Not Quite My Tempo

There’s a scene in 2014’s Whiplash that, if you’ve seen it, you’ll probably never forget.

I could describe it, but this article will be long enough without adding in lines of film dialogue, so just watch it and we can go from there.  There’s some swearing in the video, just in case you’re not on headphones.

Since watching this film, I’ve taken the “Are you rushing? Or are you dragging?” screamed into Niemann’s ear as a good metaphor for a rugby side’s attacking timing and structure. When you break down the detail of any attack as a sequence, or on a phase by phase basis, the tempo of the scrumhalf – be it the actual scrumhalf or whoever is standing in – is the most crucial part. Too fast, and the ball goes to a player in a suboptimal position with no support. Too slow, and the defence resets and the next phase becomes more difficult to attack at best, or a potential turnover at worst.

Terence Fletcher: Were you rushing or were you dragging?

Andrew: I-I don’t know.

Terence Fletcher: Start counting!

Andrew: Five, six…

Terence Fletcher: In four, dammit! Look at me!

Andrew: One, two, three, four.

[Fletcher slaps him the face]

Andrew: One, two, three, four.

[Fletcher slaps him again]

Andrew: One, two, three…

Terence Fletcher: Now, was I rushing or I was dragging?

Andrew: I don’t know.

Terence Fletcher: Count again.

Andrew: One, two, three, four.

[slap in the face]

Andrew: One, two, three, four.

[another slap in the face]

Andrew: One, two, three, four…

Terence Fletcher: Rushing or dragging?

Andrew: Rushing.

Terence Fletcher: [yelling] So, you do know the difference!

It reminds me of a coach I worked with in New Zealand who had a very simple request of our scrumhalf on passing phases – get to the ruck, pass it, hit your man, support the line, get to the ruck and repeat. Everything else was a bonus and, while the top pro-level isn’t as simple as that, it’s not that more complex either.

When I watched back Friday’s defeat to Glasgow, I was struck by one main point amongst the general disappointment – I know why Munster brought in Mathewson. On Friday, I saw James Hart playing for Munster A and Williams/Cronin playing in Scotstoun and, in my opinion, all had significant issues to their current games that would show up against top opposition.

In that context, you can understand why Mathewson was brought in, given the importance of the scrumhalf position to the way that Munster are trying to play this season. There were elements of both Cronin and Williams positive and negative elements in the Glasgow game, and I’ll get to those in time, but they were exacerbated by the tempo problems we encountered elsewhere in our structure for much of the game.

A poor performance can all be pinned on the scrumhalf alone – far from it – but every second you delay at the ruck adds to the difficulty once the ball hits the line and becomes incrementally tougher to attack off. Time delays accrue like cholesterol in an artery, and the damage almost always starts at the ruck. Almost not all.

Let’s have a look at some examples.

First up, this is the direct aftermath of a first phase hit up off a scrum by Sam Arnold.

We’ve got around four seconds between Arnold’s clean ball presentation and Cronin’s pass to the midfield pod. There were two slowdowns here – the first was Munster’s scrum getting popped in on the loosehead side and up on the hooker/tighthead side.

Without a solid platform to attack off, everything after the scrum was gainline negative. Arnold’s carry didn’t break the line of the scrum, so that meant that our second phase carrying pod had to jog back to a position where they could carry the ball.

When Cronin makes the Arnold ruck, he’s got a resetting attacking line to look at, yes, but everything needs to be quicker from the base. This is the second slow down. Fletcher might tell us that we’re dragging, here.

Ryan’s carry is really good regardless and takes two Glasgow defenders out and it’s so good it actually takes time off our clock. Cronin gets good pace on the ball away from Ryan’s carry but the move starts to break down when Sherry can’t hang onto the ball in contact and the ball spills out for Kilcoyne, who gets a decent carry on the ball on the face of it, but it broke our structure on the play.

The plan was for Sherry to truck this ball up the middle with Kilcoyne and Scannell cleaning out at pace. Cronin was tracking behind where he could feed Hanrahan directly or hit our wide pod of O’Callaghan, O’Donnell and Daly.

If we got clean possession off Sherry’s carry here, we might well have a had a shot a 4-2/4-3 overlap on the blindside because of who Glasgow had covering across.

We’d recovered our timing to the point that Sherry’s carry was a simple hit up but when he spilled possession, Kilcoyne was forced to go off structure.

That meant our clean-out lines had to be reset and a lot of north/south space made up by one of our wide pod, O’Donnell in this case.

Are we rushing or are we dragging here?

We’re rushing. If you control time in an attack, you control everything about how the opponents react. When you don’t control time, the opponents control you.

Look at what the rushing after Sherry’s spill causes – no support at the ensuing ruck.

It takes five seconds to get this ball out of the ruck. When Sherry steps in as scrumhalf, Glasgow have reset their openside defence completely.

We’re under pressure on this phase, right from the off. Sherry’s pass isn’t bad at all but Glasgow have a good angle on us, good inside carry coverage and numbers to cover the wide option.

The slowdown on the previous ruck has put us in a disadvantageous position on this phase and left us with a few low percentage pullback plays to try to find the edge.

Holland’s step and pullback to Hanrahan are good, don’t get me wrong, but we’re on the back foot at all times on this phase and JJ gets stuff up comprehensively as goes after the corner around Kleyn’s line.

When Cronin gets to the ruck – a slowdown in itself – he rushes a box kick that goes right to Stuart Hogg.

Hogg drilled this ball back down the line and it was only a stroke of luck that it ran dead, as opposed to trickle a few inches to the left and pin us deep into our half again.

Slowing down produces rushing, rushing produces mistakes, and mistakes killed us in this one.

Here’s another example;

Cronin was on the floor from the last ruck – after he gathered a loose ball – and while I think his up and down could be a little quicker in general, we can’t just sit over a won ball for five seconds. You’re inviting a counter ruck.

Botha stayed in a guard position but he was a little off-shape for my liking.

He’s too compact here, and that gives Glasgow a decent shot at landing him off his feet when he’s gripping Kleyn on the floor. The ideal shape here would be something like this;

Basically, slightly lower and slightly longer to guard against the counter ruck through the middle and give the halfback a longer ruck to work with. Why didn’t Botha carry himself or act as the scrumhalf? If he stepped back from his guard position the ruck would be over and three Glasgow forwards would be all over him with three Munster forwards on the deck next to him. That’s a likely turnover and possibly even a holding on penalty.

I know why Ryan stayed away from this one but I’d have liked him to step in as halfback here.

He was looking to make a three-man screen for Hanrahan but securing possession was the primary focus here, especially on a transition ball. On this turnover, we would not retain possession until Glasgow scored a few minutes later.

We were slow to react, lost our tempo, and as a result had the pace of the game dictated to us.

We improved after halftime, but not by the margin’s we’d need to chew into Glasgow’s lead with the pace we needed to.

On this maul break strike move, we got a great centre field ruck position off Botha hinging on Scannell’s line.

So far so good – that’s a nice hit up with good ruck support – but look closer.

But Botha can’t get the ball back quick enough because we’re stuffing his fight on the ground with our “off feet” guard position.

That slows down this ruck off the back of a dominant carry to four seconds. We reset through a big carry from Archer and then we’re hit with a rushed decision. Let’s have a look.

Williams hits Haley on the outside edge and forces our tempo to slow when the fullback has to step back inside. We win a penalty for a high tackle, but this is luck more than anything else.

Duncan Williams plays with a better pace and higher tempo than Cronin and Hart but, in my opinion, the quality of his pass decision suffers at times as a result. In this position, Haley is the “slowest” option.

Hitting Kleyn, Carbery or Kilcoyne – in that order – would be more optimal decisions here but Williams doesn’t seem to have seen them in his haste to get the ball out.

Kleyn is in position to run onto the ball and target Harley one on one. Carbery can attack the spacing outside Harley and Kilcoyne could hit the fringe with Beirne coming behind him at pace.

When Williams looks at the line, the first person he sees is Haley so that’s who gets the ball. He isn’t looking prior to when the ball is set for the pass. Are we dragging or are we rushing? 

Whereas Cronin’s speed and ruck attendance caused us issues in the first half, Williams over-exuberance cost us in the second.

We could have had a try in the first 20 seconds of the second half, but for some better decision making.

The first man into this ruck – off his feet for an ineffective clean while stepping O’Donnell’s cleaning route – was Williams.

With a little less rushing, we could have had this picture with a scrumhalf firing the ball into this alignment.

We were rushing. Other times we were dragging. If you want to beat Glasgow in Scotstoun, you have to have a tempo and rhythm that puts their timing under pressure, not your own.

This, for me, was Munster’s biggest issue on Friday with the ball in hand. Our tempo and decision making was not what it needed to be, and our attack stuttered as a result. Against the Cheetahs in Thomond Park, that doesn’t crop up as often but away to Glasgow is a different story.

In that context, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mathewson get a run out with Carbery sooner rather than later because getting that good tempo doesn’t happen overnight and we’re under pressure for time because the countdown to the Interpros and Sandy Park in October is on. The Ospreys are up next in Musgrave Park this Friday.

Let’s hope it doesn’t get to the chair throwing stage just yet.