Some of my favourite scenes in The Simpsons are flashbacks to Homer’s youth, and the interactions he had with his father, Abe. In one such encounter, Abe walks in on a young Homer and Barney singing Leo Sayer’s ‘You Make Me Feel Like Dancing’ in the mirror and asks them what they are doing.
Homer tells his father he wouldn’t understand, as he’s not “with it”, to which Abe replies: “I used to be with it, but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now what I’m with isn’t ‘it’, and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary…”
The experience of Abe Simpson bears a striking resemblance to the fortunes of the Irish team in recent times.
In test rugby, there are clear lines in the sand where the trend of the moment becomes, then ceases to be, that trend. There will not always be a clearly identifiable trend that everyone is trying to emulate but more often than not, there is.
For most of the period between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, that trend was the box kick. Ireland became kings of the box kick in 2016, mastering it as a weapon and placing it at the centre of a game plan which allowed them to suffocate their opponents through aerial dominance.
2016, ‘17, and ‘18 brought plenty of success; a consistent spot in the top three of the World Rugby rankings, a Grand Slam Six Nations win in 2018, and victories over the All Blacks for the first time in history.
Things were great. We were the team to beat, according to Steve Hansen. As Ireland ran out to play England in the opening round of the 2019 Six Nations, still on a high from the heroics the previous November, we expected things to continue as they were. But something had changed over the winter period. The box kick wasn’t the trend anymore.
We were shocked. We couldn’t get our heads around it. We suffered along as we watched Joe Schmidt persist with an approach that was now being neutralised by quality opposition with ease.
The ensuing 24 months have been Ireland’s Abe Simpson, looking around, wondering what ‘it’ is and why they’re not with ‘it’ anymore, having been the trendsetters such a short time ago.
As the end of the box kick was derailing Ireland’s hopes of challenging for a World Cup, England were busy blazing their own trail, planting the seeds for what is now becoming the latest trend in test rugby — aggressive, front foot kicking in attack. England are spearheading a dilution of responsibility for the offensive kicking game, shifting the focus away from the traditional 9/10 axis and spreading it across the field.
With an abundance of backline riches that has repeatedly seen Ben Youngs, George Forde, Owen Farrell, Henry Slade, Jonny May, and Elliot Daly on the pitch at the same time, the threat from the boots of the English players has become as dangerous as any other aspect of their game.
They have been criticised for the amount they kick, but you can’t argue with the results. It leads to tries, and victories. In their last three competitive outings against Ireland alone, they have scored six tries as a direct result of kicking on the front foot and turning the opposition.
Currently, playing against Ireland means preparing to face an offensive kicking game from 9 and 10, with little else on offer. Additionally, the possession-centric attitude that still lingers from Schmidt’s time in charge means Ireland don’t like to kick within 30 metres of the opposition line. This is understandable to an extent — why risk losing the ball?
Because as England have shown, it works, by adding another dimension to the attack and making it much harder to predict. If you are defending against what is almost an entire backline with the ability to run, pass and kick when they get the ball, you have far more to consider.
Your decision-making needs to be more conservative and more accurate. There is much less certainty about what is going to happen next.
It’s not a case of making a grubber or chip over the top the default options. But when there is a real threat that a defender will be turned and have to scramble to clean up a messy situation, they have to approach the situation very differently.
This is not something the Irish attack offers at the moment. As we saw last weekend against France, the outcome was too predictable when the ball was moved wide, making life easy for the French defence.
The days of picking lumps in the centre to try and run over people are disappearing. Rugby has changed. I believe we are entering an era where backs in every position will be selected as much for their ability to kick on the front foot as their ability to pass or break the line.
While other nations have been slow to try and copy England’s approach, we are seeing signs that it is beginning to happen.
Take Scotland last weekend, for example. In the first 25 minutes, we saw Finn Russell turn the Welsh defence beautifully on multiple occasions; Ali Price chipped beautifully off the base of a ruck on the 22 in a pre-called move to set up Darcy Graham’s try; and Stuart Hogg caused havoc in the Welsh back three with a chip of his own, before regathering to touch down and tee up what seemed to be a certain Scottish victory. Irish backs are talented and able enough to do this, and it’s time they were encouraged, even expected, to show it.
While many believed Schmidt’s departure would spell the end of an extremely conservative style of rugby, we have been left disappointed with what has followed.
The perfect illustration of this was Ireland’s lamentably poor statistics for the first two rounds of the competition. They are averaging the worst metres with the ball in hand and are only throwing an offload every 54 carries, comfortably the least ambitious figure in the competition.
Talk of the Irish coaching ticket’s jobs being on the line is silly. They are not under pressure and will have the opportunity to get this right.
But now, lying in sixth place in the World Rugby rankings, the idea they can compete with the best sides in the world without offering something substantially different to what we are currently seeing, is deluded.
It’s time to start throwing a bit of caution to the wind and take some risk in the hope of finding reward.