Who is going to carry the ball?

With the two rounds of European Rugby out of the way, focus turns to the November internationals. As usual, a daunting program looms, with South Africa, Australia and Georgia coming to town. Two wins will be the pass mark.

Ireland have injuries aplenty, the two most damaging of which are Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien, unquestionably two of Ireland’s small set of world class players, and crucially, two of their best ball carriers. Ireland have decent replacements for each. Jack McGrath is a stalwart on the loosehead side of the scrum and both Chris Henry was a constant in Ireland’s Six Nations winning campaign, when Ireland were also without O’Brien. Both bring much to the game, but neither can quite replicate the sort of explosive ball carrying and ability to win the contact battle that Healy and O’Brien provide. Leinster’s struggles are probably a reasonable barometer for how hard it is to get momentum without your best carriers available.

The loss of two such warriors is compounded by the loss of Iain Henderson for Ulster, who is the closest thing to O’Brien and Healy in his ability to break tackles, and also Andrew Trimble, who, although a wing, is a strong carrier who has been used to punch holes in the middle of the pitch. Bosh!

The problem is magnified by the fact that Ulster and Munster’s two primary ball-carrying forwards are non-Ireland eligible. Nick Williams is Ulster’s go-to-man for the hard yards (which is quite another issue), while Munster have identified CJ Stander as their best carrier, and his form has been frankly awesome in recent weeks. Do Ireland have enough carriers to make the necessary metres to take the game to Australia, and more problematically, South Africa? Will the lack of Healy and O’Brien force Schmidt into certain selections in his pack? Or in the centres?

We’ve used the ESPN stats from the last two weeks to try and let the stats do the work.

Here’s the file: forwards_metres.  It’s the usual ESPN table format.  The focus here is on columns E to H and T to W, but that’s not to say the players didn’t do other stuff as well!  The guys in red are NIE.

Three things immediately stand out.

  1. Jamie Heaslip is the man. Over the two ERCC games, Heaslip has managed over 40 carries for an aggregate gain over 100m, the full length of a rugby pitch. Heaslip is in outstanding form and will be Ireland’s number eight for all three games. He’s not the most conventional number eight, or the most powerful, but his supreme footwork enables him to avoid the bigger hits and eke out metres where others would be running into a brick wall.  The issue that might arise is against South Africa whose sheer brawn is so suffocating he might not be able to find the space to get a run at soft shoulders.
  2. CJ Stander is the man. As if you need telling. Stander carried for an immense 110m against Sale, and again impressed with 42m with ball in hand against Sale, more than double anyone else in the pack. But he can’t play for Ireland.  Yet.
  3. Ulster have lacked a ball carrier. No Henderson, and Williams struggling; Ulster’s problem is that they have found themselves snaffled on the gainline. Roger Wilson showed up well off the bench against Leicester, but against Toulon no forward made more than 12m, which explains everything about why Ulster lost the game.

Ok, so that’s the obvious stuff, what about the auxiliary carriers, and what might it mean for Ireland

  1. If Heaslip is Leinster’s primary man, Sean Cronin is his lieutenant. Nobody can time a run onto the ball as well as this chap, which enables him to make clean breaks and beat defenders, and his technical deficiencies will continue to be accommodated by O’Connor as long as he can carry for an average of 30m a match. The question is: would Schmidt consider him ahead of Best in order to bolster his cabal of ball-carriers? Best’s lineout throwing has been poor for Ulster, and he has never been an effective carrier, but does bring power to the scrum and an exceptional ability around the ruck. Best would generally be seen as a nailed-on starter and a pack leader, and it would be a brave man to go into trench warfare against South Africa without him, but there may be a case for Cronin based on the current situation.
  2. Tommy O’Donnell is the new Chris Henry. We asked earlier in the season if O’Mahony, O’Donnell and Stander play together, who will hit the rucks? Answer: Tommy O’Donnell. Although a naturally strong carrier, O’Donnell has carried much less than his backrow partners in both games, and has appeared to do so closer to the ruck too. A recent journal.ie interview saw him chatting a lot about his role around the breakdown, slowing down ball, ‘living in the ruck’, and all that. It shows all the hallmarks of someone who has sacrificed his carrying game to do the dirty work; in effect, becoming more like Chris Henry. Which, ironically in this instance, will probably hurt his international ambitions.
  3. Peter O’Mahony offers good value with the ball. We know he likes to operate a bit further from the ruck where he can get his fend going, but O’Mahony’s carrying stats will encourage Schmidt. He made around 20m in each game, and like Sean Cronin was very much lieutenant to the primary ball-carrier. The only player who could realistically take the No.6 jersey from him is Rhys Ruddock, who has had a mixed bag, showing up well against Wasps, with a notable carrying performance, but anonymous in Castres. Throw in O’Mahony’s lineout game and abilty to win breakdown turnovers and he looks fairly nailed on for the jersey, but will probably be used to carry more than in the Six Nations.
  4. Jack McGrath for loosehead. He may not have Cian Healy’s quotient of fast-twitch muscle fibres, but McGrath is a useful carrier, as well as being generally decent in the set piece. He carried over 10m in each game. Both Munster looseheads have shown up better when introduced off the bench, and until one of them (probably Cronin) pulls away from the other, their jostling for position is probably letting McGrath pull the gap out when it comes to national selection.
  5. Paul O’Connell should leave the carrying to others – as has been suggested in certain quarters before,. While it seems churlish to be criticising the great O’Connell for anything, 5m gained over an aggregate 17 carries suggests that O’Connell should probably let O’Mahony, Stander or whichever loosehead is on the pitch have the ball instead. Toner hasn’t exactly been bursting through tackles either, so until Henderson presents himself again in the new year, Ireland can’t expect the second row unit to chip in with many metres. But it was ever thus – and quite often by our own design.

Based purely on individual merits, you’d write down the starting Irish pack as being McGrath, Best, Ross, O’Connell, Toner, O’Mahony, Henry and Heaslip. Schmidt will employ Heaslip as his primary ball-carrier, and ask O’Mahony and McGrath can help him out by chipping in with 20-ish metres each. Is that enough? If not, the case for Sean Cronin and Tommy O’Donnell becomes stronger, particularly for Cronin, though O’Donnell appears to have adapted his role somewhat.

And with a lack of heft in the pack, we need to ask if our preference for midgety centres can be continued – Dorce is decent at making metres after the tackle with his feet, but he isn’t exactly built like Mathieu Boshtereaud. Having someone bigger, like Robbie Henshaw, outside might take some workload off the forward carriers – Jared Payne certainly isn’t going to use opposition players as speed bumps. Any dreams of a second-five-eighth type inside-centre, such as Olding or Madigan, may have to be shelved for the moment.  All this, of course, is compounded by the loss of Trimble – with most of the putative replacements of the dancing-feet variety, we might need to press the square peg of Tommy Bowe into the round hole that is boshing up the middle.

One thing’s for sure: Jamie Heaslip’s going to have have a heavy workload over the next month.

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  1. Cian

     /  October 29, 2014

    Now this is the type of article I can get excited about! Great stuff lads, on a crucial question. I think it comes down to one of two options: either Heaslip carries with a frequency and efficiency that he hasn’t had internationally for quite a while (because he’s been doing other work, but still), or we play a game plan that minimises the significance of bosh. Sean Cronin has been carrying fantastically, but he doesn’t just lose out at the breakdown to Best: he also can’t seem to hook, and that would surely rule out his starting. His problem seems to be that he’s not actually a hooker, but an undersized backrow who’s positionally challenged. As you mentioned, both James Cronin and Kilcoyne carry best when they’ve got plenty in the tank as c. 50th minute subs, and McGrath probably deserves the start. We have no ball carrying locks. So that’s front row and second row both ruled out as the sources of any serious bosh for the first 50 of big games.

    With that in mind, I think JS might give serious consideration to replacing Chris Henry with a more able carrier. Ruddock’s form is patchy and TOD has changed his role somewhat, but both have at least shown in the past that they’re capable of making impressive and powerful breaks. The latter might have the edge, because a back row of O’Mahony, TOD and Heaslip would all be capable of ruck work and carrying to useful degrees, but then Ruddock has a lot of potential and finished last year strongly. Alternatively, if Henry is deemed too vital at the breakdown, it might be POM to lose out: but then what’s the point of that really, he’s nearly as good at carrying as the other options and unparalleled in the lineout.

    As regards backs trucking up ball, in recent years you always know D’arcy is going to eke out a few metres at least, which will do me fine, and Henshaw outside him would seem to be the obvious choice. If Payne starts a serious match at 13 for Ireland when we could be bedding in Henshaw I will be very confused and disappointed. I’ve yet to hear any explanation as to why JP is worth persisting with there, but I think everyone’s giving Schmiddty the well-earned benefit of the considerable doubt. Zebo is probably the most comfortable of our available wings with crash balls into traffic.

    • Sean Cronin is certainly positionally challenged, but I always had him down as a frustrated, oversized outside centre rather than a backrow!

      The case for Jared Payen i far from compelling, and the closer the series gets the more I think we’re going to see Robbie Henshaw in 13, for the first game of the series at least.

    • Don’t forget Henry is effectively a number 8 who has re-invented himself as a breakdown artist. He’s not a big boshy number 8 or anything, but he has some carrying capacity.

      • Cian

         /  October 29, 2014

        I’ll confess I don’t know much about Henry prior to his rise to the national team over the past few years. I would still be surprised if he’s considered an international-level carrying option though, especially if we need all of our primary carriers to be from the back row.

        Now that you mention it, Nugget is definitely more of an outside centre in his heart of hearts!

      • Stephen

         /  October 29, 2014

        I find it hard to call Henry a carrier. He presents “safe” ball, but rarely makes metres – much, in my estimation, like POC.

        • Lop12

           /  October 29, 2014

          POC, as much and all as I love the man, is a pretty poor carrier for his size and athletic ability. Id be pretty pleased if he never carried it TBH

    • D6W

       /  October 29, 2014

      It is not just Cronin who has problems hooking since the new scrum laws came in, it is happening to many hookers. Now the hit is gone, and the hooker cannot call the ball in, it gives the defending scrum the advantage. One the hooker lifts his foot, he is no longer pushing and it is 7 agains 8. So to hook, he needs to be certain the rest of the scrum behind him can bear the strain. If not, then he cannot hook and the ball just sits there.

      • Cian

         /  October 29, 2014

        It’s true that the skill has become more important for all hookers recently, and many games have an example of a failed hook, but it’s also true that Cronin suffers from it far more than, well, any other hooker I can think of. I think having more problems than most club-level hookers with the basic technical duties of that position really ought to disqualify one for international play. It could well amount to ceding the scrum and lineout to the Boks (or even Australia!) for the entire match.

        • D6W

           /  October 29, 2014

          But it may well be a leinster scrum problem rather than a hooker problem. The leinster scrum against Castre was pretty poor for and against the head. If Cronin can’t hook in the Ireland scrum, and Best can, then yes, I would agree there is a serious problem with Cronin. I guess we will find out soon enough.

        • God be with the days when the scrummie could put the ball into the second row’s feet…

          • osheaf01

             /  October 29, 2014

            You still can if Chris Pollock is refereeing and you’re the Wallaby scrummie. Even better, he’ll penalise the opposition if they have the cheek to push – too posh to push, obviously.

      • To call it 7 against 8 on one’s own put in is somewhat simplified way of describing things, IMO. The hooker of the team in possession can still push off his left leg or at least use it to contribute to the initial overall static of the scrum, while hooking with the instep/heel of his right foot. As soon as he has hooked, he can use both legs again. If he can hook well and for example send the ball straight down the number one channel between his flanker on the left-hand side of the scrum and his number 8, then the ball can be gotten out quickly, meaning his own props and locks don’t have to hold the opposition’s pressure for too long. Sean Cronin’s inability to hook is such a handicap, that I even wonder if his ball handling abilities make up for it sufficiently (on top of which his darts are substandard and his offloading/passing game is not brilliant either). The last thing Ireland want against Victor Matfield agus a chairde is to be getting into a knock-down-drag-out at scrum-time, ‘cos they will be mangleized big time. Although I’m a Leinster fan, as a former hooker, I would much prefer if Duncan Casey were in the squad. I think JS should pick Richardt Strauss for the Bok match, with Cronin on the bench. p.s. I watched the Leinster-Munster match a couple of weeks back directly after watching the SA beat NZ and the huge difference in the standard of play still has me depressed – and worried.

        • p.p.s. Lost the run of meself there, giving out about nuggett. To correct myself: Best to start at 2 with Strauss on the bench against SA.

        • Mike

           /  October 29, 2014

          Its never 7 v 8. Their backrow never really gets the opportunity for a head down shove as they don’t know what you’re doing with the ball. Yours can.

      • Leinsterlion

         /  October 29, 2014

        You can do what the Argies do and not hook, and just try drive straight over the ball, risky, but with good timing and powerful scrummaging its doable.

    • Ioannes

       /  October 30, 2014

      “an undersized backrow who’s positionally challenged”- did anyone else immediately think of Marcus Horan? Or is it just me?

  2. I’ve been thinking about this very subject while trying to run through Irelands potential squad for the Autumn internationals.

    I had really hoped after his success in the Summer tour Ruddock would show enough for Leinster to force his way into the team. On his day he offers the kind of brute ball carrying power missing as well as ballast for our less than massive pack. Unfortunately I think his below average big days (Munster and Castres) stand out more than his singular impressive performance (Wasps).

    I think you hit the nail on the head regarding O’Donnell, he is fufilling a different role currently with Munster but Schmidt is a clever enough coach to know what he is capable of. It is a toss up between them really with Ruddock probably having the higher ceiling as a player which might have him edge it.

    For me the 6 Nations back row of POM, Henry & Heaslip is just too light they would risk being blown away by SA. Plus we have lost Healy in the meantime,and to a lesser extent Tuohy and Henderson, so carriers now at a premium.

    Being “tidy” is perhaps good enough to win in the 6 Nations but not good enough against the Southern Hemisphere (or Toulon!)?

  3. It would surprise me if Ireland spent much time on close-in carries against the Boks. They might use them as filler plays or to hold the fringe defence, but I’d expect the main tactics to be gainline moves a little further out from the rucks. South Africa come up hard and can really smash carriers, so it’s important to keep the defenders guessing with pops before contact, second-man plays and the occasional switch move. For that reason I think we’ll see a variety of carriers taking the ball on, with some of the more obvious ones being used as bait. The object, as ever, will be to move the defence around until Ireland produce one ruck quick enough to run a move off.

    • Agreed, the only way we can take on South Africa is to try and avoid any sort of arm-wrestle. Last time they were over we got into a bit of a dogfight with them, primarily through a lack of attacking shape and any sort of creativity.

      No matter how you play the game you need forwards who can punch their way over the gainline, whether that’s trucking the ball around the corner or trying to get runners onto the ball further away from the ruck. All of Heaslip, O’Mahony and Cronin tend to like the ball a bit further out so hopefully we will be as enterprising as you suggest, and the weather being kind would be a help.

    • That is how I would argue that o’connell should be used. Sale particularly targeted him in a kind of hammer the hammer style gameplan and he got caught a few times below the gain line. O’Connell popping a few balls off and then being there early to clear the ruck is a nice basic play, which could keep the defenders unsure enough to create a bit of space. It may also boost o’connell’s metres per carry for the rarer occasion that he would carry.

      It’s worth noting though how little offload/pop pass type stuff Ireland played last year. I’d argue (without any statistical back up) that they preferred to trust their clearouts and did use footwork a lot in contact (I’m thinking Henry v France particularly) rather than anything more “unpredictable.”

      McGrath will potentially step up to do a lot of the grunting carrying in November and I think he might do a very good job of it actually. I would go with best over Cronin, but he and toner have always worked together well and a toner o’connell, o’mahony lineout does take a fair bit of pressure off either of their throwing. Casey has had an absolutely excellent season so far but he is throwing to some very good lineout forwards. Ulster and leinster don’t have quite the same options.

  4. D6W

     /  October 29, 2014

    As ball carriers are badly needed in the Irish team now, that undoubtably gives the edge to Cronin over Best. At the moment neither are throwing well, but Cronin’s ball carrying is essential.

    During Leinster’s Schmidt -inspired pomp, it was never just about the ball-carrying, it was mostly about carry then offload. I have seen none of that this year from any of the provinces, and I wonder if Schmidt has given up on this for Ireland, where he does not have the luxury of drilling this into the players on a weekly basis.

    • hulkinator

       /  October 29, 2014

      D6W, I was going to raise that point about the offload. Its another way of unlocking defenses and its something that Ireland didn’t do much of last season especially in the 6 nations.

      Against the Boks, Ireland will kick the ball a lot and challenge in the air. We might also see more of an offloading game especially since Schmidt spoke about adding new things to the gameplan this season. The main ball carriers will be used off the bench i.e. Sean Cronin, Kilcoyne etc. Robin Copeland is another player who potentially can make an impact off the bench for Ireland. He needs a run of games for Munster first.

      In the rugby championship, Argentina gave the Boks two close matches and they’ve little ball carrying ability in their pack.

    • Disagree with you there about Schmidt encouraging an offloading game. In fact he did the opposite, he actively discouraged the offload in order to prioritise setting up as near perfect a ruck as possible. His reasoning was that a ruck can be supported easier, sucks in more defenders and is more of a guarantee of success.

      • In Schmidt’s first season at Leinster they offloaded quite a lot; Nathan Hones and Jamie Heaslip especially. They did it much less after that and their accuracy passing on the gainline was the weapon they used to break teams down. For Ireland last year, as you say, he actively discouraged offloading to prioritise the clear-out and get the next phase going.

      • hulkinator

         /  October 29, 2014

        Offloads have advantages too. Get a good offloading game going and its very hard to stop. Look at NZ and Kieran Read in particular. He is one of their most creative players.

        I suppose it depends on the talent of the player. Players who can offload should be encouraged to do it.

      • Leinsterlion

         /  October 29, 2014

        A mate of mine was at a talk Schmidt gave a while back and he said someone asked him the very same thing and Schmidt said he did not like offloading as the risk and control elements he was trying to bring in go out the window, he was more about passing, speed, footwork etc, no emphasis on offloading.

  5. Yossarian

     /  October 29, 2014

    Heaslip frequently talks in post match interviews about the “needs of the team” it is clear for the past few seasons he has been content to hit rucks and let Healy and sob carry. It is a mark of his intelligence and ability that he can shift role like that to primary ball carrier while still hitting a ton of rucks and make a load of tackles.
    It will be interesting to see if Schmidt tries to evolve our style of play this year. I feel he devised a style to win the 6 nations involving a solid kick chase and low error. I think he cut his cloth with the absence of obrien. With his continued absence will we be more of the same or will we look to develop a more ball in hand style and plan for life without SOB? The style of play Schmidt developed at leinster takes time. The varied roles of players depending on where in the line you are etc and understandings are hard to implement especially with so few games between now and the World Cup/6 nations.

  6. ruckinhell

     /  October 29, 2014

    If you wanted to pick a pack for ballast than you could bring in Ruddock for POM or Henry (switch POM to 7) depending on what you wanted from your 7. A very High tempo tackle and work rate (Henry) or a top class thief at lineout and breakdown (POM). A pack of McGrath, Best, Ross, POC, Toner, Ruddock, POM/Toner (same weight) and Heaslip would weigh in at 919 kg based on the Irishrugby.ie profiles, which is in or around the Bok’s pack figures. But weight doesn’t tell the whole story and the Bok counterparts are much more powerful animals than the Irish 8.

    Truth be told, we’re not going to win this game by trying to match the Boks at their own game. On the other hand, the Boks aren’t going to win just by bullying us up front and it’s been a while since Ireland has lost a game due to the sheer physicality of the opposition. The Boks themselves are a much more inventive team in their current iteration and I would hope that some Schmidt magic might get our boys playing the kind of precise rugby that’ll unlock the tightest defences. We also lacked SOB for all of the 6N but thought our way through most of the games, using some excellent mauling to suck in the defenders that his barnstorming runs would otherwise tie up. More of the same with some of the excellent redirects that Munster showed against Sarries.

    One positive point, our starting half backs are both in top notch form- Sexton is doing the business for Racing and Murray is playing like Mike Philips at his pomp without any of the intemperate moments of crass stupidity/indiscipline. If we can find a serviceable centre partnership (for me it would be Olding/Madigan and Henshaw) we’re onto the bones of a very good side.

  7. curates_egg

     /  October 29, 2014

    We simply cannot start Cronin, even if he is the most explosive carrier remaining. The setpiece against the Boks will be key. Given are front-row is already hanging by a thread, there is even a case to be made to but Strauss on the bench rather than Cronin.

    In any case, the type of carries Cronin makes are not close-in carries but when he is standing as second receiver. I think the point HenryFitz makes is pretty pertinent. I also think we’ll see a bit of the 6 Nations tactics employed but am not sure which of the available left wingers is best for that. I am a big fan of Gilroy but haven’t seen this part of his game.

    The squad injuries are massive and we just need to try and survive this autumn series. If we beat either of the two southern hemisphere teams, it will be a great return in the circumstances but it depends very much on their prep and state of mind (will the Boks be winding down after a mixed bag? will Australia be benefiting from a Cheika bounce?).

  8. Lop12

     /  October 29, 2014

    If you use toulon as a benchmark for tight defences there is one Irish player who had significant success carrying against them last season not referenced here. Il give you a clue, he is uncapped and plays in the Pro D2 in france!!!

    Coughlan carried for 49 m against them, in defeat, in very warm conditions, where Munster had little ball, in the semi final last year. For comparison, JH carried for 11 in the QF (Healy 29). Vunipola for nearly 90 in the final (cant remember exactly if one clean break made up most of that or not). in an era where we are struggling for carriers he was overlooked too often. Stander has filled the spot more than capably to be fair at club level.

    Very unlucky player to have run into the most durable forward in world rugby as a competitor for his position.

    • “in an era where we are struggling for carriers he was overlooked too often.”

      I’m not sure we were. It’s only now becoming an issue. Previously, our issues have been around balancing the whole thing properly. In fact when we had Ferris, O’Brien and Heaslip in the backrow the problem was that they were all natural ball carriers and one of them (Heaslip) had to sacrifice his carrying game.

      • Lop12

         /  October 29, 2014

        fair point. Any idea how often those three played in the back row together for Ireland?

        • Not that often, but the other players around them were pretty carry-heavy too. Wally was openside before O’Brien took over and when Ferris became permanently injured, Peter O’Mahony took his place in the team.

  9. as someone else pointed out Ireland wont employ a game based around punching holes in the midfield , we will most likely look to kick chase and attack out wide , we can have a go at this lineout for sure with Toner and O Connell , and with Zebo , Payne and Bowe in the back three theres a massive opportunity to penetrate from deep , the last time Bowe and Zebo played together was against South Africa I think and they were electric.

  10. I don’t think Ruddock is having a bad season or has failed to step up. From what I’ve seen so far this year any team that’s done its home work have had two people on him every time he gets the ball, similar to the way teams dealt with Sob in his second season. The major difference seems to be that unlike Sob Ruddock hasn’t been able to off load to the same extent. Part of that is technique but the bigger part is how poor our support running has been this and last season. At the moment leinster are effectively only using one off strike runners. The big issue I have with this is the pedestrian pass of our players in getting to rucks. We’ve done ok so far but Munster showed that it doesn’t work if the opposition hit the rucks hard. I’d love to think that JS will have ireland either using support runners better or getting to rucks in time to defend them properly. If we don’t a side like the convicts will eat us alive.

  11. The sad thing in all of this is that Kevin McLaughlin has faded away to nothing. He was worthy of a lot more caps, a young POM in particular stole a good few from him, and was a solid prototypical blindside we’re crying out for at the minute. I remember he was great against NZ in 2012 when we lost in the last minute, and this time last year he was a really good sub against NZ..when we lost in the last minute. Sadly I don’t think he’s done anything of note since, and a very inconsistent Ruddock has taken his place. I don’t know whether injury played a part? Bad timing by Kev!

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