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FEATURE Why Ireland are in the best possible position to pip the All Blacks in Paris

Why Ireland are in the best possible position to pip the All Blacks in Paris
8 months ago

It is called ‘cohesion’ and ex-Wallabies tighthead prop Ben Darwin has made a business out of it. His firm is ‘Gain-Line Analytics’ and it offers a service which measures the level of understanding within sports organisations, and predicts success, or lack of it, on the quality of cohesion.

As Darwin explained on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod just before the World Cup:

“We believe that there is a misunderstanding about how teams work. The driver of success is not individual skill, but the level of collective understanding within a team – whether that be interpersonal understanding, system understanding or role understanding.

“What we are saying is that the individual skill factor might make two or three percent difference, but Cohesion can make up to an 80 per cent differential. Nobody has ever won a World Cup without being in the top two or three [teams with cohesion].”

Darwin and his co-founder Simon Strachan have painstakingly built a Team-Work Index (TWI) which measures players’ understanding of their roles in a team, and the strength of the linkages between them augmented by coaching or administration. Repetition and consistency make those linkages stronger and grow the team.

The Super Rugby Pacific champions have some of the highest cohesion measured in world sport. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The Crusaders in New Zealand and Leinster in Ireland are two excellent examples of cohesive rugby programs which have stood the test of time. “Strachan says that, pre-Covid, there was a study that showed [that] when a player debuted for the Crusaders, he had already played with eleven of his teammates. The naturally cohesive environment allows ‘debutants’ to excel in comfortable team structure with teammates they already know.”

It is the same in Ireland with the Dublin-based Leinster province, who regularly supply 11 or 12 players to the run-on national side. Darwin again:

“We looked at Ireland and what a change of combinations [personnel] would do. Only a couple of combinations could go wrong, because you have got guys [either] coming out of Leinster, or who have played together extensively. When things go awry – the ‘whitebait’ scenario … Some teams can change players in and out, and that is where I see Ireland having an advantage.”

The Crusaders are no longer quite as dominant an influence on All Blacks selection, or even coaching, as they once were. Probably there will not be more than four men from the franchise in the starting XV that New Zealand will field in next weeks’ quarter-final against – you guessed it – Ireland.

Does that grant the men from the Emerald Isle an advantage? And if it does, how would that advantage manifest itself? One of the most obvious tests of cohesion is a team’s ability to withstand injuries and maintain the same level of performance.

Ireland gave some strong clues as to why they are such a resourceful and cohesive bunch in the final round of Pool B play against Scotland.

Australia lost their skipper Will Skelton and their premier tighthead prop Taniela Tupou, and the Wallabies promptly fell apart completely in Pool C, first losing to Fiji before being routed unceremoniously by Wales. What will France look like without the presence of the best player in the world, Antoine Dupont? As a very long tournament progresses to the knockout stages, who will survive the attrition rate the best?

Ireland gave some strong clues as to why they are such a resourceful and cohesive bunch in the final round of Pool B play against Scotland. Andy Farrell’s charges had already put the game away before halftime, going into the sheds with a resounding 26-0 lead.

Ireland’s attacking cohesion is built on a rock-solid Leinster foundation. In the Six Nations competition at the beginning of the year, they enjoyed the highest proportion of minutes on attack (an average of 20.5 minutes per game), built the most rucks (109 per game) with the highest ratio of lightning-quick ball (65 per cent). If you are going to test defences with multi-phase attack, everyone needs to know their own roles to a tee, and be able to move into position more quickly and accurately than the defence.

The first example of Ireland’s cohesion arrived from the kick return to Scotland’s opening exit of the game:


After launching the kick up to halfway, the Scotland forwards are on one side, and the backs are on the other. Two tight forwards (hooker George Turner and second-rower Grant Gilchrist) are defending next to scrumhalf Ali Price on the short-side. Ireland would have recognised this as a weak set on defence, but they need to develop the target area further to prove it.

They run another phase out to the right, to widen the space and eliminate any help those defenders can receive from the backs on the far side of the ruck. At the end of the play, both Scotland centres have been absorbed in the breakdown, and that is the only encouragement Ireland needs to apply the coup de grâce:


Centre Garry Ringrose and both wings have regrouped quickly to the left, and Ringrose runs straight into the hole between Turner and Gilchrist to set up the score for James Lowe in the left corner. That is surgical cohesion in action, but you can only show its power if you have a deep understanding of your own systems and what you want to achieve out on the field.

The sequence was reminiscent of Ireland’s second try against the All Blacks in the decisive third Test at Wellington back in 2022:

Two straightforward phases out to the right from scrum split the Kiwi centres to either side and give the men in green the advantage when the play comes back to the opposite side, and crisp short passing between Johnny Sexton, Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw does the rest. As ex-All Blacks scrumhalf Justin Marshall noted in the television commentary: “Every single player knows where he has to be.” Marshall was absolutely right.

Towards the end of the first period versus the Scots, Ireland was able to demonstrate the second big upside of cohesion. With both wings retiring due to injury, Farrell was forced to introduce a new second five-eighth (Ulsterman Stuart McCloskey), move a natural No 12 (Aki) to centre, and field two emergency wings in Ringrose and scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park. It mattered not one whit.

First Ireland scored a superbly-orchestrated try straight from lineout:


The long-hand version occurred at the beginning of the second half, with Gibson-Park now on the pitch for Lowe:

This is the basic situation Ireland wants to exploit. They have three potent attackers (Aki, Ringrose and dynamic hooker Dan Sheehan) aligned opposite the two Scottish halves, Price and Finn Russell. This will be a mismatch if Ireland can set up the attack accurately at the right moment:


Sheehan already has his hand up on the left touch-line, but the Irish are not afraid to bring Gibson-Park into play on the far right first, in order to make the opportunity on the opposite side entirely limpid, and crystal-clear:


When the time is right, Jamison Gibson-Park is playing exactly the same role that Mack Hansen would have been fulfilling off the right wing: working hard off the ball, following play all the way out to the left, making the extra man and delivering the money-ball to Sheehan, who has only Russell in front of him near the goal-line.

Even with all three replacement backs on the field, and three people playing out of position, the attacking shape is seamless and the roles are known and understood: “Every single player knows where he has to be.”

Will ‘cohesion’ win Ireland a William Webb Ellis trophy? If that were truly the case, the result would already be a foregone conclusion. But it isn’t, and cohesion isn’t the only factor at play. Since the arrival of Joe Schmidt and Jase Ryan on the New Zealand coaching staff, the All Blacks have been knitting together well, and developing plenty of understanding and momentum of their own.

The truth is that both Ireland and New Zealand have both improved since they last met in that historic 2022 Test series. The All Blacks won the 2023 Rugby Championship without dropping a game in a foreshortened competition, while Ireland improved from runners-up to Grand Slammers between 2022 and 2023, beating arch-rivals France along the way.

They are currently on a 17-match unbeaten run, and you need to go all the way back to the first Test at Eden Park on 2 July 2022 to find their last loss… to New Zealand. It tees up the quarter-final between the two nations very nicely indeed. New Zealand has the historical provenance, but Ireland is as tight nicker-elastic. If Andy Farrell’s men are to take the next step on their World Cup journey, who would they rather face? Where would they rather be?


Another 248 days ago

Post match - have you anything to say now @Nick?

Donald 250 days ago

Look, I understand, agree with what's being stated about 'cohesion'..up to a point.

However, leaving aside for now the intimate detailed examples of Ireland's attack v Scotland, didn't it boil down to Ireland gaining quick breakdown ball & getting mismatches out wide? This is not to dismiss the requirement of at least, near set piece parity either.

Also aware that Ireland run part of their back line almost line astern in behind the ball carrier to then swing, hinge like, fanning out wide to out flank the oppo. However, the defending team, coach should know this. Hence, the philosophies of the rush 'D' & defending the ball, not than the man?

I know this has already been poo poohed, but isn't it basically about winning the breakdown, to win the game.. usually, leaving aside unexpected, outside influences, 'interference'.

Additionally, was the Scots' 'D' up to it due poor coaching? Why were they being caught so readily with fwds v backs, pulled out of posi.

When dominated possession wise, on the back foot, it's harder to reassemble, but surely this comes down some to communication & funnily enough 'cohesion', in player's understanding roles, positioning especially when under duress. What, do they practice during the week prior?

Aforementioned elsewhere, but IMO Townsend's troops also collaborated in their demise by kicking themselves aimlessly in their feet. Talk about pumping petrol into someone else's tank (Micky Rooney)!

Cameron 252 days ago

I read yesterday the NZ bookies have Ireland as favourites. In only 5/359 games have the All Blacks not been favourites since sports betting was introduced in 1996 (all away games against South Africa).

This NZ side is nowhere near as strong mentally as under the McCaw era. I suspect they will not match up well to Ireland's pressure in attack and defence and could fall apart if Ireland lead at around the 50min mark. But if they score a couple of early tries who knows?

I would like to see Fozzy take a risk and put Jordan or McKenzie at 15 but no doubt he will stick to his conservative selection of Barrett at fullback.

john 252 days ago

Ranked fourth in the world .....

jack 252 days ago

I’m 54. When I was growing up as a kid in NZ, all of Scotland, Ire, Wales were the teams which when mentioned around the dinner table would all make us laugh. Family of 8, with Irish grandparents on Dad’s side. Hugely respected teams, with great and rich rugby histories, but never taken that seriously. That’s the way the country felt. So you can excuse most Kiwis over the age of 30 feeling any other way. It’s deep in the psyche. I still can’t take them seriously, including Ireland, even after 17 straight wins, and 5 of 8 vs NZ. So for most Kiwis, we should dismantle Ireland Saturday. It’s just the way it is. The thought of them winning a WC game of this magnitude, against the All Blacks, just doesn’t align. Just doesn’t add up. But, that might not happen and Ireland could win. They are a slick outfit, don’t get me wrong. Ireland’s ascendancy to the top has been impressive. They are too good. But I feel, due to the reason explained above, as though Ireland are merely some kind of weird experiment put together by World Rugby in an attempt for a NH team to win the RWC. Where they have encouraged Ireland to develop marginally legal tactics in and around ruck and player obstruction (a clear and blatant example of obstruction being the gap created for their first try v Scotland in an above clip) which, being marginal, the refs are entirely entitled to not penalise. After all, World Rugby must be desperate, and must have prioritised for a NH winner in 2023, surely. A 90% win rate for the South is a terrible look in anyone’s book. In short, for me, Ireland are ‘too good to be true’.
That said, I’m all for a NH winner, it’s just so bloody hard to imagine it being Ireland, but if they do win it, they’ll have our full respect!

Bob Marler 253 days ago

Will Ireland ever hear the end of it if they don’t pip the All Blacks?

Mzilikazi 253 days ago

Very interesting analysis, and a nice lead in to this next version of the Ireland NZ set of epic encounters. Thanks, Nick.

Very big stage this time. Of the top four teams in the world, I feel the AB's lag just that bit behind the other three. Thus they are the team I'm happiest to see Ireland play this weekend. I think a lot will depend on who starts best. I would hope for an Ireland kick off, and the pressure that would put on the AB's from the outset.

A lot of comment on how far the AB's have come since last years series in NZ. But on the other side of the coin, it is Ireland who have, in my view, moved in a steady progression up from that time. And they tend to peak for the big games. For example against France in the Six Nations this year. I see clear evidence of them coming to a peak here in France for this RWC.

The NZ side since last years Ireland tour have been more patchy, despite winning the shorter RC. I felt at the time, and have said so, that they were never really tested by a good team in that RC. When they played the Boks in England in the so called warmup, and then France in the RWC opener, things did not go well.

There is no doubt both the sides that will line up on Saturday can really play rugby. Both capable of really hurting the other if either blinks. Let us hope for a good fair contest under Wayne Barnes, with no serious injuries, no one doing anything to warrant carding, especially red.

Derek Murray 253 days ago

Funny story when Darwin was on the Roar podcast. He asked Harry what he thought would be the biggest factor that consistently negatively impacts a team's performance. Harry, as is his wont, went for the smart-ar5e answer - something about playing in pink jerseys.

Darwin couldn't believe it. He was right. Teams that play in jerseys that are not their regular kit perform worse - it's statistically the most consistent indicator of a lesser performance

sam 253 days ago

I remember watching that Sheehan try live and noticing JGP's work rate to be involved in the play despite carrying the previous phase. I was also so impressed with how he slotted in so seamlessly.
Given we're seeing more scrum halves playing on the wing these days Nick, I can't help but recall Eddie Jones discussing hybrid players a few years ago. Scrum half to wing, and fly half to full back seem to be the positions where the skills are the most transferrable.
Do you think we'll see more international teams work on this for the next WC cycle given the squad limitations?

Derek Murray 253 days ago

I've heard a lot of Darwin's theories. Make a lot of sense. Thanks for the analysis on ireland.

In your first clips for the first try, check our Hansen's contribution. He starts in his position on the right wing, sprints to make the wrap around perfectly, sees the gap for Ringrose and points it out to him and is then in the exact right position to catch and pass the money ball for the try.

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