Statistical analysis: passing combinations, Ireland vs. Australia

The respective Autumn campaigns of Ireland and Australia sat at opposite extremes of the stylistic spectrum: Michael Cheika’s side alternated between incisive wide attack and moments of frustrating indiscipline and poor decision-making, while Joe Schmidt’s carried powerfully and was exceptionally accurate at tackle and breakdown. Despite claiming wins over New Zealand and Australia, a number of issues in attack which have been present throughout Schmidt’s tenure recurred in the 12 point loss to the All Blacks in Dublin, during which they spent long periods deep inside opposition territory and came away with no tries. This performance comes with the caveat that Jonny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and CJ Stander – three key figures in their attack in Chicago – had all left the field within half an hour, but we have seen enough of Ireland’s attack with those players present over the past three seasons to tentatively assume that scoring five tries against the world champions was the exception that proves the rule: in order to be so ruthlessly successful, the attacking system they operate requires accuracy and intensity which is unsustainable over a series, season or World Cup cycle.

Contrast this to Australia, whose 1-3-3-1 system looks to have been enhanced by the addition of former New Zealand skills coach Mick Byrne to the coaching staff; in amongst the senseless infringements and maddening turnovers, they have been able to create wide line breaks regularly and finish these chances rather clinically. Their offloading game has clearly developed as the season has progressed, but Reece Hodge’s two ill-advised efforts in the first half are evidence that their decision-making and execution in this area still needs work. Sefa Naivalu’s effort on the left wing in the last five minutes of the test is another excellent example of their required technical progress: after manipulating his arms above the tackler he attempts to transfer the ball without readjusting the height of his hand, and the ball follows a path from high to low which is impossible for his teammate to regather. (Compare this to the supreme work of Anton Lienert-Brown – as Will Greenwood highlights here – who excels at lifting the ball into space for his team-mates from low to high.) As these skills continue to develop, however, Australia’s wide phase attack – which is already one of the best in the world – will continue to grow, and gives Michael Cheika a clear focus around which to build his gameplan.

The diagrams below (inspired by the stellar work of Dutch football blog 11tegen11.netrepresent an attempt to visualise both teams’ attacking styles by mapping common passing combinations from November’s test match. Each line between players represents two or more passes between these players (with passer and recipient indicated by the direction of the arrow), and the width of each line corresponds to the number of passes. Where a line emanates from one player but does not have a direct recipient, it indicates that the player made two or more passes from that position to a multitude of players but no more than one to any single player. The diagram does not attempt to map the x- and y-coordinates of each pass; arrows pointed in the direction of the right touchline indicate passing combinations made when the team was playing from left to right, and vice versa.

Ireland

Ire graphic-1.png

Ireland’s attack mainly consisted of one-out runners and picks from the base of the ruck (65% of all phases), especially when inside the opposition 22m line: 22 of 33 ‘red-zone’ phases saw 0 or 1 pass made, with 10 2-pass sequences and only a single phase with 3 passes. Narrowness in this area has been a recurring theme for this side, and the build-up to Keith Earls’ try in the second half exemplifies the issue – and Ireland’s reliance on powerful carries to create space. After a number of phases from left to right and a strong tackle bust from Peter O’Mahony, Ireland have reversed play and Tadhg Furlong is about to carry off 9:

1-furlong

In any attacking scenario in the modern game, the key to creating space is holding defenders around the breakdown and exploiting numerical mismatches further out. This can be done in a number of ways – Australia look to tie forwards on the weakside of the ruck by encouraging forward runners to hold width (as we will see below), but here Furlong uses his power to make a positive carry. This pushes the advantage line back, and increases the distance Australia’s forwards have to travel to aid Hodge, Foley and Haylett-Petty:

2-jackson

Paddy Jackson lines up to receive the ball with Stander, Zebo and Earls outside him in a clear 4v3 situation, but Ireland’s conservatism is clear:

3 - Jackson.png

Stander has sat down Foley with his hard unders line, and if the ball is released to Zebo out the back Earls will walk in after a simple 2v1 with Haylett-Petty. However, Jackson hits Stander on another short carry, and it is difficult to view this as anything other than the incorrect decision in the scenario. Space has been created on the outside and not taken; although the ball makes its way to Earls a phase later and the try is scored, it represents an opportunity missed and in the context of Ireland’s consistent issues in this area of the field is symptomatic.

An interesting exception to the lack of width in attacking areas is the Murray-Jackson-Toner-Payne-Zebo-Trimble combination from left to right: this sequence took place on two occasions inside Ireland’s own half, and each led to large positive gains. This is an example of how they use good width as a key feature of their exit play against backlines defending soft, and with the success of Toner’s passing role in particular it is surprising that this wide approach is used only as a means of territorial advancement from deep.

Australia

Aus graphic-1.png

Australia’s pass-map shows more balance between play off 9 and off first receiver, as we would expect in Stephen Larkham’s 1-3-3-1 system. CJ Stander was the only Irish forward to make two or more passes (2) onward from first receiver, while for their opponents Stephen Moore (3), Scott Sio (3) and Rob Simmons (3) all reached this mark. In addition, Sefa Naivalu’s try in the second half showed how their approach to creating wide overloads differed to Ireland’s. In the images below, Moore aligns much wider (opposite Ireland’s fourth defender) than Furlong in the Irish example above and uses a tip-on pass to isolate two defenders to the right of the tackle:

1 - Moore.png

Three more defenders flood around the breakdown, but Foley’s initial alignment takes them all out of the game. Australia have effectively engineered a 5v2+1 (i.e. Carbery as the extra defender at fullback), and exploit it ruthlessly. Also worth noting are Reece Hodge’s excellent late arcing run from left to right, and the two players holding width on the left touchline:

2 - pass.png

Australia’s pass-map also highlights the important roles of Haylett-Petty and Folau as roving back-three players in Larkham’s system. Haylett-Petty appeared often at both first and second receiver on both sides of the pitch, while Folau appeared at second-receiver outside Foley on 7 phases, passing or offloading the ball on each occasion. Reece Hodge’s role in the attack is currently rather peripheral as a result of Folau’s active involvement in the midfield, and it will be interesting to see whether Kyle Godwin – who had a solid debut against France, and was used consistently as an alternative to Foley at first receiver – becomes Cheika’s favoured inside centre in the long-term.

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