Saturday’s clash with South Africa in Cape Town will give us the first glimpse of how Ireland will line-up under the stewardship of new defence coach Andy Farrell.
The Englishman was formally announced as the replacement to Les Kiss last January but what sort of changes to the Irish defensive shape might we expect to see against the Springboks?
In his time with Saracens, England and the British & Irish Lions, Farrell was known for implementing an aggressive defensive strategy, with the back line often blitzing the opposition with the goal of forcing errors and turnovers inside their own half.
Under Kiss, Irish wingers would often drop back to form more of a traditional back three with the fullback to offer protection against ball kicked over the top and that would, on occasion at least, leave Ireland vulnerable when the ball was quickly moved out wide. Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls will be given added responsibility to read the game before deciding to blitz or drop back.
Farrell’s strategy is proactive rather than reactive, aiming to pressure the kicker into mistakes rather than arranging the defensive shape to account for balls chipped over the top.
Several member of the Ireland squad have worked under Farrell when he was defensive coach during the last Lions tour in 2013. Brian O’Driscoll, in particular, was effusive in his praise for the Englishman’s system.
So Andy Farrell new @IrishRugby defence coach! Decent business that. Very good coach and motivator. Expect line speed & great kick chase.
— Brian O'Driscoll (@BrianODriscoll) January 6, 2016
Central tenets of the Les Kiss implemented defensive system will remain part of the Ireland set-up, much as they were in Kiss’s absence during the 6 Nations.
The famed choke tackle, a strategy straight from the Les Kiss toolbox, has become a trademark of the Irish defensive system and has remained in place. Another strategy which Ireland will look to take advantage from, if given the opportunity, will be the nifty lineout technique where they don’t contest on the throw, allowing a defender, usually Jack McGrath, to bypass the offside rule and challenge the ball-carrier (who is usually expecting a maul situation).
In this year’s 6 Nations, and for the first time during Joe Schmidt’s tenure, Ireland appeared defensively suspect on several occasions and, if nothing else, Farrell clearly has plenty of areas in the Irish defence to mould in his image. How he sets the Irish team up to withstand a barrage from the ultra-physical South Africans will be one of the most fascinating aspects of the first test.