Ireland’s backrow is most confusing in its current iteration – it appears unbalanced (what’s new), consisting of an 8, a 6.5 and a 6/7/8 (delete as appropriate), and appears unable to grab a game by the scruff of the neck. Far from the traditional roles one associates with the 6, 7 and 8, Ireland’s appears to be a jumble of roles. Now, we’re not against fluidity of systems, but given Ireland’s recent results, it has to be asked – does the current backrow work? For the record it looks like this:
No.6 Peter O’Mahony
Typical role of number 6: tackle anything that moves, truck dirty slow ball around the corner and try to turn it into quicker ball, add ballast to mauls, possible tail of lineout option
Prototype: Dan Lydiate, Stephen Ferris
Role of O’Mahony (as we understand it). Standing wide between the centres, looking to join up the play and make rangy breaks in midfield by handing off defenders. Important part of lineout.
No. 7 Sean O’Brien
Typical role of number 7: arrive first at as many rucks as possible, win turnovers, track ball carriers, take and give offloads to bring continuity to play
Prototype: Sir Ruchie, David Pocock, Justin Tipuric
Role of O’Brien (as we understand it): primary ball carrier. Relied upon to repeatedly carry slow ball over the gainline and deliver huge tackle count in defence.
No.8 Jamie Heaslip
Typical role of number 8: set up attacks off the base of scrum, carry ball, usually allowed a little more free reign to stand wide from ruck to get ball in space, should have good hands, often a lineout option
Prototype: Sergio Parisse, Louis Picamoles
Role of Jamie Heaslip (as we understand it): used primarily in tight, where he is depended upon to clear rucks and win turnovers. Seldom asked to carry the ball.
It’s certainly a far cry from, say, Wales’ uber-traditional backrow where the 6 (Lydiate / Jones), 7 (Warburton / Tipuric) and 8 (Felatau) are outstanding in the traditional primary roles. As a unit, Ireland’s backrow performed well against Wales, were hopelessly outmuscled against England and did enough against Scotland to deliver sufficient clean ball and go-forward to win the game, which failed to happen for various reasons. Looking at the individuals, we’d say O’Mahony was good against Wales, ordinary against England and poor against Scotland. Heaslip was good against Scotland, poor against England and average against Wales. O’Brien has probably been our best forward, heroically committed and hardworking – with the caveat that he has given away too many penalties.
Any time we try to have a rational debate, it degenerates quickly into bitter provincial bickering – Munster folk will point to Jamie Heaslip’s relative lack of visibility while Leinster and Ulster folk will decry Peter O’Mahony’s lack of impact, and lament the absence of the glorious Fez. Sean O’Brien is largely spared criticism, thankfully, for if we agreed on nothing, this would be a most depressing state of affairs. The oddly fitting roles probably don’t help here. We expect our 6 to be a tackling machine, and our 8 to be making big plays, but neither seems to be the case.
The statistics from ESPN Scrum bear out the above thesis.
Carrying: Heaslip has carried for 27 cumulative metres over three matches. O’Mahony and O’Brien have over 90m each, with O’Mahony averaging over 4m a carry. He made an eye-catching 65m from nine carries in his best game of the series, against Wales. Carrying the ball further away from the ruck allows him more space to make metres, while O’Brien is asked to carry slow ball repeatedly. He has made 44 attempted carries so far.
Tackling: O’Brien appears something of a workaholic, adding a huge tackle count to his carrying ability. He has 28 successful tackles to his name. Heaslip, as we’d expect given his responsibility close to the ruck, leads the tackle count on 30. O’Mahony’s tackle count is somewhat dwarfed by the other two, on 13 over three games, again reflecting his tendency to play further out from the ruck.
Discipline: O’Mahony has a reputation as a penalty machine, but he’s only cost his team two so far this series. O’Brien has never shaken off his tendency not to roll away quickly enough in the tackle area, and has coughed up six penalties. Heaslip – usually a well disciplined player – has cost his team five penalties so far.
Lineout: This has not been a vintage series for the Irish lineout, but O’Mahony’s skills have seen him claim seven catches. Heaslip gets thrown up reasonably often too – he’s won four, and O’Brien has two.
ESPN doesn’t provide numbers on what Donncha O’Callaghan fans might refer to as the unseen work – clearing rucks, shoving hard in a maul, winning a choke tackle turnover, slowing down opposition ball at a ruck. Nor do the stats on ESPN tell the whole story of any action. Keith Earls’ break and non-pass gave him huge metres carried, but many of them were thrown away by failing to the right thing once he’d done the hard bit.
For this weeks France game, we are going to go through with a fine tooth comb (rather like the Mole did for kicking against England and chart (and, crucially, grade in terms of positive impact) each action of each backrow forward, specifically:
- Carries (number and metres)
- Rucking (clearing out and otherwise)
- Lineout takes and steals
- Other good actions: Linebreaks, key passes, turnovers won, tries
- Other bad actions: Turnovers lost, penalties, free-kicks, missed tackles
We expect that O’Brien will have the most tackles and carries, and Heaslip the most ruck clearances, and we don’t expect to see the same quantity of dog-work from O’Mahony. If he is to stand in wider channels let’s hope he can make his ball skills and rangy carrying ability tell and deliver serious metres in open space and keep the play alive. In general we’d prefer to see him involved in the action more than he is, but we know he’s capable of coming up with big plays. We’ve a suspicion his yardage is a little flattered by his standing so wide, so we’ll see if that’s borne out. One thing’s for sure, he’s a very different player to what his astonishing media profile suggests; we’re far from convinced that he’s a no-backward-step warrior that he’s portrayed as in the press, and we’ve already aired our Good Face theory.
We have to come out and admit that we find O’Mahony to be a most curious player. He can do the hard things brilliantly – zipping passes like Strings in his peak, and taking balls from the air or off his bootlaces with consumate ease. Yet, for a blindside, his tackling is largely absent, his carrying inconsistent, and his breakdown work unseen (to coin a phrase). In short, we think he doesn’t work hard enough. He’s yet to deliver 10 tackles in a match in any of his eight starts for Ireland, and in four games has combined single digit metres with single digit carries. On his day, however, he can be impactful, as in this season’s win against Wales.
He has not yet been forced to nail down a jumper for Munster, never had his attitude and play questioned, and never really been subject to any media criticism whatsoever. The Mole opined that some time at the coalface nailing down a position and learning about himself might be the best thing for him – we feel he just coasts too much, but that seems to be out of tune with a lot of opinions, so we felt this was a puzzle worth delving a little deeper into.
What we’d like to see from Heaslip is an improvement in his carrying, which looked pretty marshmallowy in the first two games of the Six Nations, before improving against Scotland. And as for O’Brien, well, we’d almost like to see him carry less. If he’s making over 20 carries in a match it’s a surefire sign that Ireland’s Plan A of Give The Ball to O’Brien has been jettisoned for Plan B: Give the Ball to O’Brien.
More than simply analysing each player’s individual performances, we want to try and gain some understanding as to whether Ireland’s backrow functions as a unit. It’s highly unconventional in that the role of the players is so at odds with what we traditionally expect from each shirt number. Are we suffering as a result of that? Are we getting the best out of the three players? Do we have the right men selected? Would we be better off with a more traditional 6 and 7, allowing Heaslip to carry more ball as he did three years ago? Is his carrying good enough to merit that role?
So on Sunday night we’ll sit down with a bottle of wine and pour over the tape. By far the biggest issue we expect to have is that O’Mahony and Donnacha Ryan look rather similar. Let’s hope we can tell them apart enough to get some accurate stats. Results will be up early next week.