IRFU’s commercial pursuits.

Farrell and his coaching staff have a chance to make a statement in team selection this week that very clearly points towards the future. If ambition is the way forward, Carty should start, but barring 20 minutes in Paris in October, Ireland haven’t looked ambitious. Farrell has done fine so far but the overarching approach of the current coaching staff seems to be to pray Johnny Sexton doesn’t get injured and presume his form will suddenly pick up five months out from his 36th birthday.

The Irish coaches love talking about learnings and work-ons and all the other galling buzz words that sound like they came from a seminar delivered by David Brent. Well, they seemed to have learned little from history and if they pin their hopes of success in the medium term on a 35 year-old out half – that he is Ireland’s greatest out half of all time is irrelevant – they are doomed to failure.

Ireland could easily be chasing a third win, but they are not. Now, Rome presents an opportunity to inject freshness and competition for places with an eye fixed firmly on France 2023.

Farrell’s decision to perversely prioritise a largely irrelevant victory over an ideal opportunity to build for the World Cup does not bode well for the future. And, the win at all costs approach means the future will be sacrificed for the potential to secure a third placed finish in a tournament that has already passed Ireland by.

There is no real sense that Farrell’s position is at risk, so this conservatism merely represents a continuation of what came before. And a comprehensive victory over a side ranked below Tonga and Georgia in the IRB world rankings will only offer very short term gains. Perhaps this is just a consequence of the short-termism so readily associated with our politicians seeping into Farrell’s thinking.