Ireland’s watertight defense has been a hallmark of their play under Andy Farrell, who cashed in just four attempts in this year’s Six Nations. While on the other hand, the 24 they themselves scored gave them by far the best net difference in the tournament.
Their attacking play with high ball possession helps their defense, holding the ball for long periods certainly helps to reduce the chances of the opponent, but their discipline and determination without the ball has completely suffocated the sides.
Wales would have been reset if not for a chance-catching attempt from Taine Basham as Ireland pushed the pass within their own 22 with less than five minutes left.
England, who were down to 14 men, could only manage penalty kicks along with Italy. Scotland made 14 phases to a barge-over attempt from close range for their lone scoring in their 26-5 defeat.
France managed to score two of those four attempts against the stingy Irish defense. The All Blacks, who also scored two tries in November, will have to work hard to break down what is a very strong system when at full strength.
There are few systemic weaknesses, but there is one, and that is when Kiwi halfback Jamison Gibson-Park defends on the back line after a lineout.
The smaller, shifting half-back is left out there to defend great territory without the help of fast-track athletes at times, making Ireland vulnerable to disagreements.
When France scored in the first two minutes in Paris, they ran a launch pattern to target Gibson-Park’s edge.
They took a quick lineout and worked all the way to the left sideline before orchestrating rebounds right against the lineout formation where Gibson-Park defended.
They deliberately left Uini Antonio (3) out to use as a crash runner for use on the way back to the crater in Ireland’s line. Ntamack (10) found his runner Antonio with the perfect goal set up, small wing Mack Hansen (11).
The power of the monstrous French prop punctures through Hansen, pulling in the Irish defense, sucking in several defenders and leaving Gibson-Park (9) isolated on the outside.
France ended up with a situation where Hansen and Gibson-Park, two smaller backs, were manned on the thin short side towards the entire French back line.
This is what France wanted to produce and they continue to exploit two of Ireland’s smallest defenders with a numerical advantage. Hansen and Gibson-Park slipped out, allowing Ntamack to take the line. He threw a random pass back to Antoine Dupont, who was collected for a try.
Later in the half, they target Gibson-Park again from a multi-phase set piece launch, and this time they isolate his half-partner Joey Carberry on the short side with him.
Communication from wing Damian Penaud to Antoine Dupont identified the spot outside the Irish half-back, and the French No. 9 whipped an incredibly long ball over the top into space.
The pass to Penaud led to a line break, which resulted in another three points for France.
From two set pieces hitting Ireland, where Gibson-Park defended, they found two line breaks and 10 total points.
England and Scotland achieved success with the same defensive set-up through a blindside raid straight from the maule.
Scotland got Gibson-Park isolated with a two-on-one against Ali Price (9) and Duhan van der Merwe (11). The Irish half-back did a fantastic job of shadowing both players and forcing Price inside, but Scotland are still peeling off a massive line break.
England used a lot of ball in the first phase to kick, so they did not attack often from set pieces, but in the second half they created the same blindside setup by hitting the pitch.
Harry Randall (9) broke the blind before linking to Marcus Smith (10). England were unable to make a clean break but marched far up the pitch before winning a penalty kick a few phases later.
All Blacks have used a similar maul game borrowed from the Crusaders’ playbook in the past, involving deliberately pushing the maul onto the pitch to create more space on the short side.
Halfback Aaron Smith (9) breaks to the open side before playing Richie Mo’unga (10) down on a switch line back to the short side. The Crusaders used this game against the Blues in the Super Rugby Pacific final.
The first phase change from maul could be a way to get winger Caleb Clarke, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Sevu Reece or Will Jordan to match at Gibson-Park.
The multi-phase patterns that trace back on the short side are a perfect tool for finding the mismatch where Gibson-Park can be isolated against powerful ball-runners like Akira Ioane or Ardie Savea flowing wide out.
Either way, the All Blacks must find this match-up and make the most of it, because otherwise the Irish defense is very strong and has not offered much else to the opposition sides.
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