Filling Big Shoes:

Jack Crowley and Ireland

Two from two in the 2024 Men’s Six Nations, Ireland have started the Championship with a vengeance. Before their opening night fixture against France – touted as the decisive match of the tournament – Oval’s season simulator predicted that Ireland had a 54.6% chance of winning the Six Nations. After emphatic victories against France and Italy, they are now 89.8% favourites for the title.

Andy Farrell’s side will make history if they win back-to-back Grand Slams – there’s a 51.4% chance of this – or become the first team to win Championships either side of a Rugby World Cup. However, Ireland’s furious start is, in part, a response to their World Cup campaign.

For the most part, Ireland look the same side as they did at the World Cup: rapid and accurate in attack, physical and aggressive in defence. However, they’re channelling their frustration into producing even more precise performances in the Six Nations so far.

In the first half-an-hour of their Quarter-final against New Zealand, Ireland lost two lineouts in the opposition 22; two prime attacking opportunities missed. Where their lineout success rate was 82.5% at the World Cup – 7th among the eight Quarter-finalists – they are now the only team that hasn’t lost a lineout in the Six Nations so far.

Similarly, the All Blacks made 25.9% more kick in play metres than Ireland in that match, a 181-metre difference. As a result, Ireland have made an average of 948.5 kicking metres per match in the Six Nations so far – a 182-metre increase from their World Cup average. Almost exactly the difference between the sides in the Quarters.

Ireland have tweaked their game – which has seen them win 31 of their last 34 matches – in direct response to their World Cup disappointment. However, it is largely a story of continuity than change, of persistent quality than a knee-jerk reaction. In terms of personnel, 11 of the starting XV against France also started against New Zealand. Nonetheless, there is the notable replacement of Johnny Sexton with Jack Crowley.

Jack Crowley and Ireland's Rugby World Cup

Like Sexton, Crowley acts as a ‘Distributor’ for club and country – one of four attacking clusters for fly-halves. On average, 52% of a distributor’s touches are passes – the highest of any cluster. Moreover, 10s in this category tend to be involved the most in attack, involved an average of 42 times per 80 minutes.

At the World Cup, Sexton passed the ball more than once every other minute; he was second only to Finn Russell for passes per 80 minutes, averaging 41.3. In other words, he was the pivotal conduit of the Irish attack, their lynch pin. So far in the 2024 Six Nations, Crowley has also stood out from the crowd, making more passes per 80 minutes than any other fly-half (an average of 32.5).

In Crowley, Ireland have drafted in another player comfortable with being at the epicentre of the team’s attack. With Ireland’s kicking game largely in the hands of Jamison Gibson Park and James Lowe – who has made the second-most kicking metres in the Championship – Crowley’s focus can be on occupying the distributor role which he already does at club level. The 24-year-old’s high-involvement passing game is a close match to that demanded by the Irish No. 10 jersey, making him a natural stylistic successor to Johnny Sexton.

Against France, Crowley’s match rating was 7.1. This made him the third-top performing Irish back in their statement victory, but was also better than the last performance in the emerald No 10 jersey. How will Crowley’s form over the remainder of the Six Nations influence Ireland’s chances of making history?