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Dublin: 8 °C Thursday 24 April, 2014

Ireland should look to the air against Samoa

Joe Schmidt’s side could get great reward by being ambitious with their restarts and contesting box kicks.

Samoa will bring aggression and power, but not much ability under the high ball.
Samoa will bring aggression and power, but not much ability under the high ball.

SAMOA ARRIVE IN Ireland with a small degree of the unknown about them, especially in comparison to Australia and New Zealand, whose strengths are more obvious.

The stereotype of the Samoans is something along the lines of a group of physically explosive individuals who are capable of smashing their way through or dancing their way around opposition defences, and while that is true to an extent, there is more to their game.

Over the coming days, we at TheScore.ie will be taking a look at some of the strengths and weaknesses of Stephen Betham’s squad, with an eye on how Ireland can counteract and take advantage of those elements on Saturday evening in Dublin.

We start with one of the substandard points of Samoa’s game; namely their reception of kicks. This group is short on players who are good in the air and Ireland should look to target that weakness with a smart kicking game plan, in open play and from restarts. Joe Schmidt is lucky to have several players who are superb at fielding kicks and must look to use them to maximum effect.

The Samoans are relatively lacking in height as a squad, particularly in the back line. There may be powerhouses all over the pitch for Betham to send running at Ireland but there is a real lack of strength when it comes to fielding the ball. One obvious area for Ireland to take advantage of that fact is at restarts, with short, contestable kicks from whoever lines out at out-half.


YouTube credit: Murray Kinsella

The hope is that Jonny Sexton will be fit to start, as he is superb at short drop-kicks, but both Ian Madigan and Paddy Jackson have the skills to fill in and give Ireland a chance to win the ball back. In Rob Kearney, Ireland have one of the premier kick fielders in world rugby and they should look to use his ability in this area of the game. Paul O’Connell (if fit), Peter O’Mahony, Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls are all able and willing chasers too, so Ireland are well stocked to pursue a short restart game.

Naturally, Ireland will be hoping that they only have to take one drop-off in the whole game, but it is very difficult not to see Samoa scoring, so Ireland should be prepared to retrieve their own drop kicks. Betham’s men are very hesitant to get off the ground, and the psychological effect of having Kearney soar over them to regain possession would be powerful.

It is tempting to hammer restarts deep and force the opposition to kick to touch, thus almost guaranteeing possession from an attacking lineout, but Ireland should look to be more immediately ambitious with their drop-offs.

Another way in which Ireland can use the Samoan’s weakness to their advantage is through the box-kicking of scrum-half Conor Murray. The Munster man has been criticised in the past for putting too much length and not enough height on his kicks, thus making them non-contestable. However, the 24-year-old has worked diligently at the skill and has vastly improved.

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Rob Kearney’s ability in the air could be used to great effect against Samoa. ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy.

Again, the competitiveness of Bowe and whoever else is chosen in the back three will be crucial to this tactic working. The Samoans would be far from comfortable defusing contestable bombs from Murray if the likes of Bowe, with his power and height, were getting into the air to compete with them.

This is not to suggest that Ireland kick every bit of possession away and not run anything; far from it. Ambition with ball in hand is a priority but a few testing box kicks from Murray or garryowens from the out-half early on would be a welcome sight. Samoa have a bad habit of getting extremely narrow when they lose an aerial contest or concede a turnover and in that way, Ireland would be creating space for themselves out wide on the opposite side of the pitch.

Both these tactics are simple things that most rugby teams do in every game, regardless of the opposition’s strengths and weakness, but if Ireland can bring a real focus to their plans for restarts and contestable kicks in open play, there are huge rewards on offer against Samoa.

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