I’ve watched all thirty-one of Munster’s games in 2018/2019 over the past week. Not the worst way to spend a boozy, Beamish drenched week it has to be said but I found a consistent pattern – Munster playing catch up, both in the Conference A table and from a structural perspective.
The addition of Haley, Carbery and Beirne was a crucial bit of business for Munster in the close season and all three men added real value.
Their addition to the first team squad reset a lot of cohesion that was built up over the previous season and they would need to be gotten up to speed quite quickly and you can see the conundrum facing Van Graan in the initial parts of the season as a result. A new starting flyhalf, fullback and ball playing, lineout calling starting second-row forward need a lot of bedding in to get up to speed, especially with the Champions Cup coming up on the horizon, so a lot of senior players got a lot of minutes front-loaded in the early part of the season to speed up that integration.
Just one example – Peter O’Mahony would need to have a good on-field relationship with Tadhg Beirne because working the lineout in training is one thing, doing it in a match situation is another. Beirne himself would have to get into a rhythm with his jumping options as the new chief lineout caller.
Here’s another – Mike Haley would need time to bed into his role in the backfield, especially outside Carbery, who himself would need to build an on-field relationship with Mathewson/Williams/Cronin while working away with Murray in the background as he recovered from his neck issue – remember that?
It was a picture perfect example of bedding in a season’s worth of attacking development into twelve weeks of rugby and it was more than a little jaggy at times.
To illustrate, Munster lost eight games in 2018/2019.
Three of those losses (37%) came inside the first six weeks of the season. Not a surprise, either as three of the most difficult fixtures of the season came in that period. Going on the road to almost full strength Cardiff/Glasgow/Leinster sides with mix and match Munster squads while you’re bedding in a new first-choice flyhalf who only joined a few weeks earlier and a system to take advantage of said new flyhalf and key new pack members is a recipe for disruption and so it proved to be. Three games, three losses, no losing bonus points. They’d be important at the end of the season.
From there, Munster only lost two more times in the regular PRO14 season and three more times in Europe.
Has there been an improvement from last season?
Yes – without a doubt.
But to put a blunt edge on it, the end result of the season despite that improvement was similar to last season in a lot of ways. Sure, the score in the RDS was a little worse this time and the defeat to Saracens a little better compared to last season’s implosion against Racing in Bordeaux, but the glass ceiling we reached last year is still very much in place. Ultimately, we’re still falling at the last hurdle when faced with the very best sides.
We improved, for sure, but not enough to outstrip the very best in Europe. It really is as simple as that. We got better, but so did Leinster and especially Saracens.
Our regular season record in the PRO14 improved year on year on almost every metric.
JVG Year 1/5
Erasmus Year 2/JVG Year 1
Erasmus Year 1
Foley Year 2
Foley Year 1
Penney Year 2
Penney Year 1
Two things to note;
It was our third best PRO14 defensive performance in the last seven years with regards to points scored – bettered only by Rob Penney’s second season in charge and the first year under Erasmus/Nienaber – but curiously, it was our worst season in the last seven for tries conceded, worse than last season. Part of that is the change in the ruleset and focus over the last few years.
As an example, the average tries conceded by the top four sides in the PRO12/PRO14 over the last few years is as follows;
Our points scored was the highest in the last seven seasons with four more tries scored than last season. Our tries scored was the highest too, but fell behind Glasgow and quite a bit behind Leinster.
We had the best home record in the combined conferences with 47 points from 10 games – three points off a perfect 50. We were better than Glasgow on points difference and Leinster by two points but they, like Glasgow, had 11 games compared to our 10. We were the third-best road team in the tournament, earning 30 points from 11 games. The two teams ahead of us in away points earned were Glasgow and Leinster, who had to play one less game on the road.
Given that Munster had the toughest schedule in the PRO14 this season, our improved performance year on year – 69 points last year compared to 77 points this time around – isn’t something to be dismissed out of hand. Our early season losses were bad to watch but somewhat expected given the cohesion we were trying to generate mixed in with player welfare post-Australian tour but the lack of bonus points in those three defeats really hurt us as the season went on. Even then, over Christmas and the Six Nations window, we’d managed to fight our way to the top of the Conference until the Scarlets away – our most disappointing regular season performance of the season for me.
That loss on a day where we had 66% possession and 70% territory without scoring a single try gave our hard-won Conference lead up to Glasgow and we never got it back. Sure, the weather was atrocious that evening – the worst we endured all season, in my opinion – but the bluntness we showed in that game would be incredibly costly. It essentially took control of our own destiny in the conference out of our hands and locked us into the most difficult semi-final destination in Europe in any competition; the RDS against a hurting Leinster side.
Regular season performance can’t be dismissed – in Europe and domestically, those performances get you to the knockout stages – but when it came to the knockout rounds themselves, I thought we were pretty average.
Of our four knockout games – away to Edinburgh, Saracens, Leinster and at home to Benetton – we scored three tries. Two of those came against Edinburgh, one came against Saracens and the other two games were penalty goals only.
That kind of scoring record isn’t enough to get the job done against the very best teams in Europe in knock out rugby. It was enough for Benetton and Edinburgh – with a bit of luck – but it meant we fell short against Leinster and Saracens.
It’s not about blowing teams out of the water with four or five tries but it is about taking chances when they appear to manipulate the flow of games in your favour.
Too many times against Saracens, Leinster and even Benetton, we looked muddled the further away from the set piece launch.
Here’s an example of three multi-phase sets in the first half against Leinster when Munster had a lot of impetus and tempo.
One was an exit phase off a defensive lineout from which Munster ended up winning a scrum penalty. From there we kicked to just outside the Leinster 22 and lost the ball on two successive sequences. The first was a breakdown turnover on phase 8, the second came from an intercept on phase 5 of a kick transition sequence. Our biggest gain came from a two pass sequence from Carbery to Farrell to Conway right before a Conan intercept.
There were four passes beyond the first receiver in these two offensive sequences. When Leinster scored the decisive try in the second half, there were nine passes beyond the first receiver.
For me, this is an example of where our problem lies in microcosm.
We play a forward system that looks like an asymmetrical 3-3-2 at times but we don’t have enough passing between the pods to make the most of it.
Sides with big midfield carriers can afford to build a system like this and, with Farrell and Rory Scannell, we have that ability to launch a 3-3-2 on openside plays like this.
But on most of our phases, we tend to hammer the C defender a little too often once we drift into unstructured play. Our footwork was criticised quite a bit this season but I think most of the problems with that came down to our predictability in structure.
Once we go beyond three or four phases, we tend to hammer our pods looking for a quick ball with enough regularity that the very best defences are blitzing our carriers, denying us gainline in those moments and then stepping on our kick chase.
If I was to point to one area where our game has definitively gone backwards, it would be the quality of our kick chase. Teams have begun to squeeze our box kick strategies by blocking off our chasers – legally and usually illegally – but the accuracy of our kicking hasn’t really hit the heights either. It was at its best against Gloucester in Kingsholm in my opinion but it wasn’t as effective that often. You kick to get the ball back or generate transition situations you can then manipulate but our work in this area fell down for me. Too often we kicked the ball away only to get hurt on the resulting transition. Sometimes it was the kick, sometimes it was the chase, but it didn’t help us against the very best sides over the season – Exeter, Leinster and Saracens in particular.
If I was to pick another area, it would be our handling in contact, especially in the forwards. We just seemed to spill the ball too often in contact and sure, a lot of that came down to our overall predictability in structure, but some of it was just poor contact handling.
Our lineout had decent numbers for much of the season but too often against the very best teams, we came under a bit of pressure and killed our own momentum.
These are just two examples against Leinster where there was a miscommunication at the front of the lineout but you’ll remember more than a few like this from earlier in the season against Exeter in particular.
Here’s a megamix of our contact problems and lineout malfunctions against Ulster earlier in the season.
Blown timing, blown lifts, blown schemes and fat throws. It didn’t hurt us in most games, just in the important ones, as happens at the top end of our sport. Our defensive lineout was consistently good, mind, and was the standout area of our game for me.
Our scrummaging was pretty good, for the most part, but I felt we regressed a little against the head – we weren’t challenging the opposition put in with the same physical pressure that we were even last season.
The more games I watched, the more I saw areas of our game being overloaded – not by the opposition, but in the stands. We looked to have an overloaded coaching team.
When you look at Leinster, they have a lot of onfield brainpower when it comes to their senior coaching set-up.
That’s six on-field coaches with scrum specialists, kicking specialists and contact specialists alongside Contepomi, Cullen and Lancaster.
Saracens are the same.
As the season wore on, it just looked like Munster were a little overloaded when it came to coaching. We had four on-field coaches – Johann Van Graan (head coach), JP Ferreira (defence), Jerry Flannery (forwards), Felix Jones (backs/attack) with no specific scrum specialist, which is an incredibly complicated discipline in its own right alongside the lineout.
When I look at our performance level degrading from the top end as the season developed, I see an overloaded coaching group doing their very best to keep the train on the rails. We looked a little mentally weary as the season developed and I wonder how much of that comes from the coaching group being overloaded. How much of a load did Flannery have to take on with the scrum on top of other aspects of our forward play? How much did Van Graan take with the lineout on top of his head coaching role? How much of a load was placed on Jones’ shoulders to run the attack of a top four in Europe side two years into his coaching career?
When you consider this, you can see the benefits of even one extra body to spread the load. Hopefully, that gets done this preseason. I think we need three coaches now – a scrum specialist, an attack coach and a backs/skills coach – to push us to the next level.
I’ve said it so often it could be the site’s tagline but the margins are small enough. We are a consistent top four side in Europe and I genuinely believe that, were it not an away game against Leinster consistently blocking our path in the PRO14 over the last two seasons, we were good enough to get to a final. Would we have beaten Glasgow? I’m not sure. But to get to a final next time around our attack needs to be better.
When you look at the crucial games we failed in – Scarlets away in the regular season, Saracens and Leinster – our attack was the killer issue. It’s not just fancy offloads or switch plays – it’s the confidence and instinct that we’re lacking. Ultimately, we’re a team that is set up to play on transition events – kicking and breakdown – but we aren’t sharp enough with our skill set to punish the best sides in Europe on transition and, in my opinion, we leave ourselves open to the very transition events we’re looking to generate in the opposition.
On our phase play and set piece strike plays, I felt that Munster had little problem generating the positions we needed inside or around the 22 but too often we didn’t have the collective instinct to get the ball where it needed to go to hurt teams when it counted. You could see that we had a structure and options on certain strike plays – I wouldn’t say they were elite, but they were there – but I felt we degraded badly into isolated runners if our initial momentum was stalled. We looked for width and tempo but didn’t have the skill set or the structure to fully take advantage of it.
Munster have very good players and they were enough to get us past most sides, but that won’t do it against Lions heavy teams like Saracens and Leinster, as it so proved.
Things aren’t in a desperate state; far from it. It’s just that Munster are now at the stage where a top-four finish in Europe and a defeat to the eventual PRO14 champions in the RDS isn’t close to good enough. We want to go to that next level. I truly believe that there is a trophy in this group of players and that there are some special individuals waiting to burst to prominence from the younger guys. All they need is the guidance to get there.
I think Johann Van Graan is the guy to get the job done and, as head coach, if he is supported in the same manner that Leo Cullen was at Leinster then success won’t be too far away.