MunsterÕs Keith Earls (11) and Arno Botha embrace after the final whistle of the European Champions Cup quarter final match at BT Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh.

Exerting Pressure

Much has been made of Munster’s defensive performance on Saturday afternoon, so I thought it might be good to have a look at the structures we used in this game in a little more detail.

The obvious parts – the individual tackling, the defensive ruck work and overall reads/decision making – were all quite good for the most part, with only a few iffy moments to blot the copybook.

This one is the worst of them for me, even if Pyrgos does make a bit of a meal of the contact. We didn’t need to bind onto the halfback in this instance but I’ll give Scannell the benefit of the doubt in that he probably didn’t realise he was playing the scrumhalf in this instance as his head was down while trying to drive through the ruck.

Other than that, I thought we were quite good for the most part.

As for Munster’s structure, we, like a lot of modern defences, are multi-structured depending on where on the field we’re defending.

There are four zones of defence.

  1. The Red Zone: This is the defensive system with the least amount of depth and takes shape inside your own 5m. Almost all of your team will be defending in the primary defensive line in this position.
  2. The Orange Zone: You have slightly more freedom in this part of the pitch but you’ll mainly be positioning your fullback, recessed winger/flyhalf on either side of the ruck position. Closer to the 5m line, you’ll likely see most teams having their fullback tracking the ruck position while the wingers hang back slightly depending on where that ruck is. If the ruck is on the left side of the field, you’ll see your right-hand winger drop back a bit and vice versa.
    Depending on where the start position for the defensive set is – closer to Red or Yellow – you’ll structure yourself differently depending on whether you’re defending a set piece or a kick transition. This is still a high-risk area of defence and some sides – like Saracens circa 2014-16 – like to kick away almost every ball they get in this area to exert territorial pressure on the opposition rather than put hands and width on their possession.
  3. The Yellow Zone: This is the approximate area of the field where you have a lot of freedom to structure your kick defence and subsequent counter-attack system. Some sides leave three defenders – a combination of fullback, winger or flyhalf at differing levels of depth – in the backfield in this position to effect a counter-attack should the opposition kick the ball away. Some sides leave a dynamic ball carrying forward in the backfield alongside a fullback or winger. Others like to leave two defenders split across the backfield to increase the defensive pressure on the front line and prevent wide attacks from gaining too much ground with the wingers looking to drop back depending on the movement of the opposition.
  4. The Green Zone: The best place on the field to defend and where you can be a little more ambitious with your counter-attack positioning. Here you can pressure the opposition close to their own try line and use their probable need to exit as a means to manipulate their positioning. It isn’t a fail-safe area to defend – no area on the field is – but it’s a part of the pitch that the opposition will need to work extremely hard to get out of. A lot of sides leave three players in aggressive backfield positions in this zone to mop up poor exits and, essentially, “hem” the opposition into place.

What defines a team’s structure is where they consider their defensive zones to be. One team might have the Orange Zone going all the way to the halfway line. Other teams might have a Yellow Zone that creeps closer to their own 22 or a Green Zone that

All teams defend a little differently in these approximate positions and there is a bit of flexibility in where and how the structure modifies, but not very many sides at the top level have a rigid, unchangeable defensive structure that’s the same all the way through the field all the way through the game.

The ultimate aim of defence is to get the ball back – I know, a thrilling discovery – but your structure dictates what you try to do once you get it back. Defence isn’t a separate thing from attack. It IS attack.

Teams are defined by how many numbers they are willing to risk in their primary defensive line balanced against the counter-attacking numbers in the backfield when they are defending this approximate area of the field during multi-phase play or in the aftermath of a set-piece.

There are three main defensive alignments and a lot of teams can switch between one or the other depending on the positional context.

14 Up / 1 Back Structure

More numbers in the primary defensive line give you more line speed options and blitzing opportunities balanced with fewer opportunities on transition and increased vulnerability to shallow kicking plays behind your defensive line with your edge defenders having a lot of positional decisions to make depending on ruck position.

You need good kicking wingers for this kind of structure and an excellent positional fullback. If you’ve got those in place, you can really pressurise the opposition’s possession with good numbers all the way to the edges.

This can sometimes morph into a…

13 Up / 2 Back Structure

Fewer numbers in the primary line and more players in counter-attack kicking positions make your defensive decision making, tackle up and downs, and execution in the primary line more of a risk but you have good counter-attacking options on kickaways.

You need quick, intelligent wingers for this system as they have to make good decisions on when to step up into the primary defensive line and back into the secondary layer.

This – depending on position – can sometimes morph to…

12 Up / 3 Back Structure

Some teams – like the All Blacks and Argentina over the past season or two – have left multiple players in the backfield on certain types of defensive sets.

Edinburgh had Bill Mata in the backfield on some of these plays.

This puts a lot of pressure on the up and down speed of your primary line tacklers and really hurts you if you lose multiple guys to an attacking ruck. You need a really fit and mobile pack for this or you risk being badly unbalanced on multiphase plays. Your midfielders have to be really intelligent decision makers too, especially when it comes to positioning, as they’ll have a lot of space to cover. On the flip side, you have outstanding backfield coverage and tonnes of counter-attacking options on breakdown transition or, increasingly, especially in New Zealand, tackle turnovers.

How you use these structures depends on how much risk you’re willing to take on your primary lines and what your mentality is on certain turnover ball. Are you kicking everything you get inside your 10m line? Then you’re better off with more primary line defenders. Have you excellent broken field runners and work well in unstructured play? Then you need a mobile pack to cover primary line space and as many backfield counter-attackers as you can risk.

Ultimately, it’s about playing to your strengths and maximising what you do when you get the ball back.

Against Edinburgh on Saturday, Munster played with a 13 up/2 back system for most of the game with Sweetnam and Earls doing a lot of north/south movement depending on ruck position.

Here’s Munster defending in the Green Zone;

Sweetnam and Earls defend the wings (you’ll notice Farrell and Scannell split either side of the ruck too) and Carbery and Conway are in the backfield.

In certain circumstances, Conor Murray would float halfway between the backfield defence and the primary line on Green Zone defensive sets.

You can see Bleyendaal and Conway coming into the shot from the backfield right at the end.

That’s how we defended most of the time when we weren’t in our own 22.

You can see how we transition from narrow blitz in the flanks to a more widened stance on the centre-field position here;

Rory Scannell will have wanted a better stop here.

We’re narrow when the ruck is on the flanks and fan laterally in midfield to swallow up the wider play.

Lateral Position

The other thing to consider here is the Lateral Position of the opposition’s attack. We’ve looked at the positions going up and down the field, but what about across the field?

Anytime the opposition have centre-field attacking position – the red stripe up the middle of the field in the above graphic – it’s a tricky part of the field to defend and it gets more dangerous the closer to your own try line that you get. Centre-field ruck position is dangerous because you have two sides of the field to defend equally and a larger area of the field to make decisions on. The best defensive sides generally make good decisions around centre-field fold points.

A ruck on the flanks gives you, the defending team, more aggressive defensive options with regards to blitzing and line speed, while also giving you good dropback options when the opposition sets up to box-kick.

Munster have used CJ Stander as a drop back option against some sides on their box kicks when they’re launched from the flanks. Against Edinburgh – who took quite a while on their box kick setups – Munster dropped Stander back into the secondary layer as a heavy transition option.

You can see him at it here;

He’s in position to handle the ball if Conway makes a dominant catch, while also being perfectly situated for any wider defensive duties. Bill Mata, on the other hand, had to be stationed in the backfield, rather than upping the number of metres he had to run without the ball in hand. Munster’s narrow alignment Edinburgh’s flank possession make it difficult for them to gain ground through carrying the ball and forces the opposition into a wide play or kicking the ball to us, where we’ll back our skill set in the air and our defensive reset.

When Edinburgh tried a few box-kick feints, Stander was acting almost like an openside flanker with the ground he covered on the scramble.

He’s out to Van Der Walt at first receiver and then arcing around the corner. Sweetnam had been on a backfield covering route but came back inside. Stander and Farrell were the only primary defenders on the openside and they covered this wide break excellently. Why didn’t Stander drop back on this one? Because (a) it was probably a feature of the Green Zone defence we were using and (b) he read the Edinburgh kicking options behind Pyrgos and figured it was prudent to assume it was a feint.

But Edinburgh’s wide play had its issues too.

They actually ended up coughing up the ball under pressure from Farrell and Stander and we’ll be a little disappointed that we didn’t execute the transition opportunity here. We kicked infield when perhaps a kick over the top of the ruck might have been better given there was nobody covering back there and Sweetnam was ready to shoot down the flank.

This is a good example of defence being attack. There are 15 seconds between when Edinburgh have the ball on one side of the field and when Munster have a chance to counter on the other, with Edinburgh having the ball in their hands for 13 out of those 15 seconds.

Attack Without The Ball

Munster kicked the ball 28 times in this game – Murray kicked 16 times – and a few people have asked me why we did that when we had so little possession. Murray Kinsella pointed out that Munster were looking to target Pyrgos under the high ball as he dropped into the backfield off defensive lineouts and that’s a good example of taking a calculated risk with your possession. You kick the ball away to get it back or put yourself in a position to pressure the opposition further up the field than you were when you kicked it. Pressure creates mistakes, which creates opportunity.

Here’s a good example;

This is an excellent kick chase from Niall Scannell and Peter O’Mahony. Munster “move the chains” into the Edinburgh half and, with Scannell getting a great stop on the catcher combined with Peter O’Mahony attacking the breakdown, Edinburgh are under pressure immediately on the reception of this kick.

On the recycle, they lose the gainline when Watson gets drilled back by Ryan and Beirne, who have come up in a tight line to the flank ruck position.

In this scenario, Munster can pack the short side because they’re backing their ability to scramble to any wide play Edinburgh would look to launch in this position but, crucially, this also increases the chances that Edinburgh will kick back to us from the same position.

Do Edinburgh like to play ball from this position – inside their half, on the flank and directly after a kick transition – or do they usually try to reset with a kick of their own. Munster’s video work will have shown that it’s the latter.

Once you get Edinburgh running up and down the field after a series of possession, you can start to unbalance them. I think that’s why we kicked back at Bill Mata directly after receiving the kickback above – we’re trying to create transition events.

Mata’s inflated carry numbers come from a lot of ball like this.

When Mata carries the ball back – as he always does in these positions – he was in a vulnerable position to our jackals. Who is on him; O’Mahony with the tackle and Beirne with the steal on the floor. From here, Munster have what we wanted – a transition event.

Immediately, we set off after a disrupted Edinburgh defence.

When we get the ball into Rory Scannell’s hands, we’ve given him an opportunity to make a play. He immediately notices Hoyland stepping up into the primary line to try and snuff out the wide attack so he kicks in behind him.

A better bounce would have been great, but he gets good distance and pressurises Edinburgh again – this time inside their own 22.

They kick the ball back under pressure and, once again, give our outside backs a chance to make something happen.

With guys like Carbery, Earls, Conway and Sweetnam you want a bit of disrupted space to play in. Conway’s work here is fantastic and he’s backing his skillset against an Edinburgh team that we’ve been working around the field for the last few minutes.

We gave the ball away a phase or two after this, right when we were beginning to generate the kind of field position we like to work with.

It could have been a penalty to Munster here – Gilchrist goes straight off his feet at 10:01 – but the logic behind our decision making was sound. We were using our kicking and defence to generate attacking opportunities and pressure the opposition.

The Endgame

Munster’s closing out of the game was extremely good. This is where we combine our Zone theory with lateral positioning of the ruck and scoreboard/time context.

At this point in the game, Edinburgh needed a try to win but Munster had just won a scrum from the excellent lineout defence of Billy Holland. After a strong scrummage, Munster chose to box kick beyond the Edinburgh 10m line.

Earls work on Van Der Merwe here was superb.

Why did Munster kick the ball back to Edinburgh when the Scottish club needed a try? Hanging onto the ball in the middle of the field off a scrum is a dangerous prospect for the team with the ball.

Just ask Glasgow.

Hanging onto the ball for two minutes is asking for trouble away from home with a referee like Pascal Gauzere. One wrong entry, one snug jackal and Jaco Van Der Walt would be kicking Edinburgh deep into the Munster half.

Instead, Edinburgh would have to take the ball from their own 10m line and score a try. No easy feat in the 78th minute.

Immediately, Edinburgh started flinging the ball from wing to wing, looking for space on the edge.

In this area of the field, Munster can afford to push 14 men into the defensive line to meet Edinburgh’s wide plays.

This keeps Edinburgh inside our defensive radius and dares them to kick the ball away to Conway in the backfield. We’re using line speed, we’re using field position to our advantage and we’re using a massive primary defensive line to pressure Edinburgh and make them do something.

Edinburgh would make ground around the edges through Van Der Merwe but when they came back inside, they would meet heavy Munster line speed. Edinburgh’s need to get wide wasn’t getting them the freedom they wanted because Munster were never numbered down in the wide areas.

All Munster had do was moderately contest the ruck to draw cleaners and reduce Edinburgh’s attacking numbers. On the reset, Edinburgh would encounter Munster’s narrow blitz with Stander leading the line from “C”. Edinburgh lose the gainline.

Munster still have 14 men in the defensive line here so they are consistently pressurising Edinburgh and swamping the edges. The way around this for Edinburgh is to kick but would they dare with the clock gone red? They wouldn’t.

Unable to make headway up the middle of the field and with Munster maintaining excellent discipline, Edinburgh were forced into a 32 phase slog that bounced up and down the field until they were finally put down on the flanks.

This was a blind alley with Munster numbers up at all times and covered on all angles. It was inevitable.

And it was pressure defence.