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How Schmidt is thinking outside the box to unlock defences at World Cup

Kick on: Ireland have relied on Conor Murray’s kicking game
Kick on: Ireland have relied on Conor Murray’s kicking game

By Cian Tracey

It's not that long ago a cacophony of calls cried out for Ireland to reduce the number of box-kicks and figure out another way of breaching what are increasingly stifling defensive lines.

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The box-kick was a tactic that brought huge success to Joe Schmidt's side, but the game evolves at such a rapid rate that innovation is always at the forefront of every coach's mind, especially the Ireland head coach.

Opposition teams figured out a way to counteract the box-kick, be that in the pressure they apply on the scrum-half or how they cleverly escort the players who are attempting to win back the towering kick.

Schmidt is generally at the forefront of the innovation that is required to unlock defences and, while he almost certainly has some trick plays up his sleeve for the World Cup, he will be concerned by the lack of creativity that his players have shown thus far in the build up.

The Kiwi has plenty of issues on his plate, not least the defence and the lineout, but for such an attack specialist, he will want to see more from his players before the touch down in Japan.

We saw glimpses of Ireland's change to their kicking strategy earlier this month when neither scrum-half box-kicked for the entire game.

Instead, Joey Carbery repeatedly attempted cross-field kicks as a way to attempt to play from deep.

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Such a risky strategy will be even more difficult to pull off against the stronger teams, yet it was perhaps telling that even when Conor Murray was restored to the starting XV last weekend, there wasn't an immediate return to the box-kick.

It is clear that Schmidt is attempting to add more strings to the attack, even if they know that the box-kick can be kept in the back pocket.

"We're mixing it up," Murray explains.

"You saw it here in the Six Nations, I thought we kicked really well, nines, tens and people on the edge that day, but we got no access to the ball.

"The way they're reffing it, the way the - I wouldn't say blockers - but the way they're allowed to run back towards the receiver, sometimes it's very hard to get access.

"I don't think we're going away from it, that's been a strength of ours for a long time, and when we need to use it we definitely will. It's just good to maybe explore other ways to get into that contest or relieve pressure.

"Like I said, I thought we kicked really well in the Six Nations but we didn't get access and it was effectively just giving them the ball back."

With Jack Carty in line to start his first international, it will be fascinating to see what kind of game-plan he is asked to run.

The Connacht out-half has an excellent kicking game and his ability to mix it up by taking the ball to the line should add a fresh dynamic to Ireland's attack.

Should Will Addison get the nod from full-back, as is expected, he too has the ability to bring something different to the party.

"I'd love for this weekend to come around and we get an awful lot right and get into our phase play and show how good we are in attack," says Murray, who is likely to be given the weekend off.

"You saw glimpses of us getting our dangerous players in space with Jacob a couple of times - that's from the work done on the inside getting momentum and quick ball to give people like him opportunities one-on-one.

"Bundee's (Aki) finish was incredible. It wasn't even a one-on-one and he did incredibly well.

"We are really keen to get those type of players into the game and that's why we are determined to work, and the honest week we have had has been a big learning curve for us."

Against Italy earlier this month, Ireland kicked the ball from hand 25 times, compared to 19 against England, when their possession was either limited or scrappy.

A new-look pack, spearheaded by James Ryan, must be able to provide Carty with front-foot ball on Saturday, and then see what he can conjure up with the boot.

Kicking will always be a strength of Ireland's game, but finding new ways to use it to good effect is one of the many challenge Schmidt now faces.

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