Solving Ireland’s Second Playmaker Problem
Ireland can ignore the second playmaker trend and stick with their direct approach, but the risk is that they get left behind as the new era develops.
Ireland’s 41-phase end-game against France in Paris revealed the world-class quality of Johnny Sexton and vindicated Joe Schmidt’s obsession with ball-retention. But the match also revealed Irish weaknesses.
Ireland had twice as many entries into France’s 22, but were out-scored by one try to nil. Why?
Well, if Joe’s systems get the credit for the finale, they must take some blame for what came before. There is a trade-off between ball-retention and attacking flair, and that was apparent on Saturday.
But it’s not just about systems; it’s also about players. Ireland only had one playmaker on the field on Saturday.
That has to change if Ireland are to consistently beat the world’s best. Here’s why.
Evolve or die
Professional rugby union is still in its infancy – it’s just one generation since it was an amateur sport – and it is changing rapidly. The best teams are the ones which adapt quickest to new trends, often imported from sports with a longer professional pedigree like rugby league or American football.
The 2000s, for example, brought a massive focus on strength and conditioning expertise, ushering in the ‘Warrenball’ era, in which the best backlines were made up of big men with sprinters’ pace and the power to break tackles. This was epitomised by the Grand Slam-winning Wales teams of 2008 and 2012, coached by Warren Gatland.
But while Wales were lifting the Six Nations trophy in 2012, Andy Farrell, the former rugby league Golden Boot winner, was quietly ushering in a new era based on offence through defence. With Farrell leading the charge defences got organised, got off the line, learned when to rush, when to drift, and how to combine the two.
His success speaks for itself: a Lions series win over Australia in 2013 (during which the Lions conceded just 4 tries in 3 tests), and of course the incredible work he has done with Ireland so far.
Which brings us to today. There are several reasons why Ireland failed to replicate that success in the last two campaigns, but the short answer is that they are no longer so far ahead of their rivals in terms of defensive organisation. The others have caught up.
More worryingly, Ireland have slipped behind in other areas. A new era has begun.
From Warrenball, to Farrellball, to… Doubleball?
In the ever-evolving arms race between attack and defence, the new weapon is twin playmakers. Defences have collectively learned how to deal with the threats presented by a standard backline consisting of a playmaking 10, a crash ball centre or two, and a few speedy strike runners.
What they have arguably not yet adapted to, is the addition of a second playmaker who can split the point of attack, offer a second distributor in the backline, and fill in at first receiver when the number 10 is taken out in the previous phase. The most successful sides of the past two years have all had this weapon.
Think Ford and Farrell, who brought England Six Nations trophies in 2016 and 2017; Sexton and Farrell, who paired up for the Lions’ victorious second and drawn third test in New Zealand; and Beauden Barret and Ben Smith/Ryan Crotty. The latter two were instrumental in the All Blacks’ Rugby Championship clean-sweeps of 2016 and 2017, but both missed almost all of New Zealand’s disappointing Lions’ tour.
The recent correlation between second playmakers and success is no coincidence. As Lions’ player of series, Jonathan Davies, said in November last year, “The game has changed. Having that extra playmaker is where the game is going.”
Ireland’s big problem
On Saturday, outside Sexton were Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, and Rob Kearney. These are three seriously solid players, who offer a great deal of physicality, defensive nous, hard running lines, attention to detail, and the ability to go through the phases again, and again, and again.
But none of them are playmakers. Too often last week, Ireland’s attack stalled after Sexton hit the deck, and opportunities were squandered.
This is Ireland’s big problem as we head towards Japan 2019. Our pack and halfbacks are world class, but we lack a second playmaker who has the vision to sense opportunities, the organisation skills to create them, and the distribution skills to convert them.
So where can we find one? There are a few options.
Option 1: Joey Carberry at 15
We’ve seen Carberry tear it up at 15 for both Leinster and Ireland. As a natural no.10, he’s the ultimate second playmaker.
But therein lies the problem. Carberry is our primary deputy at no.10, and needs game time in that position. He is playing at 10 in training sessions and looks set to feature in that position against Italy this weekend. So this isn’t really a solution.
Option 2: Rory Scannell at 12
This one is less problematic in some ways: Scannell acts as a playmaking 12 for Munster and has done an excellent job in that role. He’s not flashy, but his positioning in attack and defence is very good, and he’s an excellent passer off both hands.
The question is whether he’s good enough for Test-level rugby. He performed well on the summer tour last year, but Six Nations rugby is a big step up. Scannell is the right kind of player, but he doesn’t have the physicality of Aki or Henshaw, nor the flair of Ringrose. It’s hard to see him getting picked ahead of those guys.
Option 3: Gary Ringrose
Ringrose has played at both 12 and 13 for Ireland, and he is undoubtedly a more creative attacking threat than Aki or Henshaw. But he’s more of a finisher than a distributor. He’s also a very soft-spoken guy and it’s hard to imagine him bossing players into position around him the way a playmaker needs to. I’d be very happy to see him come back into the side, but he’s arguably not the answer to Ireland’s second playmaker problem.
Option 4: a Carberry/Sexton 10/12 axis
This is the most interesting of the possibilities. We’ve seen Carberry and Sexton on the field together, but never in this set-up. Carberry is too fragile to play in the attritional 12 channel, while it’s hard to imagine Sexton playing anywhere other than fly-half.
He did it once or twice at the end of the ROG era, but that was a long time ago. Not only does he have little experience of the position, he’s also the ultimate on-field general, and would hate being moved out of the pivotal 10 jersey.
But the same could have been said of Owen Farrell a few years ago, and he has adapted well to playing outside of the Carberry-esque George Ford. Personally I think this one has merit, but it would be a very surprising move from Schmidt. Not to mention that Eddie Jones would love to see Schmidt copy his model – and would take every opportunity to remind him of it!
None of these options are ideal, and this second playmaker problem isn’t going to go away. You can argue that there is more than one way to win a rugby game (it’s worth bearing in mind that Ireland won the Grand Slam in ’09 with a diminutive backline at the height of the Warrenball era) and that Ireland don’t have to copy what others are doing.
But, broadly speaking, the recent history of rugby suggests that teams must evolve or die. And today, against the very best defences, a second playmaker is becoming almost indispensable.
Ireland can choose to ignore this trend and stick with their direct approach, but the risk is that they get left behind as the new era develops.
For a master tactician like Schmidt, that would be the bitterest of all pills to swallow.