THOUGH HE MISSED the Six Nations through injury, Bill Johnston picked out an important trait in the Ireland U20s as he watched on TV.
The Munster out-half, who made his debut in yesterday’s remarkable 26-25 comeback win over Wales at the World Rugby U20 Championship, noted the resilience in a team who lost their first two Six Nations games.
Ireland had a huge win over Grand Slam winners Wales. Source: Camerasport/Dave Howarth/INPHO
Beaten by Wales at home and then France away, prospects looked grim for Ireland but Nigel Carolan’s side rallied to a comeback victory away to England and finished their campaign with further wins over Italy and Scotland.
“I wasn’t involved but looking at the TV – they maybe had a rough patch in the first half but when they came into the second half and were under the pump, that’s when they answered the call really,” said 19-year-old Johnston before the World Championship.
“At the start of the second halves, when they backed themselves and were forced to play I think that’s the momentum this team rolls with.
“We’ll really back ourselves and we’re going to throw plenty of punches against these teams.”
Yesterday saw this crop of Ireland U20s demonstrate their ability to bounce back from seemingly dire situations.
Quality of carry
Ireland’s start to the clash with Wales was utterly disastrous.
A combination of a scrum penalty for driving on the angle, two lineout failings, some poor decision-making and execution of kicking, and a handling error handed Wales the platform to build a 17-0 lead in the opening 20 minutes.
Also among the failings that allowed Wales to take that commanding position was some ineffective carrying by Ireland.
It must be underlined that all of Wales’ 17 points in the first quarter also came on account of outstanding attacking and defensive work, the latter of which we see above.
Ireland number eight Max Deegan is hammered as he carries directly into two big Welsh shoulders. Carolan’s side are instantly moving backwards and scrambling to recover but give away a penalty in the process, which Wales unsuccessfully kick at goal.
Ireland’s early carrying against the Welsh was poor, but the utter turnaround in that department signified the shift of momentum in this game. After going 17-0 down, the quality of the Irish ball-carrying was one of the outstanding features of their resurgence.
Wales, much to their regret, eased off in terms of linespeed after racing so far ahead and Ireland’s forwards did not need to be asked twice to begin building momentum.
It’s Deegan who carries in the instance above, now using a sharp step off his left foot to create the space for himself and turn the situation into an advantageous one.
Ireland’s approach in attack – despite the memorable offloads we will soon look at – was largely quite narrow to the ruck as they asked their dynamic forwards to make yards off the scrum-half or through pick and jams.
Andrew Porter is the man to make the yards for Ireland in the instance above, refusing to accept the tackle of Wales hooker Dafydd Hughes as he pirouettes back inside.
A big leg drive follows and we can see Porter fighting hard with his upper body too, looking to eke out as many metres after the initial contact as possible.
These were common traits through this Irish performance, with another example from hooker Adam McBurney below.
Again, McBurney pirouettes back inside the low tackle attempt of the Welsh pillar defender – Harrison Keddie this time – and quickly regathers his feet to pump into the second tackle. Again, Ireland are right over the gainline.
In the instance below, it’s lock Cillian Gallagher who makes the carry one pass out from the ruck.
For a third time in the space of 50 seconds, we see an Irish ball carrier cleverly use their footwork to beat the tackle of a Welshman, rather than simply lumbering directly into the firm shoulders awaiting them.
The three examples above all come in the 13-phase build-up that results in Ireland’s second try through Jacob Stockdale, which we see below.
It takes a linebreak from outstanding centre Conor O’Brien to allow Ireland to actually cut through the Welsh defence, taking advantage of a missed tackle, but the hard work of the forwards over the preceding phases is essential.
The carries weren’t always about superb footwork, with some hugely direct efforts too.
The likes of Porter – above, again in the build-up to the second try – and captain James Ryan – below, shortly before Ireland’s third try – always showed sheer determination and fight to win metres even when met by well-placed defenders.
With both Porter and Ryan’s carries above we can see how Ireland generate quick ball, further stressing the Welsh defence after the strong surges.
It was the excellent variety from Ireland’s forwards in how they carried at the Welsh within their relatively simple game plan that impressed most.
Carolan’s pack had a range of tools to help themselves beyond the gainline. A simple tip-on pass from Gallagher as the Welsh defence hammers up on him allows Porter to pick out a hole in the case below.
Porter’s freakish power is, of course, crucial here but it’s smart play from Gallagher under pressure and we’ll see that the tip-on plays an integral role in Ireland’s final try too.
In the instance above, this huge carry from Porter was part of the 23-phase passage of attack that resulted in Johnston kicking a penalty for Ireland to take the lead for the first time in the game at 21-10.
Even with simple details like leeching onto ball carriers, Ireland excelled in the carry.
It’s a direct carry from Gallagher above but the leech by blindside flanker Greg Jones, driving his lock into the contact and creating something of a mismatch, ensures Ireland get more gainline and more quick ball.
We can see that Jones, having helped propel Gallagher into contact, also drives on beyond the ball once the lock has been grounded, helping to provide that quick possession.
Again, this technique was a feature of the Irish ball carrying as they brought outstanding variety to consistently keep the Welsh moving backwards.
Making kicks count
Leinster’s James Ryan has been delivering big moments all season for the Ireland U20s and is the clear standout player in this group.
His huge hit on Keddie in the 21st minute, directly after the Welsh had gone 17-0 up, was a genuine momentum-shifter in the game.
Ryan covers the ground exceptionally quickly for a player of his position and height [6’8″], something we regularly see when Ireland are defending. He brings huge aggression into contact too, and both attributes are highlighted here.
The restart from Johnston is perfect, hanging in the air long enough for Ryan to sprint forward and level Keddie ball-and-all.
So begins a period of Ireland pressure on the Welsh – their first in the game – that eventually sees Johnston pop over a drop goal to finally get Carolan’s men on the scoreboard.
Ireland had further success with a nicely-executed Johnston restart later in the game, as we see in the clip below.
This time it’s loosehead prop Porter who leads the line on the chase and draws a poorly-disguised block to earn Ireland a penalty.
Johnston slots the shot at goal to bring Ireland back to 20-18 early in the second half as their resurgence continues.
Making restarts count was important for Carolan’s side, as it is for any. They’re so often referred to as a set-piece and there are certainly big rewards for sides who can pressure the opposition with their restart strategy.
Ireland’s kicking game in general improved markedly after two poor clearance efforts inside their own 22 invited the brilliant counter-attacking try finished by Rueben Morgan-Williams.
Thereafter, Ireland become far more composed and effective in their exits, ensuring that they had bodies on their feet to chase – and that they actually connected well with their kicks.
Johnston began to search out territory in the backfield, showing fine vision and awareness, and after narrowly overcooking two kicks he found his range to great effect.
Wales thrived early in the game partly because Ireland’s kicking errors – and the other mentioned before – invited them to attack.
With efforts like the one above, Ireland’s exiting actually managed to apply pressure to the Welsh. Johnston’s kick is followed up aggressively by right wing Matthew Byrne, centre Shane Daly and fullback Stockdale.