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Why Sexton is Ireland's lynchpin

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Analysis: Why Jonathan Sexton, not Conor Murray, is the lynchpin of Ireland’s attack

Ireland’s game is often labeled as ‘low-risk’ or ‘conservative’, due to the large number of phases they use and the low number of offloads they attempt.

This categorisation fails to recognize the complexity in the Irish game and is an unfair evaluation of the style of game they play, which is actually some of the finest organised play you will see in World Rugby.

Joe Schmidt’s side has reduced unforced errors by playing within a system that removes certain players from having to perform certain skills, whilst giving the skilled ball-players, like Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, more possessions and therefore, more control and influence over proceedings.

Props and locks don’t have to be able to throw tip passes at the line or offloads in the tackle but they do have to possess the propensity to absorb and retain large amounts of information – each Irish phase is programmed with a variety of lines, formations, and shapes, all determined by Sexton as play unfolds.

Ireland’s attack is the Rubik’s cube of rugby. There are many different looks they will show you and you have to solve the puzzle on each phase. If you are correct, you will tackle the ball carrier and Ireland will recycle for another try. If you are wrong, you will be opened up and Ireland will have a line break.

With their ability to retain possession for such extended periods, they can throw a lot of questions at the opposition and it only takes a few wrong answers to get the scores they need.

Ireland’s one-pod system

Ireland prefers to play with only one full three-man pod, in an unbalanced pattern that is common of the top sides in today’s game.

Their forwards will be dispersed across the park in a 2-3-2-1 fashion, so Ireland will only use one traditional carry, with the 3-man pod, before throwing set plays at the defence to the large open side across the next two or three phases.

This enables them to play a width game through the hands of number 10, rather than a forward-orientated collision game off the halfback. Conor Murray is world-class, but it is really Sexton that runs this team and orchestrates the decision-making.

Conor Murray generally takes over play more when Ireland enters the opposition 22, playing more runners flat off 9 and keeping things tighter. This is reflected by Murray’s six try assists to Sexton’s two in 2018.

However, this doesn’t show how Sexton’s work in the lead-up often creates a line break that leads to a scoring opportunity for Murray to capitalise on. Sexton works the body while Murray delivers the knockout punch in Ireland’s game plan.

Outside of those ‘redzone’ situations, Murray’s core responsibility in attack is to feed Sexton, who will call most of the plays and organize the forwards.

Generally, after the one carry off 9 you will see this – Sexton will be at first receiver, with a pod of two-forwards outside him and a midfielder in behind.

On this ‘splitter’ play variation, the first forward runner drops underneath, Sexton drifts across and can play the second runner flat or Henshaw (12) out the back with a screen pass.

On this option, Sexton hits the second runner early, while Will Addison (13) loops on the wrap-around. The last edge forward will run another option line, and Jordan Larmous (15) can potentially take a screen pass behind him.

The versatility of Ireland’s midfielders means Sexton can change roles if he wants to attack the edge himself. Here below, Robbie Henshaw (12) takes over first receiver and Sexton plays the loop role from in behind the two-man pod.

This first receiver change-up might be planned, or could be a necessity when the system breaks down and Sexton is caught up out of play in a ruck somewhere.

Any of Ireland’s midfielders or fullbacks have the ability to slot in and provide cover. Here Garry Ringrose (13) plays first receiver and Henshaw remains the backdoor option.

Here we see another variation with Sexton giving early ball to the first forward, who plays a late pop pass to Henshaw (12), splitting the two-man pod.

Because the first three-man pod carries 95 percent of the time, Sexton can look at the outside defence, recieve information from his own outside backs and then decide what he wants to run and feed that call to the two-man pod.

Ireland probably has up to 10 different plays they can run in this one scenario, and this is all determined ‘on the fly’ by Sexton. Here below he isn’t even watching the pass from 9 to the first pod, instead, he is barking orders for the next play.

Sexton is piloting the course of the match in real-time, organising his troops and making each chess move based on what he thinks the defence is offering.

If he thinks the edge defence is not stretched enough, the two-man pod can be used for another carry before another third phase play, this time with the remaining back line all the way to the sideline.

If this doesn’t crack the defence they work back the other way and start again.

Starter plays

Set-piece lineouts are crucial to Sexton’s game, offering a structured restart for Ireland to implement irregular plays outside of their base pattern.

Ireland often use 5-man packages to spread the backrow, giving the backline a similar look to the two-man pod midfield during phase play.

They have a number of strike plays to test the edge in one move, or they can run a two or three-phase strike. Sexton is generally the key ball-player in all of these plays.

Here is a two-phase play, on the first phase Sexton uses his loose forwards for a midfield crash while left wing Keith Earls (11) travels all the way across into his back pocket for a second phase strike.

Ireland have a dummy line to create a ‘wedge’, and Sexton baits Michael Hooper (7) to come forward, before feeding Earls on the inside with a no-look pass for a massive line break.

Ireland scores the definitive try of the match through prop Tadhg Furlong two minutes later from the same possession.

The future of phase play

Ireland and the All Blacks have started adding ‘random’ shapes into their patterns, a further evolution of phase play.

In this new mode of operation, they use ‘bunch’ formations, further taking away defensive alignment and use a mix-match of personnel to disguise the proposed receiver.

These ‘bunch’ formations are more commonly seen in set-piece plays, but rarely seen in phase play as it requires even more detail and planning to pull off.

Shortly after a kick transition, Ireland uses a tight four-man bunch with Sexton at the front, one forward, Bundee Aki (12) and Jacob Stockdale (11). They start tight before expanding into their lines.

Sexton plays out the back to Aki (12), who identifies the space on the edge and feeds Rory Best (2) behind a dummy line.

There must be at least 80 different plays in Ireland’s playbook, and every player must know their role in every situation, while the mastermind Sexton is responsible for plotting the course and deciding on the right play every phase.

Many want to credit Ireland’s rise to number two to a centralised contracting system like New Zealand, and sure that helps, but on the actual field they have developed, and continually execute, the most complex attacking system in World Rugby. The players have bought into Joe Schmidt’s plans, and they are able to implement game plans down to the tiniest detail, with Sexton responsible for running the ship on the field.

Without Conor Murray the odds of Ireland beating the All Blacks fall, but without Sexton, those chances would be dramatically lower.

What Ireland needs to decide is whether a change of ‘redzone’ strategy is required in Murray’s absence, giving Sexton more responsibility in this area. Against Argentina, they scored from two scrums with a halfback snipe and one loose ball situation in a rather unplanned fashion. The All Blacks scrum defence and goal line defence will be more resolute than the Pumas, and this is where Murray will be missed.

Jonathan Sexton is the most important man in Ireland’s attack and will be the deciding factor if Ireland is to get up. As long as he is on the field, Ireland still have a chance to win.

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Analysis: Why Jonathan Sexton, not Conor Murray, is the lynchpin of Ireland’s attack