Analysis: Ireland need their rolling maul to hum if they are to knock England over
One of Ireland's greatest strengths in the 2014 Six Nations was nullified at Fortress Twickenham.
Ahead of Ireland's Six Nations clash against England, last February, Rory Best urged caution following the rolling mauls that had stunned New Zealand, Wales and Scotland.
He said: 'It is something we have worked very hard on. We showed bits and pieces of it in previous campaigns but we've obviously been much more consistent this year. The flip-side of it is that no-one expected Ireland to maul. Now that we've mauled successfully a number of times, teams are going to be expecting that.'
The Ireland hooker was correct. England were waiting for their visitors to maul. When Ireland did, the English had the answers. The match-stats will say Ireland won seven of their mauls but the three they lost were all in or around the English 22.
Post-match, Ireland captain Paul O'Connell bemoaned the English tactics at the maul - using selected players to yank down the arms of front-leading players, dropping players to the turf and, on two occasion, sending over a rogue agent [Courtney Lawes - pictured below] to completely spoil the Irish drive.
Devin Toner, O'Connell's second row partner that day, and for this Sunday's return, told us: 'I can't remember off the top of my head what Paulie is talking about. I think we got a few chances to maul against them, but I don't think we got a front foot up on them.
'They're very good at breaking the joints around the front of the maul, so if they get a chance to swim over the top, grab the ball, I don't think any team can handle that. We've got to just counteract that.'
Ireland's first two lineouts of the match had 'Joe Schmidt' stamped all over them. On 10 minutes, Best had a throw about 35 metres out and England would surely have been expecting their first maul task. Instead, Best threw to the back of the lineout and found Peter O'Mahony on the charge. The subterfuge got Ireland into the English 22 until, six phases later, possession was lost.
The second lineout was after 14 minutes and was right on the English 22. O'Mahony claimed and turned his back, feigning to set up a maul, before Chris Henry dished a quick pass and Johnny Sexton lofted a cross-field kick that found Andrew Trimble and almost led to a score. Ireland were holding onto their supposed ace.
Into the second half and the rolling maul was still nowhere to be seen. Ireland's 41st-minute lineout was on the English 22 but Schmidt and his players had another dashing backline move planned. Quick ball off a claimed set-piece and, four phases later, Rob Kearney scythed over for a great try.
It was not until 47 minutes in when the rolling maul was unveiled. Courtney Lawes showed England's hand by climbing over the top and not releasing the ball-carrier [Jamie Heaslip] until he was on the deck and had conceded a penalty:
Danny Care's try and five kicked points from Owen Farrell had England 13-10 up in the closing stages. With six minutes to play, the moment O'Connell referred to, post-match, cropped up.
O'Connell claimed a Sean Cronin throw and, having fed the ball back to Jordi Murphy, found both Chris Robshaw and Courtney Lawes over on the Irish side of the maul.
Ireland gained minimal ground before a no-look Conor Murray pass, to Iain Henderson, was spilled forward.
With a minute left to play, Ireland went to the maul again but this time on their own 22. Lawes, who was named man-of-the-match, was there again and in a wholly illegal manner. Ireland got the penalty but O'Connell remained livid:
We caught up with Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby to see if Ireland would go back to the mauling well, especially when they are being roared on by a fervent home crowd. Have Ireland been working on any new tricks?
He said: 'We're always analysing each other and looking at different ways to overcome what the opposition might do in defence. The maul and the scrum are two good examples where it’s close-quarters stuff and we have to be smart and disciplined about what we do.
'There will be things that we will try and do and I’m sure there will be things they will try to do that we won't have seen. And we’ll have things they might not have seen. Overall it’s about playing smart, but about playing pretty hard as well.'
My bet - if Ireland get clean line-out ball, expect more than five rolling mauls.
One hopes the referee, Craig Joubert, is keeping and eye out for white jerseys in the green mass.