It’s not a surprise that Hugo Keenan leads the way in terms of offloads during Ireland head coach Andy Farrell’s 11-match reign given the 24-year-old’s recent background in the Sevens game. The Leinster and Ireland fullback has done so on nine occasions in seven matches since making his debut in the rescheduled 2020 Six Nations match against Italy last October.
His tally is more than double that of Leinster centre Robbie Henshaw and Ulster wing-cum-fullback Jacob Stockdale who have four apiece during the same period under scrutiny; Garry Ringrose and James Lowe have done so three times respectively.
In those 11 matches Ireland players have offloaded 44 times cumulatively – four per game – although the statistic is skewed slightly by 10 in one match, the 50-17 victory over the Italians.
Twenty players have contributed, 12 backs (34 offloads) and eight forwards (10), with CJ Stander and Will Connors, two apiece leading the way in the pack.
Sevens encourages that particular skillset, getting the hands free through the tackle to offload or to pop it up from the ground to a supporting player. The emphasis is on keeping the ball alive and moving. There is another quality that the abbreviated code fosters and that is timing on to the ball and lines of running in support of the ball carrier.
Keenan does this superbly, and there have been several examples in his Test career to date, accelerating into the space, irrespective of whether he has received possession or not; that timing and vision is a skill in itself.
The French represent the blue riband in terms of this aspect of the game, backs and forwards alike comfortable in doing so by inclination and they are particularly effective in keeping the ball moving after an initial line break.
In their two recent Six Nations victories over Ireland, the French offloaded 14 times against Ireland’s three in Paris and then on 12 occasions against three in Dublin.
Examining the period in question, Irish opposition has thrown more offloads in eight of 11 matches, the exception that victory over Italy, a 32-9 win against Wales in the Autumn Nations Cup and an 18-7 defeat to England at Twickenham in the same tournament: in the last four games Ireland have managed 10 as against 26.
This particular gambit carries a classic risk/reward conundrum as Farrell’s team have already discovered in their 21-16 defeat in the opening game of the 2021 Six Nations against Wales, but it does offer a general insight into the principles of play within the attacking system. In five defeats only once did Ireland (five) offload more than their opponents, England (one) in the Autumn Nations Cup clash.
The key to success is to be judicious. Intent is laudable but the outcome overrides all other considerations. No one expects Ireland to morph into Fiji. It’s also just one component in an attacking system. Farrell’s Ireland fare much better in a number of other categories.
In seven of the 11 games, they finished on the positive side of the ledger in “defenders beaten” and in three of the others actually won those matches.
In another, “clean breaks”, they have come out on top seven times and finished level once. France have had Ireland’s number both times in this respect, cumulatively 23-6, while the Scots also managed it narrowly, 6-5, in the Autumn Nations Cup.
So in Farrell’s tenure to date if the Irish team tends to beat more defenders and makes more clean breaks than the opposition, then the issue is not so much creativity per se but a failure to translate it into tries. Obviously not every statistic governing those two categories relates to a try-scoring opportunity, gilt-edged or otherwise, but there are enough that do to improve on a figure of two tries in the tournament to date.
There is a symbiotic relationship in attacking terms between all three, tagging on offloads, and the latter is certainly an area that with a little evolution in intent and execution might yield greater dividends. Once the initial line break is made, keeping the ball alive and moving where possible makes it very difficult for the defending team to realign.
If Ireland can improve in this aspect of the game, it will not only boost their try-scoring but their chances of winning the next three matches.