Heavy Width

“Munster,” the pundit drawled, “…are living in the past.”

As radio analysis goes, it ticks all the boxes in that if you say it with enough sincerity – as Matt Williams certainly did in fairness to him – it almost sounds like something that has a ring of plausibility to it but, when you think about it for longer than 10 seconds, it’s completely meaningless. What does it mean? Nobody knows what it means, it’s provocative, it gets the people going.

But it sounds like something that might be true if you’re looking at the game from a surface level.

After all, the Munster obsession with “liginds” like Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara has enough meme value that implying that the entire professional organisation is, literally or metaphorically, watching the 2006 Heineken Cup DVD on repeat sounds like analysis in 2018.

Have a look at what Matt Williams said here. Let’s ignore that he juxtaposed an idealised Munster from the past with the idea that Munster should stop living in that same past for a minute and focus on this bit;

It is for them, and the whole organisation to get together and say ‘where are we?’ and to stop talking up the passion. Passion only gets you so far.

I’m not sure where this idea about Munster “talking up passion” seems to have come from exactly – maybe Johann Van Graan is psychically sending Matt some Argentinian tangos he’s choreographed about the loss in Bordeaux at press conferences – but it’s one of a few non-sequiturs in that interview.

As for “ruthlessness” that’s always seemed to be a fancy way of saying that you’ll always be a loser until you win something. It’s a true statement, of course, but is so obvious that it barely needs saying. Do Munster need to take their chances better? Yes. Do they need to kick better off the tee? Yes. But anyone with a pair of eyes that watched the game could tell you that.

So what were Munster missing in this game?

We can look at the result – a Munster loss – and determine a lot of different things. You can throw chicken bones on the ground to divine the future but all that’s really for sure is that there’s a dead chicken somewhere. My point is, analysing a loss in and of itself doesn’t actually tell you anything other than what you want to take from it. A loss can be the most “encouraging [loss] I’ve seen for many a year because of their willingness to play with a southern hemisphere panache” or “disappointing in the extreme” depending on how the chicken bones look to you.

As a rhetorical example, if Max Deegan had been pinged at that last penalty for [insert marginal ruck penalty offence here] and Ian Keatley had kicked the winner, would Munster still be “living in the past”? Or does that sliding door moment prove that making grand assumptions about overall squad quality based on Ws and Ls is as much of a fudge as lamenting how we were only a point back? Both are fudges but when you hear it from Van Graan, it’s fudge made for media and fan consumption.

It would be foolish in the extreme to assume that Van Graan – or anyone in Munster – is getting high on their own supply of fudge, so to speak.

So why did Munster look broadly ineffective with the ball in hand against Leinster and Racing 92 in Bordeaux? Personnel, personnel, personnel.

First, let’s acknowledge the loss of Tyler Bleyendaal for, essentially, the entire season. Losing a guy the squad have unironically nicknamed “the General” shouldn’t be underestimated, especially when they’re a guy who’s shown good regular season quality at the very least last season. Even with that loss, Munster looked more dangerous in attacking scenarios earlier in the season but less so as we came to knock out rugby. The key reasons for this came in February when Munster lost Chris Farrell and Chris Cloete in one week to what would amount to season-ending injuries.

We could pretend that those losses – combined with the subsequent losses of O’Donnell and Taute – didn’t have an effect on how Munster were looking to attack with ball in hand, but that would be to ignore what we were seeing on the pitch. In an ideal world, Munster could absorb multiple midfield and back row injuries to key players (and their backups) and still play the same way but that isn’t the world we’re living in right now. In that ideal world, I still have hair too, by the way.

Wide Power

A lot of Munster’s A1 attacking game plan this season was built around the twin threats of Chris Farrell and Chris Cloete. We could absorb a loss of one or the other but losing both – in the same week – seemed to herald a marked change in how we would look to play in the ball in hand in the later parts of the season.

Munster’s attacking work against Racing 92 in Paris was worlds away from what we saw in Paris in the U-Arena. The same coaching staff were in place and the conditions – fast, hard track – were similar but, somehow, Munster managed to look less dangerous on 173 carries and 62%/76% possession than they did with 91 carries and 48%/35% possession a few months earlier. Yes, every game is different but, for me, the key difference was the loss of Cloete and Farrell. Why was that?

The presence – and threat – of power in the wide channels.

When you have one or more, dynamic ball carrying figures in the wide areas of the pitch, you have a weapon that allows you to prise open elite defences by manipulating defenders and, specifically, how and where they defend.

Here’s a quick example of the kind of positioning I’m talking about;

The presence of a ball carrying 13 – and there are levels to that game – force the opposition to number up, commit more men to the tackle and give vital areas of space in games where the forward pack are relatively equal, power wise.

When you have a ball-carrying threat like Farrell, he causes players to number up on his line and creates workable space on either side of him as the defensive cover narrows on his position. If the forward ball carriers and forward defenders are cancelling each other out – as they generally do in big games – that power carrier launching into the backs off phase play or set piece can be a vital aspect in cracking games open.

Sometimes it’s the threat of the carrier that does it. All teams do extensive video work these days – we know this – and every team likes to look at the opposition’s key threats. If you have a big, ball-carrying midfielder like Farrell that can break the gainline with pace and dynamism on the edge, that’s a threat that demands physical attention.

If you have a guy with Cloete’s pace, rucking ability and ability to carry with power in wide traffic, that gives a second edge option that can act as a carrier or a pacey rucker than can support any wide gains with the kind of pace and power few flankers possess over the ball.

Having both players in the side allowed Munster to elongate our attack, generate positive angles and create disrupted space to work with.

Look at how the defence clusters on Farrell’s line in all of these examples;

What does that narrowing do? It creates workable space to work with in the wide channels.

Compare this lineout sequence to what we saw against Leinster, and consider where we’ve generated the space.

Who’s the key man there? It’s Farrell – his decoy line sits down Chavancy and Vakawara and that gives Keatley, Earls and Zebo space to work with positive outside shoulder angles to work with.

Compare that to this against Leinster;

What’s the difference? The first GIF is a full 8 man lineout and the Leinster one is a 6 man.

We had to get Stander into the line to duplicate Farrell’s presence in this sequence and that, in turn, added another Leinster body to the line and, all of a sudden, we’re playing backwards trying to find the space on the outside.

Look at how Farrell’s carry gets us over the gain line dominantly, even with suboptimal passing to get him there.

That gives us quick ball, dominant field position and we can get guys coming around the corner at pace and isolating our big carriers on their backs.

We weren’t able to get that against Leinster. Add in close-range power to tie up two forwards and one heavy back defender while providing lightning quick ball and…

… you’ve got a guy who you’ll miss when it comes to converting forward pressure into tries.

What does this have to do with Leinster?

If you don’t have a gain line breaking physical threat in the outside edge who’s got that combination of pace, power and passing ability in the outside edges, you’re going to have to find a workaround.

Sure, you can get a forward out there but if they have the power and not the pace, or the pace but not the power, you’re going to lose something.

Munster lost their next likely role player in that position when Jack O’Donoghue went down injured early in the game. That left us with no power/pace outlet at the edges. When Farrell missed the Leicester back-to-back, it didn’t effect Arnold because Cloete was stationed alongside him on multiphase sequences to help elongate the play. (Click on the thread below for an example)

So Munster had a choice. Continue to send Arnold on big hit ups that just aren’t generating the looks we want? Or do we stack O’Mahony and Stander in the wide areas where they have slightly the wrong balance ratio between power and pace or, do we change it up? Remember, what works against the Cheetahs and Kings won’t work against Leinster and Racing 92 so whatever Munster would come up with, it would have to be based on the strengths we had left.

What were they?

Well, we’ve two agile, pacey high-class wing finishers in Keith Earls and Andrew Conway who can also work on box kicks in a chasing and kick transition function. We’ve got a guy in Sam Arnold who’ll rattle a wide ruck like a scud missile. We have a guy in Scannell who’s got good passing range, decent narrow carrying and a kick option.

We’ve also got a guy in Simon Zebo who can pass the ball at long range like this;

And this;

Why were we trying such long passes in this game? To play to the strengths we had available.

Don’t believe me? Look at who touched the ball the most in a red shirt besides Conor Murray against Leinster – Simon Zebo.

Zebo kicked the ball twice, passed the ball 17 times and carried the ball 19 times. That’s 37 interactions with the ball. For context, Ross Byrne touched the ball 18 times total for the entire game.

Why was Zebo so heavily involved? Because we needed his passing range to get us across the pitch. This is the basic principle;

Use wide passes – or hands – to get the ball wide to your pace runners to get a surge up the tram areas.

Once you get a wide ruck and avoid getting scragged into touch, you play the reverse.

That leaves a transition space to attack between the opposition forwards and backs, with your forwards aligning quickly to catch the opposition aligning in midfield.

Against Leinster, that leads to a lot of plays that looked like this;

Generally, the more times you pass the ball in one phase the more chance you have of things going wrong and that proved to be the case here with a lot of long-range passing attempts drifting forward or getting stuffed because we were always working on inside shoulder angles. This is where the main inaccuracy came from – the need to find extra width than what we might have liked because of a lack of that ball-carrying threat in the wide areas.

Look at this example here;

Very intricate work! Zebo is acting as the primary receiver, as he did on a lot of reverse plays. Once the ball comes to the position below, I would have liked to see a power carry;

It’s a little inexperience from Arnold here but I think if he had his time back he’d be running down McGrath’s throat after isolating him like this on the edge. Conan is in his eye-line but I think if this is Powerful Chris Farrell, he’s going straight for that space. That isn’t to throw Arnold under the bus – he’ll be a much bigger and better player for his experience this year – but it’s one example of where we missed a big ball carrying presence to punch a hole.

That need for width would increase in the second half, so our kicking increased with it – to generate kick transition events. We were more than willing to attack on kick transition – sometimes a little too eager –  but that’s what we had to do. Personally, I think we went a little too hard on the Zebo option when we had other avenues to explore;

This is one of a few instances when we could have taken an option to Hanrahan who had a massive openside to work with and Earls lurking on the far touchline with Leinster biting in.

Throw in a few blown long-range passes, a few missed kicks and some indiscipline at key moments and you have a reason why Munster were able to build pressure but not release it.

That isn’t as punchy as “Munster are living in the past” but it gives you a fuller picture.