Running the new rules over

Much of the debate around intercounty gaelic football at present, now we are in the off-season, has revolved around the 5 experimental rules proposed by the GAA’s Standing Committee on the Playing Rules. If approved, these rules would come into effect for the 2019 National Football League but not for the 2019 championship.

I’m very underwhelmed; being honest I’m very disappointed and hope these rules are not introduced.

Gaelic football in 2018 was often less than entertaining to watch. Going by these proposed new rules, it’s clear that those in charge want there to be more turnovers of possession, more long kicking to tall players and less possession-based football from now on. As the GAA has become more and more business-like, so has the focus on intercounty football as an “entertainment product” increased.

Handpass restriction: “To introduce a restriction of three consecutive passes of the ball with the fist or open hand by players of the team in possession.” 

Sideline kick: “That the ball shall be played in a forward direction from the kick.” 

Mark rule: “To extend the application of the Mark to the clean catching of the ball on or inside the 20m line from a kick delivered on or beyond the 45m line without it touching the ground.”

Sin-Bin: “The Penalty on the day for a Black Card Infraction or two Yellow Card Infractions – an ordering off for ten minutes in a Sin Bin.”

Kick-Out/Zoning: “For a kick-out, two players only from each team shall be positioned between the two 45m lines. The goalkeeper and a maximum of six players from each team shall be behind the respective 45m lines, until the ball is kicked. The ball from the kick-out shall travel beyond the 45m line before being played by a player of the defending team.”

There are two main reasons why gaelic football has evolved into what it currently is: poor enforcement of the playing rules by referees, and an increase in physical capabilities of players. The combination of these two has resulted in the game having fewer turnovers, more fouling from frustrated players and a lack of space on the pitch.

a-view-of-gaelic-football-752x501

Handpass restriction: “To introduce a restriction of three consecutive passes of the ball with the fist or open hand by players of the team in possession” 

Sideline kick: “That the ball shall be played in a forward direction from the kick.” 

Possession

Gaelic football, like rugby or soccer, has evolved into a possession game. Once a team has possession they control the clock, they control scoring, and it is very easy to hold onto the ball as per the rules currently enforced. It is difficult, legally, to dispossess the player with the ball. The first two rules, regarding limiting consecutive handpasses and only playing sideline kicks forward, are a case tackling the end result without getting to the root of the problem. If less possession is what those who control gaelic football want, there are two very easy ways to do so.

The Tackle

The elephant in the room in gaelic football has always been about “defining the tackle”. When I was growing up there were two ways to gain possession. Play the ball with one hand and take it from an opponent, or make a fair physical challenge with the body causing the opponent to lose control of the ball. Both of these have been destroyed in the last 20 years.  The physical challenge has been diluted and diluted to the point where shoulders or physical challenges are rare – they even bring about a cheer bigger than a goal at most games, such is the rarity of seeing a good physical hit. Second, playing the ball with the hand without being penalised has become more and more difficult.

My dad taught me to tackle, and for a forward I wasn’t bad. “You just wait until the guy with the ball goes to play it”, he explained, “and as soon as he does, tip it away. Remember, he has to play it within 4 steps. So use your feet to stay close and he’ll either overcarry, or he’ll play it and you’ll take it.” Quick feet and eyes on the ball. Easy.

Overcarrying

Sadly however, referees don’t enforce carrying rules and players routinely take more than the allowed amount of steps. It is manageable to shadow an opponent’s run for 4 steps; it is very difficult to do so when your opponent can take 10 steps. One assumes referees allow too many steps in an effort to reduce the number of times they blow the whistle and keep continuity in the game. Rather than encouraging play, however, this only makes tackles rarer and frustrates defenders into conceding frees: while referees let overcarrying go, in their own minds to have fewer frees, paradoxically they are encouraging more foul play and certainly more possession football.

Group Tackle

Something which has become very noticeable in any gaelic football match I’ve watched over the last few years is the prevalence of the group (swarm) tackle. It is not that defensive skills are reducing so players cannot dispossess an opponent on their own. No, rather it is that the group tackle is frequently rewarded. Watch what happens when a player is tackled by just one opponent and compare it to what happens when a player is tackled by several opponents at once. When a player is put under huge pressure by just one tackler, he will often win a free. Yet when three tacklers do the exact same thing to a player, that player will concede a free for overcarrying (even if he has not done so).

mayo

Group tackles are the safest way to gain possession as poor refereeing of tackle punishes 1v1 tackles

Believe it or not, massed defence is currently being encouraged by referees. Refereeing solely by the rules will fix it. Sometimes an individual tackler will foul, sometimes he won’t and sometimes a group tackle will and sometimes they won’t. There is a trend of rewarding the group tackle and penalising the individual tackle. Players and coaches will do what’s effective, and the group tackle is very effective as a result of this refereeing trend. This is encouraging massed defence.

Physicality

Physicality has been largely killed from the game. A well-timed, well-executed shoulder is one of the finest skills in the game. The rule makers and rule enforcers have done their best to kill off physical challenges, which is very sad. A shoulder to shoulder contest frequently results in a free or the ball-carrier throwing himself to the ground. Referees don’t seem to want to allow physical challenges or too much aggression. An attempt at a shoulder which isn’t absolutely perfectly times is likely to get a player sent off: as a result fewer players even try to make legal, physical challenges.

 

Centre Back

Two of the great centre backs, Glenn Ryan and Keith Barr

Growing up in the era I did, a centre back meeting a player running through with a well timed, legal hit was a joy. Centre backs like Keith Barr, Stephen O’Brien, Conor Counihan or Glen Ryan were excellent footballers who were also hard, physical stoppers at the heart of their teams. In my opinion, the removal of the physical holding centre back has in large part led to massed defences (and the “sweepers” so many hate). Physical challenges on ball carriers coming from midfield are a thing of the past, and so teams line up 3, 4 or 5 players in this area looking to swarm the ball carrier instead.

Handpasses and kicking sidelines forward may remove some of the possession aspects of the game, but these two rule changes entirely miss the point.

Long High Ball

The mark rule will reward big full forwards and kicking the ball long to them. People are sad to see the long, high ball gone from the game. But was this long, high ball really what we loved, is it what we long for? When I was growing up the forwards I looked at and admired were guys like Peter Canavan, Mickey Linden, Padraic Joyce, Declan Browne, Bernard Flynn, Colm O’Rourke, Mattie Forde, Maurice Fitzgerald, Colin Corkery, Stephen O’Neill, Steven McDonnell, Benny Coulter. Ask me would I rather watch a Kieran Donaghy at full forward or a Peter Canavan,  and I’ll say Canavan every day of the week and twice on a Sunday. And you can swap in any of those other players I’ve named for Canavan. Skill, speed and accuracy are what I want to see in forwards, not big fellas catching marks. That’s Aussie Rules people should watch if that’s what they’re looking for.

Space

The mark rule change misses the point. Making the game about kicking again isn’t a case of forcing teams to do so, or creating rewards for it, it’s simply an issue of SPACE. What we are missing from the game is space in front of goal for skilful, fast, agile forwards to play in. Not big balls lumped in towards tall players. If there was space in front of goal, everyone would kick the ball. This rule will bring in tall full forward players, which I’m not in favour of. Creating space in front of goal, and all over the pitch for that matter, is what we need. How to do this? Not by forcing teams to do so, not by rewarding tall players who can catch balls lumped in, not by backcourt rules I’ve seen some mention and not by forcing players to hold positions with ridiculous zonal rules (like having to keep 4 men inside the 45 or other similar nonsense).

Space

Space in attack leads to long kicking in front of full forwards and great scores. Creating space should be the priority.

Playing Numbers

There are just too many players on the field at present. 15 is too many. 15 players, in the physical condition they currently are in means there is zero space on the pitch, especially when you factor in a ball that, unlike hurling, can only travel about 50 metres accurately (at most). We are all told when we’re under-12 that “the ball moves faster than you ever will” – with current conditioning levels that gap is now minimal. Reduce the numbers on the field to 13 for each team and plenty of space will open up, letting players use the ball optimally (i.e. they will kick it more as it will make more sense to do so). There is no good reason I have ever heard for not reducing the number of players.

Three Yellows?

 

Yellows

Three yellows. Madness.

I have never been a fan of the black card. But with these proposals you can get two yellows and you miss 10 mins? Then come back on and you’ll need a third yellow to be dismissed. Come on. A Sin Bin instead of a black card is not a bad option, but not in this form. Allow it to be introduced instead of the black card, or even better, instead of the black AND yellow card. So you are off for 10 with either black or yellow, then come back on and if you get any other card you’re off permanently. But two yellows, then a third? A poor idea in it’s current form.

The Kickout

As gaelic football is currently played, being a possession game, the kickout is the only time a team gets to contest possession. With this new rule only one kind of kickout will be allowed: a long ball past the ’45 to midfielders. I really enjoy watching high fielding from kickouts and personally like when the ball is delivered long to be contested. The GAA has already brought in the kickout mark which tries to encourage long kickouts. However this latest proposed amendment to the kickout rules goes too far.

Whoever has the best midfield and goalkeeper will win every game as they’ll win most possession. It’s as simple as that, and it’s a punishment for teams who don’t have strong fielding midfield players. The short kickout came into vogue with Cluxton who has made it an art, but it is used lots by smaller teams or teams with weaker goalkeepers. It concerns me the will for more and more big players to be rewarded in the game and this rule does that. From being a game where your team decides how best to win possession based on the strengths of your personnel, the game now becomes about who has the two best fielders. It is also worth noting that in a country where games are frequently affected by wind, even the best goalkeepers sometimes struggle to get the ball past the ’45.

Bad Refereeing

Poor refereeing has damaged gaelic football more than any tactic or rule

The Issues

Gaelic football has become a possession game. Teams prefer to carry the ball and use short passing to hold possession and advance the ball upfield rather than kicking it longer. Kicking longer is a risk because there is such limited space on the field due to playing numbers and the physical capabilties of those players. Physical challenges on ball carriers have been discouraged, and fairly tackling the ball with the hand has been also discouraged through normalised overcarrying. .

Root Causes & Solutions

The root cause is what we need to tackle, not the manifestation.

We want more long kicking: the GAA is trying to do this with both the carrot (the mark) and the stick (kickout rules). Opening up more space will organically lead to exactly what we want.

We want more turnovers: the GAA is trying to do this with the stick twice (handpass rule & sideline rule). Creating an environment where players can challenge for the ball when it’s in an opponent’s hands will again organically lead to the desired solution.

Kicking will be encouraged by making more space on the field. Reducing the playing numbers to 13 will open this space we need so much. Massed defences will cease to be an issue with reduced playing numbers. In tandem, allowing some physicality back into the game will create more turnovers we badly need. So too will more accurate refereeing by following the rule book more closely, specifically with regard to overcarrying. If the ball has to leave a player’s hands every 4 steps, we will see lots of legal challenges on the ball in one-on-one tackles, and more turnovers.

 

Tipperary: 2018 Selections

It’s fair to say Tipperary hurlers under-performed this year. They have failed to progress past the Munster round-robin series, finishing the season with two draws against Cork and Waterford and two losses to Limerick and Clare. Michael Ryan is coming under pressure from within his own county. Many will be wondering with so many talented players at their disposal, how could Tipperary not manage a single win out of four games in the Munster championship.

Something noticeable throughout the year was the number of changes Michael Ryan made for each game in the league and championship this year. He never settled on a team, trying out many players in every position. I decided to have a look at those selections.

Tipperary used 37 players in their 12 competitive matches this year. Here’s that list of players:

Tipperary Players 2018

It is inevitable that there will be injuries in any squad. For example, Seamus Callanan missed much of the year through injury. Noel McGrath also missed a chunk of games through injury. There is also the need to try players out during a league campaign. Teams with too settled a side often regret it, having few options available on the bench come championship time.

Having a look through which players played in which position most often makes for interesting reading.

Tipperary Positions 2018

A couple of positions were nailed down. Jason Forde started 10 of the 12 games at full forward. Padraig Maher started 9 of the 12 games at centre back. Centre forward appeared to be Noel McGrath’s spot until injury hit, and was then the number 11 jersey was given to Billy McCarthy until McGrath returned. That though is where the structute ends.

Paul Maher and Darragh Mooney both had two games each in the league before Brian Hogan was given a chance. Even then Mooney came back in for the league semi-final and final before being dropped for championship for Hogan. Full back was the most problematic position for Tipp all year. James Barry and Tomas Hamill were both given half the league campaign each at full back, before Kilkenny and Walter Walsh destroyed the Tipperary full back line in the League Final. Neither Barry nor Hamill played a single minute of championship hurling since, with untested Seamus Kennedy handed the role.

Wing back was also a spot where many were tried, 10 different players starting there during the year. Eventually Joe O’Dwyer nailed down one spot, but he had only started 1 league game. Barry Heffernan played most of the league but only got 1 championship game. Sean Curran started every league game at wing forward and the first championship game, before being dropped and only making one substitute appearance in the last 3 games.

Corner forward was a revolving door, 10 different players getting starts, with John McGrath and Michael Breen starting most often. Breen had just one substitute appearance in championship.

Perhaps most surprising is that Cathal Barrett only started 3 games all season, and John O’Dwyer even more surprisingly only started 2.

Here’s the Tipperary team showing those who most often wore each jersey during the season.

Tipperary Avg Selection

Having a settled team is not a necessity, but I am a believer in having at least a framework to add in and take out players a manager wants to try. By all means try out players, it’s essential, but keeping one or two players in each line more or less constant through the year helps those coming in.

Here’s what Tipp’s team could have looked like, and how I personally would like to have seen them line out in a championship game.

Tipperary Possible Selection

Ryan can not be accused of taking the league too seriously. Yes, Tipperary reached the league final, but that was more down to the amount of talent at their disposal than it was about consistently picking their top players in pursuit of wins.

Experienced managers like Brian Cody have trying out new players down to an art at this stage. Kilkenny this year tried out lots of players in many of their positions, yet they held their structure. A team which is evolving (in transition we were told!), yet Cody tested and tweaked without hurting the team’s cohesion. Eoin Murphy was goalkeeper. Padraig Walsh full back with Paddy Deegan and Joey Holden next to him. Cillian Buckley at centre back, TJ Reid at centre forward and Walter Walsh at full forward. Around these 7 players Kilkenny slotted in different players at midfield, wing back and on the flanks in attack.

Management is a steep learning curve. I hope Michael Ryan is retained by Tipperary although he will come under huge pressure. He will have learned a lot from this season, and will make the changes needed. For the job he has done, he deserves another year.

One thing is for sure. With the amount of talent available, if they can settle on their best team, Tipperary will be a very dangerous animal next year.

Kilkenny v Wexford: Battle of Freetakers

Kilkenny against Wexford at Nowlan Park on Saturday evening was always going to be one of the games of the year. Much was made of the four weekends in a row that Wexford had to play in the run up to the Kilkenny game. Whether that made a difference I cannot quantify. Frees and freetaking played a large part in the Kilkenny victory on Saturday night.

Here is the Kilkenny freetaking from the match.

Kilkenny Shot Chart End View Final 1

Kilkenny had 6 frees inside the Wexford half, and scored 5 of them, with just one unexplainable miss from TJ Reid from the Wexford 45 in front of goal just before half-time. The frees were taken by Reid, apart from one monster point from inside his own 45 in the first half from Eoin Murphy.

In contrast, here are the Wexford shots at goal from frees in the game.

Wexford Shot Chart End View Final 1

Wexford used a mix of freetakers, with Rory O’Connor having 5 shots, Padraig Foley having 5 shots and Mark Fanning having 2 shots. Just 3 of Wexford’s free in the entire game were in Kilkenny’s half, with 9 of their free shots at goal coming from their own half.

We can see the positions of the frees awarded to both sides here.

KK v Wex Free Positions 1

We can see that Wexford’s frees were mainly awarded centrally just inside their own half, whereas Kilkenny won frees either inside Wexford’s 45 or down the wings. Kilkenny put up a shield of players across midfield and their own half-back line in the second half and were very aggressive in competing for the ball in that ares. In addition, Wexford’s running game and lack of ball winning options close to goal meant that most of their possession was in their middle third. In contrast Kilkenny won more ball close to goal, and played ball down the wings often.

Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald spoke about the refereeing after the game. “We only needed a point [at the end]. I could pick two or three examples where we could have gotten a point. Where we should have got a decision going our way, we found it very hard to get frees out there today” he told Sky Sports after the game.  I agree with Davy’s summation to an extent. I feel that the refereeing was more lenient in the second half, and that’s despite more frees being awarded than in the first half. Kilkenny stepped up their intensity, put massive physical pressure on Wexford players, and Davy may be right that many frees were not awarded which could or should have been. However, the success rates of each teams’ freetakers was really key.

Kilkenny Freetakers Success Rate

What can be seen from the numbers is that Kilkenny have two brilliant freetakers in TJ Reid and goalkeeper Eoin Murphy on the very long-range frees. Reid hit 8 out of 9 (89%) with only that one miss, and Murphy hit his one free successfully (100%). Kilkenny scored 9 out of 10 (90%) frees on the day (in addition TJ Reid also scored a 65).

Wexford Freetakers Success Rate

In contrast, Wexford were far less successful with their frees in the game. They used three freetakers. Rory O’Connor scored 2 out of 5 attempts (40%), Padraig Foley was better getting 4 out of 5 attempts (80%) while Mark Fanning was unsuccessful with his two long range efforts (0%). Overall Wexford scored 6 out of 12 frees they had, for a 50% success rate.

That’s a big difference between the two teams: Kilkenny at 90% and Wexford at 50%. While I am in agreement that Wexford were hard done by at stages in the second half with some refereeing decisions, I am a believer in controlling the controllables. Wexford may legitimately have issues with some decisions, but that cannot control the referee. They can, however, control their own freetaking ability.

Having a reliable freetaker is an issue that has followed Wexford for a couple of seasons now. Paul Morris, Jack Guiney, Conor McDonald and Lee Chin have all been appointed freetaker by Wexford in recent seasons, only to have been relieved of the duties. Midway through this seasons National League young Rory O’Connor stepped up to become the freetaker and was certainly an improvement. But we can see from the Kilkenny game he had a dip in his success rate.

Without a top freetaker it will be hard for Wexford to come out on the right side of tight games like Saturday night’s thriller in Nowlan Park. If they had upped their freetaking to just 75% they’d have won the game. Players like Joe Canning, Pauric Mahony, Shane Dowling, Pat Horgan and Jason Forde are top of the range freetakers, and make teams think twice about fouling. Kilkenny had no such fear of punishment against Wexford. They could play right on the edge, knowing that if they fouled Wexford out the field, it would be 50/50 whether Wexford would score. Either way Kilkenny would get the ball back.

As Davy Fitzgerald said himself on Saturday “they got a lot more scores from their frees than we got from ours. Look at the positions, look at where we got our frees. You can say I’m whinging – I’m not. I work on statistics, on fact”.

What would Wexford give to have TJ Reid and Eoin Murphy hitting their frees.

Offaly Hurling – Some Numbers

Offaly, going by the rules currently in place, will have their senior hurlers relegated to the secondary competition, the Joe McDonagh Cup, for 2019. They had started the year brightly with a good win against Dublin, finished with a walloping against Dublin, and had a narrow loss to Kilkenny in the league. It was a disappointing year.

I’ve put together some Offaly Senior hurlers stats from the last 5 National Hurling Leagues and All-Ireland Championships. From 2014 to 2018, these are the basic numbers the Offaly hurlers put up summarised.

First, here’s the totals.Offaly Stats 2014-2018

Offaly had a total of 49 league and championship games over the 5 seasons. In this time they won 15 games, lost 33 games and had 1 draw. Their total points difference was -278, which is an average loss by 5.67 points. Most notable are 13+ point average losses against Clare, Galway, Waterford, Tipperary and Kilkenny over the past  5 years.

Here is the Offaly record against teams currently competing in the Liam McCarthy Cup over the last 5 years.

Offaly Stats Liam McCarthy 2014-2018

Against Liam McCarthy Cup teams, the reading is stark. Offaly played 30 times against the top 9 teams in the country in the last 5 years in competitive hurling. They managed just 3 wins, 1 draw and 26 losses. Their total score difference over those 30 games is -323, an average of almost 11 points per game. Even against teams like Wexford and Limerick, who have had tough times over the last 5 years (this year apart), Offaly have a pretty poor record of played 11, won 2, drew 1 and lost 8.

Looking then at the Offaly record against those teams in the Joe McDonagh Cup, here it their record over the same period.

Offaly Stats Joe McDonagh 2014-2018

Here we can see Offaly fared better. 19 games, with 12 wins and 7 losses and a positive points difference of 45, an average of 2.37 per game. Offaly didn’t play Meath in either National League or Championship in this period.

There are two sides to the argument as to whether Offaly should remain in the Liam McCarthy Cup. I watched Ger Loughnane on RTE’s Sunday Game the other evening and he was quite passionate that Offaly should go down to the Joe McDonagh Cup and regroup. I’ve also seen other pundits like Tom Dempsey and Liam Sheedy speak about the need to keep Offaly at the top table, lest an elite hurling county be lost – there are only 10 and it would be a real shame were we to lose one.

From what the numbers say, Offaly belong in the Joe McDonagh Cup. They do not belong in a competition where they take 13+ point beatings on average from many of the teams. They have a losing record against every team in the Liam McCarthy Cup except Dublin. Against the Joe McDonagh Cup teams they have played over the last 5 years, they have a winning record, but still have lost to Kerry, lost to Westmeath, lost twice to Antrim, and three times have lost to Laois. Against these 5 Joe McDonagh Cup teams, they on average outscore their opponents by slightly more than 2 points per game. Sadly, for whatever reasons, this is Offaly’s standard.

It’s easy to understand where Tom Dempsey and Liam Sheedy are coming from, it is such a shame that this is where Offaly find themselves. It is a shame that there are really 9 teams who are competitive in a 10 team competition this season, and a tragedy for a game trying to grow itself if one elite team falls. But the horse has already bolted. Offaly haven’t been a top team for a long time. The numbers speak for themselves. The hurling community has done it one way for a long time. There have always been enough teams that Offaly could win one extra game to stay up. In 2014 when Offaly had lost a relegation playoff to Antrim to be bottom of Division 1B – the playoff meant they could beat Kerry in a relegation/promotion playoff to stay up.

The current format seems to be working and it has been a very enjoyable championship. Both Anthony Daly and Davy Fitzgerald have said we need one free weekend in the middle of the round-robin section, and I think this will happen next year. The 10 team championship is working. Likewise there have been some very good games at Joe McDonagh level. I hope this is retained for next season with one up and sadly one, Offaly, down.

 

NFL Division 4 2018

This Spring I had the privilege of spending my Sundays watching some excellent football in the Allianz National Football League Division 4. There aren’t many who watched each team this year. Some good matches and some very good football was on display, I must say I really enjoyed travelling around watching Carlow, Laois, Antrim, London, Leitrim, Waterford, Limerick and Wicklow. Dr Cullen Park in Carlow and Wicklow’s home ground Aughrim will always be places I love going to.

Sadly, the snow over the past few weeks put a spanner in the works and led to several matches being postponed. And then worse, cancelled altogether. I think that the GAA has dropped the ball on not rescheduling the Division 4 games which currently remain to be played. For teams in Division 4, whether they will admit it or not, the league is the big competition of the year. If it isn’t, it should be. They get games against teams at their own level, and the opportunity to pull themselves out of the basement and into Division 3 and onwards. There is the opportunity to build and be competitive in a way that the championship doesn’t permit. Now we are left with these teams having played one game less – Leitrim have only had five games. Many will only get two championship games this summer, losing both. That’s the reality. Worse again, the league has been demeaned by the GAA in not fulfilling these fixtures. What competition, anywhere, is called off as soon as a champion is identified?

My team of Division 4 is below. There are excellent footballers in the division, spread among all teams. The team I’ve picked is just my own appraisal from the games I watched, I didn’t see every game played. For example, Wicklow have some good players but when I watched Wicklow play Laois they were totally outgunned and it was very difficult to pick anyone out from their side.

  1. Donal O’Sullivan (Limerick) – excellent kickouts, Limerick’s strategy and O’Sullivan’s delivery were very impressive. Good shot stopper and all-round footballer.
  2. Peter Healy (Antrim) – pacy, skilful footballer. Defended well and got forward to good effect.
  3. Michael McWeeney (Leitrim) – strong, tenacious defender who’ll pick up opposition’s most dangerous forward.
  4. David Connolly (Limerick) – sweeps across the D shielding his man marking colleagues, very good reader of the game.
  5. Shane Ryan (Waterford) – good reader of the game, does a great job picking up loose opposition runners.
  6. Colm Begley (Laois) – strong, good in the air, reads the game well, times attacking runs perfectly, shields full back line.
  7. Adrian Moyles (London) – more known as a forward, looked very good at wing back when used there.
  8. Brendan Murphy (Carlow) – excellent throughout the league. Gets forward to kick scores, works hard off the ball and has curtailed discipline issues. Game changer for Carlow when on form.
  9. Sean Murphy (Carlow) – teak tough and virtually unstoppable when soloing towards goal. Works hard and one of the fastest players in the country.
  10. Darragh Foley (Carlow) – one of my favourite players in the league. Total all-rounder, good aerially, kicks scores, defends well. Very important to Carlow’s game.
  11. Liam Gavaghan (London) – lead London brilliantly. Scores, carries really well and wins kickouts, excellent all-rounder.
  12. Paul Kingston (Laois) – lovely footballer. Great vision to pick out teammates and a dangerous scorer.
  13. Paul Broderick (Carlow) – one of the best freetakers in the country and the best in this division. A handful in open play too. Averaged just over 7 points a game, second only to Gary Walsh
  14. Gary Walsh (Laois) – now suspended by Laois for the League final as a result of a tweet, but was superb in front of goal for Laois throughout the league, scoring 4-41 in just 6 games, almost 9 points a game.
  15. Ryan Murray (Antrim) – very quick,agile and tough to mark, even more so with his brother Conor feeding him from the half-forward line.

I must also mention the following players: Daniel St Ledger (Carlow), Sean Gannon (Carlow), Kieran Butler (London), Donal Wrynn (Leitrim), Keith Beirne (Leitrim), Darren Hayden (Wicklow), Sean O’Dea (Limerick), Seamus O’Carroll (Limerick), Trevor Collins (Laois), Kieran Lillis (Laois), John O’Loughlin (Laois), Ross Munnelly (Laois), Evan O’Carroll (Laois), Niall McKeever (Antrim), Conor Murray (Antrim), Paddy McBride (Antrim), Matthew Fitzpatrick (Antrim). All were really impressive when I watched them.

The quality of goalkeepers in the division was excellent. I picked Donal O’Sullivan in the above team, but Chris Kerr of Antrim, Gavin McEvoy of London and Graham Brody of Laois were top class. Brody in particular, with his adventurous runs upfield, was class.

London Antrim

League Final

The league final between neighbours Carlow and Laois is exciting. The irresistible force meets the immovable object. Laois going forward are superb: Paul Kingston, Ross Munnelly, Evan O’Carroll, Eoin Lowry, Lillis and O’Loughlin coming from midfield, and the prospect of Gary Walsh missing tempered by the likelihood of Donie Kingston taking his place. Carlow, on the other hand, are the best team defensively I’ve watched this Spring. They have a very effective system, three Murphys, Gannon and Foley are big men who work their arses off around the middle and their backline give up few chances. I genuinely can’t pick a winner between the two. I’m delighted for both they’re going up.

Laois football

What does championship hold for the Division 4 teams?

  • Laois start out the Leinster championship against Wexford, and I’d have them as favourites to beat them. The winners will have Westmeath, and if Laois get through that’s a game I’ll go to as I think it’ll be serious stuff in every sense of the word. Laois are not happy where they are and they’re hungry.
  • Carlow will not fear Louth in their Leinster championship opener. Louth had a poor league and both sides will be in Division 3 next season. Carlow are on the crest of a wave and it will be a great test for them. The winners will play Kildare, Carlow again would cause them serious trouble if they get through.
  • Antrim will be very disappointed to have failed to gain promotion from Division 4. They, in some ways, were unlucky to have had a Carlow team on a mission and a quality side like Laois in with them this year. If they can keep their squad together, keep their heads down working away between now and the Down game, they could put out a very good performance against their neighbours.
  • London have had their best league in years and look to be forever improving under Ciaran Deely’s management. A Connacht first round match with Sligo will be a big challenge, but a winnable one nonetheless. The league performance should give them confidence and they’ll be looking to kick on with a big championship performance.
  • Leitrim had a mixed league, some good performance mixed with poor ones. If they can get Dean McGovern, Michael McWeeneny, Donal Wrynn, Emlyn Mulligan, Ryan O’Rourke and Keith Beirne all fit and on the pitch at the same time, they should overcome New York in their game. But it is definitely a potential banana skin.
  • Waterford are rightly disappointed that a game against Leitrim now won’t happen. It would have been a big test, and they’ll be happy to have beaten London to finish their league positively. A game against Tipperary in the Munster Championship will be tough, and they will surely be big underdogs for it.
  • Limerick had a tough league. They’ve lost a lot of their panel and are starting from a low base. They play a Clare team performing really well and holding their own in Division 2. It could sadly be a short summer for Limerick I fear.
  • Wicklow are a side I worry a lot about. They have struggled at midfield for a few seasons, to the point of persuading James Stafford back out of retirement. Two draws is all they managed in the league, taking hidings from Laois, Leitrim London and Carlow along the way. Offaly aren’t the worst draw for Wicklow in Leinster, but I can’t see them playing more than two games this summer.

To sweep or not to sweep, that is the question

The two main exponents of the sweeper system played each other in Pairc Ui Caoimh yesterday afternoon. Waterford’s Tadhg De Burca and Shaun Murphy of Wexford are high up on the list of the amount of coverage given to individual players this season. Derek McGrath and Davy Fitzgerald are probably the two most passionate believers in the sweeper system, while several in the media such as Michael Duignan, Henry Shefflin and Diarmuid Lyng have recently taken issue with it. Who’s right?

 

Here’s my take on it. The sweeper as employed by Wexford and Waterford has been a very effective means for dealing with a problem both teams have – they don’t have huge strength in depth, and select their teams from about 20 players. They don’t have the luxury that Kilkenny or Tipperary, or even Cork or Galway have, of being able to find 4 or 5 good players out of under-21 each year. These sides had good crops from a couple of good underage sides, and then little else besides. Good hurlers don’t grow on trees in Wexford and Waterford. So they need to make do with what they have. Both sides have a huge emphasis on fitness, being competitive and being hard to beat. I would imagine, without knowing either manager, that if they are asked where one starts with a county team, their answer would be “the first thing you need, is to be hard to beat”. That, in essence, is where the sweeper comes from. They have underdog teams, and they want to make sure that whatever happens, the scoreline is close and they are hard to beat.

 

I know where Michael Duignan and Diarmuid Lyng and the lads are coming from. I heard it mentioned on the radio last week that the sweeper system ultimately shows a distrust in the players available. And to be fair, I think that pretty much hits the nail on the head. It does show a distrust in the ability of the players available, but that’s not an unfair assumption to make. Wexford haven’t been consistently competitive since the 90’s. Davy Fitz’s job once he came in was to make sure that Wexford could compete. No big losses, build confidence by getting wins and build cohesion and belief within the team by developing their own style of play. Once Justin McCarthy left Waterford, the wheels came off down there and Derek McGrath has been forced to develop a new side with only a couple of veterans like Brick Walsh and Kevin Moran. The last thing a whole raft of young players coming in need is big defeats, and just like recent times in Wexford, a system was built to make sure Waterford could consistently be in with a shout in every match they play.

 

The traditionalists are correct too though. I too don’t think a team will consistently compete for All-Irelands playing with a sweeper. The only way a team could compete consistently at All-Ireland level is if they had 5 forwards who could do the job of 6 – funnily enough both Kilkenny and Tipperary have the forwards and numbers of hurlers to do this. (If I was Tipperary I’d bring in a wing-back, move Paidi Maher to sweeper and let Callinan, Maher, two McGraths and Bubbles compete against 6 back up the other end. I’m convinced they’d win the All-Ireland if they did). I think against the very best teams that a team may struggle to get the scores, particularly goals, they need when playing with fewer men up front. It’s a problem to assess accurately though, as the teams who do play with sweepers usually have fewer scoring forwards – Wexford really just have Conor McDonald and Waterford have Shane Bennett and Maurice Shanahan (who doesn’t always start).

 

Wexford showed a couple of limitations yesterday which Waterford exploited. While Shaun Murphy sat in front of his full-back line, Waterford put pressure on the Wexford half-back line instead: Brick Walsh, Kevin Moran and Pauraic Mahony were the guys doing the damage for the first three quarters of the game. Little ball went into Shane Bennett in this period and it was only with Wexford chasing the game and Waterford withdrawing further back that there was space for Maurice Shanahan and Brian O’Halloran to close out the game inside. Derek McGrath in fairness is very tactically astute and nullified Wexford’s spare man at the back by just never hitting the ball there. Waterford too showed a killer instinct and went after specific Wexford players, particularly Willie Devereux with Brick first and Jake Dillon then.

 

One of the major issues with the sweeper is that teams can tend to focus on defence and not so much on attack. Waterford had a great plan that worked. What Wexford were trying to do was less obvious. Personally, I believe one of the best ways to counteract the sweeper is to puck the ball straight down on top of him, just as Tipperary did to Waterford last year. A sweeper is most valuable when covering space and being an outlet option for his teammates. Nullify him by putting the ball long on top of him to be contested. With lads like Jack Guiney, Conor Mc and Podge Doran, Wexford had options for that long ball. The closer the contest is to the sweeper, the less effective he is – a ball contested 15 yards away is what a sweeper wants, not a full forward and full back coming out under a high ball on top of him. Kilkenny too in the past have had success by doing it when Richie Power was full forward, even Waterford themselves have gone this route with Maurice in there.

 

To me, the sweeper system currently being employed isn’t perfect, but then neither are the other systems which pass for being “traditional”. Every team wants to close off space in their half and open it up in the opponents half. Kilkenny have been doing this for years in their own way – we’ve all seen Eoin Larkin and TJ Reid winning ball around their own 45, just watch last year’s replay with Waterford. So too Tipperary in the All-Ireland final last year. Or even go back to when Duignan himself played. The Offaly style was to get to the ball first and keep it moving in; the glorious ground hurling they played opened up space inside for guys. It’s all down to what resources you have, how you can be at your most competitive and how you think you can score more than the team opposite you. Winning 0-6 to 0-5 is as good as winning 3-24 to 4-20. A manager tries to problem solve his way to victory, particularly true when managing an underdog, and sometimes this coming up with things which aren’t aesthetically wonderful.

 

I hope both teams can transition their games next year and beyond to become more attack-minded. As players develop and mature they should be more capable of winning their battles without a numerical advantage. If I was manager of either side, I’d make sure that once the sweeper system was second-nature to the players they hurled different ways in challenge games and meaningless games like the Walsh Cup. Get guys used to competing 1-v-1. Get them used to long ball into the square. Not shooting outside the 45. Use the meaningless games as conditioned training games, but against top opposition. Build the arsenal needed to change tactics in big games. Clare could have done with something like this on Saturday. The sweeper has its place, particularly when you’re an underdog, but you need more too.

 

Davy and Michael cool the beans lads. Ye are both right.

Warburton & O’Brien win breakdown battle

The selection of Sam Warburton over Peter O’Mahony was a huge call, and one that Warren Gatland has been proven correct on. Warburton was a menace on Saturday, dovetailing beautifully with Sean O’Brien to unsettle an All Blacks attack which looked excellent in the 1st Test. They went after New Zealand at ruck time and made life much more uncomfortable for Aaron Smith after the armchair ride he had a week previously.

Last week, the breakdown battle in the 1st Test was central to the All Blacks’ win. New Zealand played with quick ball all day and Aaron Smith looked incredible. The pressure exerted on the Lions’ defence because of their unwillingness to contest the breakdown was massive, and playing on the back foot for so much of the game meant it was almost inevitable the All Blacks would create try scoring opportunities. This week the Lions came out of this contest much better. Before starting, it must be stated that the All Blacks played 55 minutes of the game with 14 men, meaning they played with only two men in the back row as Jerome Kaino was withdrawn to allow debutant Ngani Laumape be brought into midfield to replace Sonny-Bill Williams. Playing for so long down a back row couldn’t not have had a big impact on the breakdown.

Warren Gatland confirmed last week that Warburton would come in for Peter O’Mahony and Maro Itoje for George Kruis. Itoje brought huge energy to the Lions team, while Warburton’s ability at the ruck was a key reason for the Lions victory. Moreover, the infusion of Itoje’s energy and combative nature plus Warburton’s leadership and determination to compete at the breakdown rubbed off on the rest of the Lions forwards, who were far more confrontational throughout.

In the 1st Test the Lions rarely committed any players to contest New Zealand rucks. Of New Zealand’s 131 rucks the Lions contested only 18 times, or 14% of the time (contrast this to New Zealand contesting 35% of Lions ball). They stood off and tried to organise their defensive line as quickly as they could. The result was predictable: with no contest at the ruck, New Zealand could play the game with as much quick ball as they wanted. Aaron Smith was like a hummingbird, a blur of energy pinging the ball here and there. Not only that, Smith could use quick ball himself, sniping from the base of the ruck with quick ball. In all he carried 11 times himself. The All Blacks gain lined again and again, their attack played on the front foot all day, and the Lions couldn’t get their defence set and off the line quick enough.

From the start of the 2nd Test, even before the Lions had a numerical advantage, they were showing far more aggression at ruck time. Here’s a great example.

1st contest Warburton and Jones

Here we see Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones in over the ball early in the contest, forcing the All Blacks cleaners to work for the ball. Competing at the breakdown like this was very necessary. It slowed the ball, even for just a second. This second is pure gold dust- it gives the defence an extra second to get set, which plugs any gaps and allows the defence to get off the line quickly.

Perhaps the best example of this was a brilliant piece of play from Liam Williams in the second half. 

Williams Contest 1

 

New Zealand make a line break which is caught by the excellent Maro Itoje. Again at this breakdown we can see Warburton hovering with intent, but it is Liam Williams who gets into a brilliant position to contest the ball on the ground. 

Williams Contest 2

Immediately the All Blacks are poised to attack a very disorganised Lions defence which has had no chance to set. Barrett is screaming for the ball, with Laumape and Read next to him, and Naholo out wide, perfect to attack a broken defence. Lawes and Sexton are the only two Lions set, with Jones and Farrell scrambling to get into the line.

Williams Contest 3

Williams contesting the ruck has slowed it long enough for the Lions defence to get set. It is a brilliant piece of play from him which has almost certainly saved a try. We can see the All Blacks 4 attackers in almost an identical position. But now look at the Lions defence. 8 strong on this side of the ruck, with a perfect line, all ready to get off the line. It forces Barrett into a grubber through which Daly tidies up. Sometimes people don’t notice this kind of work, but Williams entering the ruck and making it a real contest has bought the defence a vital two seconds.

Sam Warburton made a nuisance of himself all game. It was almost funny to hear the commentary punctuated every few seconds with the voice of Jerome Garces shouting “leave it 6!”, which must surely have been music to the Lions’ coaching staffs ears.

Warburton Hovers 1

Here we see Warburton loitering with intent, as he did all game. It was notable that the Lions kept Warburton and Sean O’Brien in the middle of their defence as much as possible, with both putting in huge tackles and hovering with a view to contest. Despite there being 5 All Blacks in the picture, plus a ball carrier, it is Warburton who gets to the breakdown.

Warburton Contest 1

He gets to the ball first and would have won a penalty for the Lions, but that Garces was playing advantage for an earlier infringement. Even still, it is well worth contesting, as the All Blacks have made a habit of scoring from advantage plays.

The Lions attitude had changed and they set out to contest far more often and with more aggression this time around. The statistics bear this difference out. In the 1st Test the Lions contested 14% (18 out of 131) of New Zealand rucks. In the 2nd Test, this improved to a respectable 28% (22 out of 78) of All Black breakdowns contested, double the rate of the 1st Test. The selection of Warburton was crucial to this change.

One other factor the Lions improved upon was their spacing at ruck time. Aaron Smith’s sniping from the ruck was seriously limited because of the ability of the Lions to slow the ball. In this game, he only carried himself once in the game, in contrast to his 7 carries from the first game. The Lions fringe defence set up much tighter than in the 1st Test, closing off gaps for Smith to attack and challenging the All Blacks to move the ball wide in very wet, testing conditions.

Spacing

Here we can see the Lions have made sure the All Blacks will not make any easy yards around the ruck. There are 9 Lions players within 15m of the sideline. And a further 4 players between the 15m line and centrefield. The Lions learned their lesson from the first game and if they couldn’t contest the ruck to slow the ball, made sure they had numbers close in forcing the All Blacks to move the ball.

The breakdown battle is crucial to any match, and even more so when playing New Zealand. This battle was lost in the 1st Test, and won in the 2nd Test. Whoever wins the 3rd Test will have managed to contest more often and disrupt their opponents’ rucks. In Warburton and O’Brien, the Lions have two flankers who can really compete, but in the 3rd Test they’ll face Cane and Kaino for a full 80 mins. It’s going to be fascinating to see if the Lions can be as aggressive again. And one thing is for sure, O’Brien and Warburton will be marked men.

Box kick blues

Warren Gatland: “From my point of view, if someone pushes him [Murray] afterwards, that’s fine but diving at his leg? I know other teams have used that in the past and I think Joe [Schmidt] has come out and was pretty critical about that being a tactic other teams have used against Conor. It’s just a safety issue for me. I’d hate to see someone dive at his leg and have him blow a knee and then wreck his rugby career.”

Murray hit
The Jerome Kaino tackle which connected with Conor Murray’s standing left leg.

This article is some analysis of the box kick, what it is, pros and cons, and why all the fuss about Conor Murray at the moment.

What is it? Probably more so than ever before, teams are using the high contested box kick as an attacking tactic. From most positions on the field, teams are electing to forsake constructive attacking play in favour of a high box kick where the ball lands 30m downfield to be contested by, usually, both sides’ wingers. As the ball is launched skywards, wingers (and others) give chase hoping to win possession further upfield, to knock the opposing catcher into touch, or to put the opposition under pressure far downfield.

Why so popular? The rules of the game, as they are refereed currently, make the box kick almost impossible to prevent. A scrumhalf standing at the base of a ruck positions players in front of him in a line where they physically block off any opposing player who attempts to charge down the impending kick. It is near impossible to charge down a box kick currently, with teams blockers drilled to be in the correct position as soon as a box kick is called. The box kick has become more popular than the wipers kick looking for touch, and the Garryowen (up-and-under) where the outhalf launches the high bomb instead.

What’s happening? Currently there is a lot of attention being directed toward Conor Murray, the Irish and B&I Lions scrumhalf. He is the world’s best box-kicker, and his teams make use of his ability to box-kick to contest as often as they can. On Saturday Murray kicked the ball 11 times, passed it 50 times and ran just 3 times, a kick rate of 17%. Contrast this with his opposite number Aaron Smith, who kicked the ball 6 times, passed it 103 times and ran himself 7 times – a kick rate of just 5%.

With blockers in front of him at all times, it is almost impossible for any team to charge down Murray’s kicks. Some teams have begun to try to tackle him from his blind side as he kicks. There is nothing wrong with this in itself. The ball is in his possession until such time as it leaves his boot, and with fewer blockers lined up on the other side of the ruck, perhaps the only way a team can limit the damage his kicks can do is to tackle him or knock him off balance from his blind side. New Zealand weren’t penalised for any late hits or high hits in Saturday’s game. A player can be tackled low at any time they have possession. So far, things make sense. You can’t charge his kick from his kicking side due to blockers, so you try to knock him down from the other side. The problem is this: it’s dangerous to be hit on the blind side, and especially dangerous to hit a player on his standing leg when his whole weight is on that leg. Ankle breaks, achilles tears, knee dislocations, cruciate ligament tears, medial ligament tears, broken legs all can come from a hit on a planted leg. A hit that is low, timed well and on a player in possession of the ball, completely fair within the rules of the game, can badly hurt someone.

(There are suggestions some have gone out to deliberately injure Conor Murray. I really hope that this isn’t the case. Any player going out to deliberately injure another player should be banned for life).

Below I use some images to illustrate the point:

Here Murray lines up for a box kick from just outside the Lions 22

Here Conor Murray lines up for a box kick from just outside the Lions 22

We can clearly see 3 blocking players in front of Murray on the strong side of the ruck, protecting him from any possible charge down.

We can clearly see 3 blocking players in front of Murray on the strong side of the ruck, only one of whom could possibly claim to be part of the ruck, preventing the All Blacks from any charge down or contest.

No protection for Conor Murray on the weak/blind side of the ruck. Brodie Retallick is in a great position to tackle Murray, and is the only option the All Blacks have to make any contest on the ball. If anything, the Lions need to tighten up their rucks to ensure Murray has blockers on both sides, not just the strong side.

No protection for Conor Murray on the weak/blind side of the ruck. Brodie Retallick is in a great position to tackle Murray, and is the only option the All Blacks have to make any contest for the ball. If anything, the Lions need to tighten up their rucks to ensure Murray has blockers on both sides, not just the strong side.

What’s wrong with the box kick?

–          I’m not a fan of the box kick. Using blocking players to prevent a challenge on the ball, first and foremost, is against the spirit of the game. In the maul and in open play, referees very closely watch out for support players encroaching ahead of the ball preventing a contest. They are very quick to penalise any team who uses blockers in any other aspect of the game, and rightly so.

–          The use of the box kick has also led to current decline of the speedster winger, the guys with searing pace who tear up and down the wing terrorising opponents. Teams more often over the last 10 years have chosen wingers who are tall and strong under the high ball in preference to choosing pace. This is sad. Wings are traditionally among the most exciting players on the field, yet the ability to be able to comfortably catch and contest high ball is preferred by many coaches. How many teams have converted centres or full-backs on the wing nowadays?

–          In the same vein many scrumhalves are chosen on the strength of their ability to kick, rather than on the quality of their pass, break, or ability to run the attack. This is also sad, and just like with the wings, means many teams don’t play with the attacking cutting edge they may be capable of.

–          The box kick kills a large amount of imaginative, attacking rugby in two ways. As I’ve mentioned, the selection of players who are chosen on their ability to catch and kick the ball over those who are stronger at passing and running with the ball limits the capability of a team to attack well. There is also a certain level of lethargy or lack of creativity that the box kick brings- why go through 7 or 8 phases, any one of which your team could lose possession in, when you can box kick and contest. It’s a safety net teams now rely on in preference to thinking and working to score.

Solution? It is clear that a scrumhalf is soon going to be seriously injured from a hit on the blind side when box-kicking the ball. It’s not if, but when. World Rugby will be under pressure to change the rules to prevent such injuries. It is my hope that they don’t legislate against these legal tackles, but instead legislate to allow fair contest of the ball from the ruck. Blockers must go and fair charge down of the ball must be encouraged. To do this I would advocate that any player who didn’t join the ruck through the gate and is not currently bound to the ruck (and this means shoulder bound rather than a cursory hand on someone’s shoulder) is offside. Block fair contest of the ball, and it’s a penalty against you. Eliminate the blockers and you allow fair contest. Teams would be more reluctant to kick the ball into the sky and would choose to run or pass it instead. Defences would try to charge down the ball fairly and wouldn’t need to try other more physical ways to stop a scrumhalf. These blind side hits are only a product of the blocker preventing the contest- remove the cause, not the outcome.

 

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New Zealand v B&I Lions: The Breakdown

An American tourist was on holiday in Ireland one time, and he happened to find himself sort of lost in someplace in east County Cavan. He was driving around back roads for a good while and eventually saw some old fella leaning against a gate, so he pulled over and said “Howdy sir, would you mind awfully telling me how to get to Dublin city? I’d be much obliged”. So the auld fella took off his cap and scratched his head, and in a fairly slow Cavan drawl says “Well I can, but if I was you I wouldn’t start from here”.

Where do the British&Irish Lions start? Thousands of words have been written, interviews conducted and studies done about what makes the New Zealand rugby team different from everyone else. I’ve even written about them before myself Talent Development – from New Zealand to Kilkenny. On Saturday New Zealand demolished the Lions in the 1st Test. The Lions were outplayed from start to finish. When New Zealand had possession you felt the longer they held onto the ball and more phases they went through, the likelier they were to score. The Lions, well, the more they held the ball and more phases they went through, you felt they’d get turned over at ruck time or simply kick the ball away. This article will examine Saturday’s game and the difference in mindset of both sides in the context of one area, in my opinion they key area in the game of rugby today: the breakdown. Once first phase ball has been secured (and with two top quality teams like these one can assume they’ll win their fair share of lineouts and scrums), the majority of possession in a game will come from the breakdown. If a team goes through 20 phases- you can be fairly sure about 18 of those 20 will start from rucks. The ruck is where you start from.

It was noticeable on Saturday that New Zealand and the Lions had a very different approach to the ruck. The statistics show New Zealand had a much greater number of rucks, 131, winning 127 (96%). The Lions had 76 rucks, winning 72 (winning 94%). Of these 131 rucks, New Zealand created quick ruck ball 39 times, or 30% of the time. That’s an awful lot of pressure to put the Lions under. The Lions themselves managed to generate quick ball 22% of the time from their breakdowns, 17 times out of their 76 rucks. New Zealand frequently committed a player to Lions’ rucks to contest possession. The Lions rarely committed players to contest New Zealand rucks. These two facts framed the entire contest and the stats reflect this. New Zealand competed for the ball on Lions rucks 26 times of the Lions 76 rucks, 35% of the time. The Lions, on the other hand, competed at the breakdown on New Zealand ball 18 times out of New Zealand’s 131 rucks, just 14% of the time.

In possession, the two teams had differing approaches to their own rucks. New Zealand sent two or three players to clear out, these being close to the ball carrier and clearing the ball with huge aggression, speed and power, obviously aided by lack of competition from Lions players. The Lions sent (or had to send) more players to secure their own rucks. One statistic I’d love performance analysts to stop counting as a positive is “rucks hit” – New Zealand players I’m sure have low numbers on rucks hit, as when two New Zealanders go to clear a ruck, they bloody clear it. Their attitude is “why send four to half-arse clearing a ruck when we can make two do the job perfectly”; in contrast northern teams generally say the opposite: “two guys will struggle to clear that ruck unless they do it perfectly, so let’s send four to be sure”.

There are many differences between how northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere teams play the game. Most can’t put their finger on what makes New Zealand so different, so successful. The breakdown is certainly one clear area of difference. The impact of a ruck on attack and defence go hand-in-hand, so I’ll discuss both below. This graphic illustrates why the ruck is of such value.

 

The breakdown

Northern hemisphere teams value numbers in defence and attack over all else. Coaches in the northern hemisphere believe the overlap will come eventually, and finishing the overlap is the key to scoring tries. Conversely, in defence, preventing the opponent from gaining an overlap is the key aim. Northern hemisphere coaches believe that organised phase attack will lead to an overlap, and coaching players to identify overlaps and exploit those overlaps with tries is how you score. Players are conditioned to value creating a 2v1, 3v2 or even a 6v5 as the best scenario they can have. Go along to any training session from under-10 all the way up to adult rugby and watch how many drills or conditioned games are played with the aim of creating/preventing the overlap. The key problem with this? Really good teams rarely give you a situation where attackers outnumber defenders, and even if they do their defensive skills are that good that they can deal with it.

Southern hemisphere teams value quick ball over all else. The attack’s job is to generate quick ball and the defence’s job is to prevent the opponent from generating quick ball. When you watch them play, attacking weak shoulders or defenders who aren’t set is their main aim. And in defence, slowing the ball long enough to allow the defence set up is what they’re after. They believe tries are scored by generating ruck ball so quick the opposing defence is disoriented, defenders make mistakes, and the opposing defensive line cannot be set up quickly enough to effectively shut down the opposition. New Zealand in particular expect the opposition defence to be organised, and very rarely expect there to be an overlap. They go through teams, rather than around them, better than anyone else. They look to create situations where they run at weak shoulders, and situations where the defender can maybe make a tackle, but never a dominant hit (which is where offloads come from). The key to all of this is quick ruck ball. Don’t get me wrong, the New Zealanders can kill you if an overlap develops, but first things first.

The breakdown is where these cultures clash. On Saturday, the Lions stood off rucks, allowing New Zealand win their own ruck ball easily, and ensuring their defensive line couldn’t be outflanked by superior numbers. New Zealand were pretty delighted with this, launching phase after phase of attacks with this super quick ball. On the other side of the ball, New Zealand went after each Lions ruck whenever possible. On occasion, New Zealand managed to win a turnover on the ground or penalty at the breakdown, but the main reason they did this was to prevent the Lions from having quick ball. Contesting the ruck slows the ball down. Slowing the ball down does two key things: makes the Lions commit extra players to the ruck which takes away players from their attack, and most importantly gives the New Zealand defence an extra second or two to set their defence and number up.

Ruck after Dagg&Barrett scramble
Straight from a turnover, the Lions kick ahead where Barrett and Dagg have to scramble. Even with 6 of the Lions pack in the frame and New Zealand on the back foot, the Lions don’t compete.

 

The selection of scrumhalves is a very telling example of the difference in philosophies. The New Zealand team selected Aaron Smith at 9, probably the quickest 9 in world rugby at present. The ruck ball was quick, but his passes were like a machine gun, sprayed here there and everywhere. As soon as he saw a bit of white in a ruck, the ball was gone. It hugely helped the attack gain momentum. On the Lions side, Conor Murray is far more methodical. He is selected for a range of attributes- he is a very good tackler, his box-kicks are the best in the world, he is strong around the ruck, he rarely makes mistakes. His delivery and ability to build tempo in his team’s attack is not the strongest facet of his play.

Changes for Saturday’s 2nd Test? The Lions need to up their speed of attack and to compete at ruck time in defence. So personally, I’d make a couple of changes to the side. There was a noticeable improvement in the Lions tempo when Rhys Webb came in, albeit with the game already decided. Whether the Lions decide to bring Webb in to start on Saturday depends on if they value his energy and tempo over the range of skills Murray has, and that will come down to whether they want to play a quicker game or not. Likewise, unpopular as this will make me sound as an Irishman, I’d bring in Warburton for O’Mahony, and Itoje for Kruis, both changes designed to make the Lions more competitive at ruck time. O’Mahony has been excellent on tour, but the game the Lions need to play would fit Warburton perfectly. He’s a ball poacher and turnover getter, and if they go after New Zealand he can make some huge plays. Itoje has to start. There’s no point bringing on an impact sub with the team already fighting a losing cause. Use his energy from the start.

The Lions can win the remaining two tests. I could speak further on other aspects of the game like the set piece, the kicking game, each team’s defence systems. But all of these all stem from the breakdown battle. The Lions need to focus on winning the ruck contests first and foremost. Win that battle and everything else will follow.

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Meath v Kildare analysis

On Sunday I attended the Leinster Senior Football championship semi-final between Kildare and Meath in Tullamore. It was a roasting hot Saturday evening and I headed down with my dad, eager to see what I thought would be an excellent match between two up-and-coming teams. Cian O’Neill had looked to be building a very good Kildare side and achieved promotion to National Football League 1. My dad and I had gone to watch Meath play Louth in their opening fixture in the Leinster championship, and as I had seen Louth a few times previous and know their level, we were very impressed with Meath that day. So we figured this semi-final would be a belter.

As in Parnell Park a couple of weeks ago, we arrived at the ground over 90 minutes before throw-in, with unrestricted seating in the stand it’s the only way to get good seats. For both games we got great seats and we saw everything (including a Kildare player who should have got the line!). As someone who works coaching, analysing and mentally preparing teams, I’m intrigued by all aspects of the game – warmup, manager body language, player body language, how the players communicate, substitutions, everything.

At 6:00pm on the dot out came Kildare to a big cheer from the supporters on the terrace on the far side. Their management had their cones and gear laid out well in advance, all organised and under control. They got into their warmup, doing a few different drills, all stuff they did without supervision. While Kildare were warming up, Meath backroom staff came out to set up their cones and equipment, and at 6:13 Meath came out to a massive pop from the crowd. When they came out all their gear was well organized and ready too. Meath worked away at their warmup, again the players knew what their routine was. I had been at Parnell Park a fortnight previous and recognised the drills they did, for example a wheel-shaped truck-and-trailer foot & hand passing drill that took up most of their half of the field, and a very good defense drill along the end line where they work to repel attackers. Meath, being traditionally old school, spend a lot of time in unstructured play in their warmup too, shooting for points or goals and passing amongst themselves. Paddy O’Rourke in the Meath goal spent a good period of time practicing his kickouts with the sub goalkeeper. During their warmup, Kildare left the field at around 6:23 and re-emerged at around 6:40. Meath stayed out on the field from 6:13 onwards. Kildare’s warmup was a little more structured than Meath’s.

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A lot has been said and written in the days since Meath were hammered by Kildare, for some reason a lot of this has focused on their warmup. It was a hell of a hot evening in Tullamore. Meath has a new manager this year in Andy McEntee and their warmup has changed considerably, I’m sure, from that of his predecessor. It wasn’t the telling factor in their loss of the game though, nor was it the reason they beat Louth well a few weeks back. Those who are pointing to the warmup as the reason behind the poor Meath performance are either deliberately or unconsciously deflecting attention away from the real reasons behind Meath’s loss. If Meath were tired after that warmup then they aren’t fit enough to stay with a team as well prepared as Kildare.

Here, in my opinion, are the reasons that Meath lost.

  • Meath cleared out their forward line, leaving two men inside, McMahon and Lenihan. These two had been well-used in the game against Louth (where Louth have had no sweeper since Derek Maguire headed to America). Meath played the ball in deep to these two against Louth, and then their pace men, particularly Graham Reilly and Cillian O’Sullivan, fed off them and caused Louth considerable damage taking the ball at pace heading for goal. Against Kildare, this couldn’t happen. Kildare used a sweeper, Eoin Doyle, in front of them. Meath tried for almost the whole first half to put the ball in and then chase it looking to feed- this fell down as Lenihan and McMahon could barely win a ball between them due to poor quality ball, poor quality runs, and the excellent positioning of the sweeper.
  • Meath have gone with one fielder and one runner at midfield, rather than two fielders. For their kickouts, Ronan Jones made runs to drag his man away from the centre of the field. If his man followed it would leave space for his partner Menton to be kicked the ball. If his man didn’t follow a shorter kickout to Jones could be made. This didn’t really work at all. Kildare put a few men around Menton and with his marker Kevin Feely just as good in the air, Kildare either won clean ball or had numbers on the breaks. Kickouts put Meath under severe pressure throughout the game, with Paddy O’Rourke eventually trying to find Cillian O’Sullivan, by no means a big man or noted fielder with long kickouts. Meath badly needed a second (and third and fourth) kickout option.
  • Meath refused to carry and pass to break the Kildare defence down. Only Cillian O’Sullivan and Bryan Menton did this with any real threat for Meath in the game. O’Sullivan worked his balls off throughout, and while his final ball let him down at times, mostly this was due to having no support. To hear the abuse he got from his own fans was shocking. Padraig Harnan and McEntee from wing back tried to support by making overlapping runs. The other Meath forwards were ineffective and seemed to not understand they needed to change their gameplan.
  • I’ve been to a lot of games in my life, and this was the first time I saw a player at county level not really make much effort at all. One Meath forward spent most of the game hovering around the centre-forward position, and made little to no effort to get involved in the play. If his man was passed the ball he’d jog over to him but in the entire match I would say he reached maximum effort only three or four times. Even with his teammates running closeby him, he never looked for a pass but twice. Up until he was substituted with about 15 mins left to play, Meath effectively had only 14 players. Clearly something was mentally or physically wrong with the player and I hope this can be remedied as he has serious talent.
  • Kildare are a more complete team than Meath right now. I couldn’t see any real weaknesses in their team. They look finally to have some quality forwards rather than their tradition of relying on one or two stars to fire the majority of scores. They are very shrewd. Several examples of this: Meath man marked Niall Kelly with Mickey Burke, a sensible option to be fair, but Kelly pulled Burke here, there and everywhere and left the centre-forward position empty for Kildare to run into. Another being the deployment of Doyle as sweeper. Another being the use of Ollie Lyons to provide the overlap in attack. They could think quicker on the line and play and think better on the field than Meath.

Sadly, the media has jumped on the warmup. Lads who weren’t in Tullamore on Saturday night talking about things they didn’t see. Lads who were in Tullamore talking about things they don’t know about. Meath management and analysts will, I hope, see what the real issues were and will remedy them. This is a good Meath team. They are going the right direction. A couple of changes to personnel such as moving Jones to wing forward and bringing in a fielder at midfield, dropping Wallace and Reilly and bringing in O’Coilean. I’d leave Burke in the corner and allow Keogan to hold the centre-back position too. Their problems in this game, as I outlined, are fixable. But lads whingeing about the warmup? Just lazy analysis, plain and simple.