Second Half Syndrome

An odd and recurring feature of Ireland’s play in recent times is the late-game collapse whereby the team just runs out of puff around the hour mark and cannot be revived. Sure, no joined-up 23-man gameplan has something to do with it, but it’s still intriguing, and worth looking at.

The first question to ask is, are Ireland’s players simply unfit, in what would be a throwback to the old days when beer-soaked Irishmen could not sustain a test match beyond the 60th minute.  But it doesn’t hold up.

Examining the provinces, Munster have virtually trademarked late-game revivals, and the tear-soaked endgames where Northampton, Castres, London Irish, Embra (to name but a few in recent years) have succumbed to the will of the men in red in the red zone are classic examples. Leinster in recent seasons have at times slowed up in second halves, but usually as a result of being out of sight by half time (Bath, Cardiff last season), and when the going is tough, are usually adroit at seeing out the final quarter. Ulster have less of a record, but the defensive shift in Thomond Park stands out, and they will (assuredly) have more as time goes on.

So the constituent players frequently grow in stature in the fourth quarter, yet the national collective wilt – what does that tell you? The most obvious conclusion is that the provincial coaches are more productive with their use of their bench – frequently selecting players for their off the bench impact and using them intelligently.

Leinster have specialist high-impact reserves in Heinke van der Merwe, Sean Cronin and Isaac Boss, and they form a crucial part of the gameplan, and the likes of Paul Marshall has frequently given Ulster pep off the bench.  Ireland have struggled with this aspect of the game under both Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney, and substitution strategy (such as it is) seems perfunctory and forced rather than planned.  The idea of an entire front row playing 80 full minutes in the modern era would be guffawed out of town by France, England or South Africa, but Ireland are still at it.

We crunched the numbers from the beginning of 2011 against in full Tests (i.e. not USA, Russia or the A game vs Fiji), and it’s stark:

  • In 15 Six Nations games, Ireland’s first half record is W11 L4 (losses: Italy in Rome 2011 & 2013 and England in Twickers 2012 and Fortress Aviva 2013), while their second half record is W4 D1 L10 (wins: Italy and England 2011, Italy and Scotland 2012. draw: England 2013)
  • Essentially, we have been ahead of France and Wales at half-time in every Six Nations game since 2011
  • In the 12 other games (3 RWC11, 4 RWC warm-ups, 3 games in NZ, 2 November internationals), Ireland’s first-half record is W5 D1 L6 (wins vs Scotland in RWC warm-up, Italy in RWC, NZ in Christchurch, SA & Argentina last November and draw vs Australia in RWC) and the second half record is a very similar W5 L7 (wins vs France in 2 RWC warm-ups, Australia and Italy in RWC, and Argentina in November)

The difference between Six Nations and non-Six Nations games is notable, but perhaps one driver is that over for all games, the difference get worse over time, so the inclusion of this years Six Nations skews the stats a little. Here are the games broken down by year:

  • In 2011, Ireland were W6 D1 L5 at half time, and W6 L6 after half-time
  • In 2012, Ireland were W5 L3 at half time, and W2 L6 after half-time
  • In 2013 to date, Ireland were W3 L2 at half time, and D1 L4 after half-time

An obvious and heartening corollary is this – the next Ireland coach has one really really easy win – get the team (and by team we mean the 23) playing for 80 minutes and results will (assuredly) improve – Ireland would have challenged for the Six Nations championships for the last three years if games ended at half-time, and would have a win in New Zealand under their belts.

This is something of the frustration of following Ireland – we show the ability to live with the best, but they show the ability to let us blow out and then slap us down. What is the difference? Do Ireland lack that extra 2% that the best teams have? If they do, a fresh and better-defined coaching staff might help us get there – the tired mish-mash at present is (assuredly) not working.

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34 Comments

  1. Perhaps it’s down to a philosophy of ‘what we have we hold’ i.e. the focus switches (due to the way they have been coached) from trying to win the game to defend your lead which essentially then hands the momentum back to the opposition. Defending drains more from you than attacking so by final quarter the opposition is invigorated as they are on the attack, we have lost the momentum and then wilt due to the fatigue of persistent defense??

  2. Michael

     /  March 20, 2013

    I’m still at a loss when i think back to the England game. Roughly 78 mins gone, we had a line out around our own 22. We sub on Fitzpatrick for Ross. Maybe Ross was injured and i didn’t see, but if not, that pretty much says it all about Deccie’s understanding of how to use a bench.

  3. The bench has always seemed a bit apologetic to me, as if he’s trying to keep dropped players with big reputations happy.

    Journalist: Declan, what’s the thinking behind the selection at (insert position in which Ireland currently have a fair bit of competition)?

    DK: Well, it’s tough on (insert named substitute for said position), who has been going really well for (insert appropriate province) and has trained brilliantly this week. We just feel that (insert named starter, who will more than likely play around 70 mins) is the right man to start with against (insert any opponent; it doesn’t matter which, said starter would have been picked regardless) at this time. But look, these are the tough calls that I’ve been brought in to make. I’m sure (insert named substitute) will be able to come into the game for about (insert wildly exaggerated number of minutes) and really make a difference.

  4. Leinsterlion

     /  March 20, 2013

    You’ve laid it out. Bad coaching, keep kicking away possession and they opposition will eventually return it with interest. 40 mins against wales, 15 phases against Italy and large swathes of the Pumas game aside, we actually play no football. As a result we rarely have comfortable leads and have expended a lot of energy putting the opposition under pressure in the hope of garnishing a few three pointers.
    The fevered suspicion Irish coaches view substitutes with, also contributes to the general malaise in second half performances.
    No bench and no gameplan, the opposition figures us out and its game over, simple.

  5. Think there are different factors at play here. One which may be constant is increased tension – if things aren’t going to plan, everyone tightens up and things start getting worse and it snowballs. Just considering this 6N, I think that was certainly true of the Scotland game (we dominated territory and possession all game, but were looking less dangerous by the end, even though the physical advantages held up – ie. it’s not all fitness). Call this factor one.

    Another thing to note is that there is a difference between being keeled over and blowing out your ass (the traditional Irish lot) and a loss of the extra edge in intensity. That edge has underpinned all our best performances since the beginning of 2010 (off the top of my head, anyway) – we’ve been able to play with a combination of tempo, smash-and-grab physicality and (at times) both accuracy and invention and this has undone opponents. It’s one thing to run out of steam, it’s quite another to lose that little bit of bite which is the foundation of any dominance you have enjoyed. This fact also dovetails with the fact that we are a physically small team. If the game slows down more lumbering sides can come back into it. Call this factor two.

    Finally, we lost our out half early in the England game. We were not half the team without him. Paddy Jackson was not ready (he did OK, and I think the experience will be of huge benefit to him, and therefore us, in the short-, medium- and long-term – but let’s not pretend he was better than he was… he’s a gainline flyhalf who stood too deep too often, second half against France especially) and Rog’s ready days were gone. Madigan looked good in the couple of minutes he got in midfield. I wasn’t surprised. No doubt the fellas in the management seats were utterly baffled.

    This 6N, as I see it:

    Wales – had them well beaten, they improved and, yes, we dropped off, but I don’t think it points to a trend as we had a massive lead and never looked like losing.

    England – more one than two; while we did lack the intensity we’ve used to built England sides, often superior in the set-piece, in recent years, the lack of accuracy early on went beyond the sort of thing you can explain away and firmly into “disaster day” territory. Plus, let’s not ignore the out half issue.

    Scotland – reason one, more than anything else, and the increased tension meant Paddy started to stand deeper (a mistake), we looked less dangerous, and his replacement didn’t do very well.

    France – Paddy was far too deep in the middle of the second half, though this may have been a conscious coaching decision (and, to be fair, we conceded a schoolboy try with what was a scratch side at the end of the match to finish with a draw), while reason two also seemed very much apparent; we weren’t dead and gone, but we kicked them all over the park for most of the first hour and that extra few percent had disappeared by the end.

    Italy – a bit of everything, to be honest, plus (by the end) injury shockers. As an aside, a number of people should be ashamed of themselves seeing Luke Marshall jelly off again, after the week before.

    Hope that makes some sort of sense – all a mixture of a low confidence vicious circle, a (relatively minor) fitness issue, and out half trouble. All of which can be fixed with a new coach and a little bit of work, he said not quite believing it.

    • I should have said, bench management is (clearly) a factor in late game losses of intensity. We can’t expect to beast our front five, demanding they play faster than the guys facing them, while also getting four of them to play 80 minutes when only one of their starting opponents has to do the same.

  6. Peat

     /  March 20, 2013

    Ulster won quite a few games last season via a last minute Pienaar kick, and picked up two bonus point tries right at the death this season in the HEC, to further emphasise Whiff’s point about the provinces playing the eighty.

    As for fitness – when you take into account the number of soft muscle injuries going around, and the number who collect injury after injury, and add that to fading at the end, it doesn’t look good.

  7. Often times, I think we are worn down by defending for far too long in the game, we kick away possession, and are on the defensive for large periods of games, you defend too long and you tend to get tired, I wonder is the relative lack of gametime for the provinces means that Irish players are not set for the international stage? Probably a load of waffle but you never know.

    As for the bench, it’s amazing what has happened in four years, 2009 saw Deccie use the panel and the bench magnificently throughout the campaign, but year on year it has got steadily worse since then.

    • Conor Philpott – gametime for players in the provinces might be an issue, but defending isn’t – only against Wales did Ireland make more tackles than their 6 nations opponents.

      • conorphilpott95

         /  March 20, 2013

        Our defence is great, never said it wasn’t, my point was we’re defending too much and are gassed in the latter stages of games.

  8. Speaking as a Connacht fan, there have been many times over the years when we’ve lived with teams for 60 minutes, then the opposition throws on a bunch of subs, and we look to our bench and… nothing. This year we’ve squeaked home on several occasions, despite playing badly, because we actually have a squad.

    The injuries against Italy had little or no outcome on the match; the back line coped admirably from a defensive point of view, and was no more toothless than in previous matches.

    When Parisse went to the bin we added 9 points (3 for his transgression, 3 more shortly afterward, and a third penaly which was awarded just before he returned to the field if scored after).

    At this point, had we been able to throw on 3 forwards capable of making an impact we’d have maintained the momentum and most likely strolled home. We had Kilcoyne, Cronin, Archer and (save us) Toner; only Cronin could be termed an impact sub.

    What I take from this is:

    (1) The IRFU’s much-ridiculed provincial succession policy was fundamentally a good idea. It’s not like those not selected for the front row or injured (Court, Strauss, Fitzpatrick say) were leagues better than what was on the bench. We routinely have players in the 23 (and sometimes the 15) that can’t make their provincial teams.

    (2) Likewise for the national team Kidney abjectly failed to plan succession strategy from what he had available. Asides from Bowe, The experienced players who were missing due to injury or fell off a cliff form/age wise were either well into their thirties (O’Connell, O’Gara, D’arcy) or known to be injury prone (Ferris). This has been coming a long time.

    (3) Tactically Kidney’s bench selections were terrible. Given the lack of experience in the team, picking Trimble and DOC on the bench was surely a complete no-brainer?

    • Len

       /  March 20, 2013

      Trimble in place of who? Not suggesting its a bad idea just interested in who you’d have dropped. Agree with you on DOC. The only way Toner would have made sense is as a proper line out option with good lifters on the pitch. He hasn’t been used as a real line out option for Ireland yet and I’m not sure what kilcoyne and archer are like at lifting.

    • Leinsterlion

       /  March 20, 2013

      DOC is finished, factoring in injuries and age Hendo and say Mick Kearney should have been in contention for a back up spot at lock, the least they would bring is enthusiasm. Toner shouldnt be near an international set up, no matter whose injured, even Locky would be a better option.
      Archer and “Killer” are terrible choices, neither can scrum and they are ordinary everywhere else. Buckley can scrum as well as either( in that he cant) but he brings it around the park. If your giving up the scrum by using the bench you might as well bring on someone who can smash things. Andress is also an ignored option. Buckley and Andress should have been considered ahead of the undynamic duo.
      We have tonnes of outside backs and utility players, DK just has to select them.Trimble isnt the answer, I’d have more trust in Fionn Carr doing something if hes fed the ball( unlikely under Kidney, but the point stands).

    • We are not going to agree that the provincial succession strategy was a good idea sorry. However, to suggest that you need experience on a bench displays a fundamental lack of understanding of the role of a bench as I understand it. You need experience in a starting XV or a wider panel for sure but I do not see why you need experience on a bench. What you need is impact players or players who can be used to change the gameplan.

      Like Len, I am not sure Trimble is the missing messiah from our campaign. At best, he offers something different (but not better) to all those who were selected ahead of him. He’s also been around for quite a while, so we have all had a long time to assess him…and he has had plenty of chances for Ireland.

  9. Len

     /  March 20, 2013

    Interesting stats WOC. We all know that Ireland have slipped from being able to close out games to just about managing to stay competitive for 60 min. I think that lack of competition in certain areas has been one failing at test level. If you look at Leinster, Cian Healy knows he can’t take his foot off the gas as Henkie is snapping at his heels and will use any game time to try and force him out of the No1 spot. At national level Healy hasn’t the same issue as previously discuss under Kidney its harder to be dropped. Maybe I’m wrong but I suspect that even the most professional player will struggle to maintain his efforts for 80min if he hasn’t the motivation of a guy waiting to take his spot. Obviously this will only account for part of the issue. I wonder if the build up to a test match is managed in the same way as it is at provincial level? I assume at provincial level its managed to have players peak in performance on match day. Is it possible that the national set up are not getting this right?

    • B

       /  March 20, 2013

      Perhaps its the opposite, if Healy and Ross know they are expected to play until the 77th minute, they will try to keep something in reserve, in the interests of self preservation if nothing else?

      Also, the complete and utter lack of understanding in terms of ‘impact’ was encapsulated by Toner coming on against Italy and then having to lift Ryan in the lineout. I suspect Ryan has been given carte blanche to run the lineout and has not been called out by Kidney or the other coaches about the staleness of the lineout. While this worked most of the time when POC was playing it had become very predictable even then.

  10. Connachtexile

     /  March 20, 2013

    I still can’t forget the time he brought Cullen on for what 30 seconds? It was a shambolic way to finish an international career and if I was Cullen I would have been pissed.

    I also want to mention his use of substitutes against Scotland when we had a chance at a triple crown until Parks kicked a last minute penalty. Our line-out was dire that day with Best having his worst ever performance in an Irish jersey and our jumpers mis-timing anything. So what did Deccie do? Did he bring on Cronin or Cullen? Nope he brought on Tony Buckley a prop and who was incidentally the only Munster player on the bench that day. It was that day I lost any faith I had in Kidney and he’s done nothing to make me change that position.

    • ORiordan

       /  March 20, 2013

      Deccie brought Paul Marshall on for less than a minute at the end of the Italy v Ireland game. A token cap… and quite possibly will be his only cap.

      Marshall has lots of flaws but one thing he can do is speed a game up. Contrast Deccies seemingly pre-planned substitution on 60 minutes approach to bring Reddan on for Murray in the France game, to the sheer tokenism of bringing on Marshall in the last minute of the Italy game.

      • In fairness to Kidney, Murray was sent to the bin at the exact moment Ryan was due to return, so he sent on Marshall as a replacement for Ryan so as not to be down a scrumhalf.

      • Nah, I’m sure he’ll play again; we’ve seen the end of Reddan now (and what a way to go, poor fella!), Boss is gone too, PM is not a child – but he’s only 27. He, Murray and Marmion will all presumably get time when a coach with vaguely normal selection patterns is in charge.

        Also, as salmson says, he was brought on for tactical reasons – without which I doubt we’d have seen him at all. Which, I suppose, is better than the two minutes, pat on the head, “Have a game, but be in no doubt I have no faith in you whatsoever!”

  11. Megweya

     /  March 20, 2013

    Connachtexile – I think the hideous incident with Cullen was literally 10x worse than being on for a minute: he came on with SIX seconds to go.
    An Independent/Times journo with the cozy inside access might trot out the line that Leo was sent on for a last-play line out but Leo’s forte is astutely running a line-out & pack (not to mention working out what a ref will / will not tolerate), not miracle plays.
    So it was ridiculous to send him on to do the equivalent of Justin ‘Plank’ Harrison’s steal of a last minute Lion’s lineout at the end of the 3rd 2001 Lions test v Australia.

    (At least Harrison had a chance of making the play as wide-boy Aus coaching assistant Scott Johnson had cracked most of the Lions calls by that stage of the tour. Plus even I would have predicted a ‘banker’ throw to Martin Johnson at 2.)

    The bench lacks experience – but getting on at even 75 minutes will not give the sub a chance to get in the game. Typical stats are 12-15 tackles a game so a sub may well not even get a chance to make a tackle in 5 mins and probably no chance to touch the ball. Experience off the bench is only meaningful if 15-20 mins in most cases.

    Cheers
    Megweya

    • paddy

       /  March 20, 2013

      Yeah that Cullen incident really sticks out. Bizarro! My opinion of Kidney has never recovered!

      • Anonymous

         /  March 20, 2013

        On the subject of Irish secondrows Ed O’Donoghue played very well for the Queensland Reds last weekend. Any chance of a return to Ireland? Why did he leave Leinster?

      • paddy

         /  March 20, 2013

        @anon I wasn’t around at the time but his nickname was ‘Useless Ed’

      • WOC, nice…

        O’Donoghue is behind all the Irish based locks, all the English based locks and probably me (as a 5’10” TH) in terms of selection for the Irish national team…

  12. Rich

     /  March 20, 2013

    Been an issue for around 2 seasons now and glad it has been highlighted. Yet another example of where professional rugby has identified a way to change the game to your advantage, yet Ireland in their wisdom see it as a chore, a pain, that will ruin our chances instead of helping

    Ireland look at it as “best 15 on the pitch for as long as possible” whereas just about every other nation will give their front row 50-60 mins then change a couple, simple simple stuff. Prop goes hard 50 mins, job done, freshen it up. Scrum got a bit more oomph and we kick on. Ross played about 20 mins more than he is capable in every game, after 50 mins he turns into a peno machine. Kidney and his staff clearly dispose this idea.

    Yet another example of how far behind other nations we are. Would also point at the captain on these losses. Captain should be keeping troops together, keep to the gameplan and drive team home. Our captain has wilted last 20 mins of all games, just seems that on field leaders could be an issue if we start to bring in players.

    • Seiko

       /  March 21, 2013

      This is the first season internationally in the NH that there are 23 man squads. It must now be apparent to everyone that the reason Ross was used against Fiji was to try and get him fitter. There was a reason why 22 man squads were preferred – to give the smaller nations like Ireland who don’t have the depth of an England or France a chance to compete.

  13. Abitofshoepie

     /  March 20, 2013

    Good article chaps. When your impact players include Toner then things are seriously amiss! Not strong enough to scrum and can’t make his substantial height count in the lineout. If he cant convince Leinster of his second row ability, its strange that he is deemed to be good enough for Ireland, especially when a player of Hendersons potential is on the bench as well. Let’s hope the new coach, if the IRFU go ahead and replace Deccie, is strong enough to pick players outside of the Provincial system. There are few players plying their trade in England who woold definitely add options to the squad, Steenson, Andress, even Hayes as a back up second row.

    • A strange one for sure. When I saw him on the bench I presumed it was because they felt Ryan was only good for 60 minutes and needed to replace him with another lineout caller (Ryan has been playing through the pain barrier by the sounds of things), but then he came on for McCarthy an his first act was to lift in the lineout! Answers on a postcard please.

  14. jojo

     /  March 21, 2013

    I was disgusted and not surprised by Kidneys shocking substituting policy against Italy, when he put POM on the wing. He obviously had no intention of playing marshall in any meaningful capacity in the match. I’d consider it a massive slap in the face, that they would rather play a forward on the wing, then play you as a back(either Marshall could have gone SH and Murray on wing or vice versa). It just underlines the fact that he regularly puts people on the bench who he’d rather not play at all. I sincerely doubt he wanted madigan to play either. And why he took mccarthy off and put on toner was beyond me.

    On a aside, nice to see Henderson and Madigan do well (again no surprise to anyone outside the IRFU)

  15. Megweya

     /  March 21, 2013

    One other thought on the bench issue: Deccie’s conservative nature (except when the direst form/injury-situation have forced his hand e.g. O’Leary/Murray, ROG/Jackson, Bowe/Gilroy) could get even worse if he were to continue as national coach.

    The 2013 run of 2-3 injury-enforced subs in 3 games (Sexton+Zebo, McFadden+Marshall+Reddan, Earls+Fitzgerald+Marshall) will make him even more wary of using his bench to get on fresh players between 60-70 minutes “in case injury-replacements are needed at some point”.

    That would lead to even more of what LarryM appropriately described above as “two minutes, pat on the head, ‘Have a game, but be in no doubt I have no faith in you whatsoever!’ ”.

    Cue the self-fulfilling prophesy of not using the bench because it is too inexperienced,
    Contrast that with England introducing 13-15 new caps since RWC11.

    Conor Murray was an “out-of-the-blue” pick just before RWC11 2 years ago – he now has 17 caps. The new intake in 2012/2013 (Gilroy, Jackson, Madigan, Zebo, both Marshalls, Henderson, McCarthy or other 2015 candidates – Henshaw, Keatley, Hanrahan, …) need the same 2-year-span to get them to 15+ caps by that tournament.

    Much as I hate seeing Ireland lose, I’d prefer to see Ireland lose 3 games in each of the next 2 seasons as a result of trying to develop a squad than suffer seasons like this one where we lose 3 games but development by getting meaningful gametime seems to be dependent on Head-Coach/Selector “I.Njurie” to give novices a decent run-out.

    Finally, I don’t get this recent line about “the Irish are smaller as a race than other nations”. I’ve looked back at my Ire-Fra programme. Kearney, McFadden, Marshall, Earls, Murray are all heavier than their starting opponents (even if Kearney & McFadden only do so by 1-2 kg) . Marshall is 1 stone heavier than FoFana and Murray is 1.5 stone heavier than Parra. Jackson is just shaded by Michelak by 3 pounds, likewise BOD by Fritz. Admittedly Bastareaud spreads more than 2 stone wider across the pitch than BOD, but given that BOD was conceding 4 stone each of the 2 tackles on Debaty, that makes Bastareaud look just “stocky” by comparison.
    Wales had 2 big centres (16st 7lbs & 17st 4lbs) and we did OK against them.

    I think Ireland’s problems were down to other teams playing with more determination, sense, execution under pressure and good coaching/tactics – not greater talent nor genetically-bestowed size.

    Cheers

  16. Len

     /  March 21, 2013

    Just a quick question for everyone regarding Toner. My Dad pointed this out to me at one of the Leinster matches and I’ve been watching for it myself since then. When Toner goes in for a tackle or to a ruck he leads with his left shoulder which would suggest this is the stronger shoulder. However when he’s in the pack he generally scrums down behind the tighthead there by putting more pressure on his right shoulder. this has the disastrous results we’ve all come to expect but when he switches to the loosehead the scrum seems to function better. Could it be a simply be a case that he needs to be switched.

    • Is the shoulder that relevant for second row scrummaging? You certainly don’t push with your shoulder but with your legs and core. Also, as I understand it, a loosehead second row scrummager needs to help shove the prop and hooker i.e. balancing both shoulders (so he isn’t off the hook there).

      For me it seems poor old Dev’s scrummaging deficiencies are anatomical.

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