Guinness PRO14, Thomond Park, Limerick 26/12/2017 Munster vs Leinster Munster's Darren Sweetnam with Robbie Henshaw and Jordan Larmour of Leinster Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Passing The Pill and Knock Out Rugby™

For me, the idea of there being two kinds of rugby states – regular rugby and Knock Out Rugby – is something of an irritant.

You can play a regular league game one week and play one way and then when you’ve got a cup game the week after you end up playing a different, cagier way because it’s, well, Knock Out Rugby.

That isn’t to say that you don’t take your 3 point opportunities when they arrive or kick for territory if it’s on or stuff like that – that’s just smart rugby. I’m talking about the way that some teams clam up when they have possession in big games and, by “clam up” I mean when players stop passing the ball when they have possession of it.

A lot of the time, this isn’t “coached”, in so far as the coaching staff hasn’t told the players to play it safer with possession – most of the time it’s the opposite actually – but some players can just start doing it themselves and that spreads to the collective.

I get it, in some ways. Passing the ball is the riskiest thing you can do on the rugby field outside of kicking the ball. Think about it – you have the ball, you’re running with it, and you have to hit the guy running alongside you and he can be anywhere from 1 to X metres away. It seems easy in theory but it isn’t easy on the pitch. The last time I played a game of full-contact 15s in 2017, I ended up playing in midfield with one training session before the game itself. Training went OK. I was able to handle the ball well enough in drills and live training was mainly focused on what I had to do on set-piece. The conditions on the day of the game were perfect – it was a nice sunny day, a dry track, etc – so I had no excuses. When I got possession on a big openside right to left swing, I just felt that slight picosecond of fear when it came to releasing the ball on. It was my good side, I had space to work with and yet I couldn’t pull the trigger. “I’ll run it up,” I remember thinking, and run it up I did. I didn’t lose the ball or blow the pass, but what opportunity was there evaporated with my decision to carry. It was a decision made out of fear rather than in-game logic. I wasn’t fully confident in my skills, so I backed my body instead.

This was amateur level rugby on the continent so I’m under no illusions that my sloppy skillset translates upwards to the top echelon of the game.

I’ve long had a suspicion that Munster, in some regards, stop playing when it comes to big games.

So, I ran the numbers on Munster’s attacking work in big knockout games.

First, we have to define what “playing” is. For me, it’s defined as the number of passes that go beyond first receiver – be that a forward, flyhalf, outside back – after we remove the pass from the ruck from the equation.

I’m not talking about a “good brand” of rugby or any of that, I’m just talking about how much passing we do in big games outside of a pass from the base of the ruck (or on kick reception) to someone else. So I mapped three games. For both semi-finals, I mapped both sides work with the ball in hand – Saracens and Leinster – and for the European Cup Quarter Final, I mapped Munster’s passing on its own.

Here’s what I found.

MUNSTER VS EDINBURGH

Of Munster’s 110 overall passes against Edinburgh, only 30 were part of a sequence longer than one pass. Munster only had 17 phases where the ball went beyond the first receiver and only 7 of those phases had a pass count higher than one.

Here they are;

3 Passes beyond the pass from the ruck to first receiver.

This is pretty good. The passes are happening mostly inside the 15m tram but there’s some good handling on show. No massive gains but Scannell and O’Mahony linked up well in the wide pod.

2 Passes beyond the pass from the ruck to first receiver.

Again – pretty good. O’Mahony reverses the ball back inside for Ryan, who is unlucky to not get the pass away to Murray on a support line. This attempted pass is counted as a pass in this instance because it’s the intention to pass is what we’re looking at.

2 Passes beyond the pass from the ruck to first receiver.

This is pretty decent, at least when it comes to execution of passes. Bleyendaal taking the pass in the second layer gives the game away to Edinburgh’s wide defence in some regards because he’s unlikely to break but most of this work is happening inside Edinburgh’s defensive line.

5 Passes beyond the pass from the ruck to first receiver.

This started out as a planned structure but broke down into a scramble after the high shot from Mata. Our scramble handling was quite good though, in my opinion, and the grubber through from Sweetnam was a hair away from coming off.

3 Passes beyond the pass from the ruck to first receiver.

Farrell’s skip pass to Botha is really good here but I think we committed to the next pass a bit too soon. I think if Arno has his time over again here he runs straight at Graham and Hoyland, two smaller men.

2 Passes beyond the pass from the ruck to first receiver.

This is a pretty good pivot into the second layer from Stander, but Bleyendaal’s pass to Farrell was a little behind him and it hurt our momentum a small bit, in my opinion.

3 Passes beyond the pass from the ruck to first receiver.

This was the most effective of the lot. Scannell’s square shape and pull back to Farrell set the trap, while Farrell’s pass to Earls was spot on.

The rest of our passing sequences were either out carries or one pass carries.

Edinburgh had way more possession than Munster in this particular game – 61% overall – but even taking that into consideration, they passed the ball way more than we did.

Van Der Walt, their #10, passed the ball 45 times during his time on the pitch. Bleyendaal and Carbery passed the ball 10 times between them.

Chris Dean, Edinburgh’s #12, passed the ball 14 times. All of our starting outside backs passed 16 times combined.

Passing in and of itself doesn’t lend itself to wins – it certainly didn’t for Edinburgh in this case – but it does show your intention to play. Against Edinburgh, away from home, Munster decided to play it tight, hit collisions and only really look to put hands on the ball when the moment was on. Munster won that game, despite playing it extremely conservatively with our passing choices.

Against Benetton, on the other hand, I thought we were way more expansive than any of our other knock out games. I counted multiple phases where we went through the hands of the first receiver and this shouldn’t be surprising. Despite their excellent PRO14 run, Benetton would have been considered an easier “play” than Edinburgh. In the first 20 minutes, Munster dominated possession and were quite free with our passing.

4 Passes beyond the pass from the ruck to first receiver.
3 Passes beyond the pass from the ruck to first receiver.

Before Munster’s first points earned on 23 minutes, we passed the ball 17 times beyond the first receiver. When Benetton equalised on the set directly following the restart, Munster only passed three times beyond the first receiver for the rest of the half. We just clammed up, and we weren’t the better for it in my opinion. We were “keeping it tight” but, in reality, we were trucking the ball into a decent defence with big men and not getting the reward for it.

SARACENS VS MUNSTER

In this game, Munster fell behind inside the first 30 seconds (wrongly) and that seemed to knock our confidence a small bit.

Saracens had 52% possession in this game but blew us away when it came to how they played when the game was there to be won.

We can talk all we like about how big Saracens are – and they are very big – but they play with a variation on their play that’s very difficult to handle. For all their size, Saracens made 53 passing sequences beyond the first receiver, with 19 of them involving more than one pass beyond.

Munster only managed 33 in total by comparison, with only 8 phases going beyond one pass from first receiver and nine of those “beyond the first receiver phases” only happened when we were already chasing the game in the second half.

Once again, say what you like about Saracens’ power game but they were putting together tight three pass sequences like this pretty regularly in that semi-final.

Saracens had power everywhere, that’s true, but they were using it across a greater range than we were and with more subtlety. At times watching this game back, it seemed like we were trying to batter Sarries close in with a “smaller” pack and it just baffled me. Owen Farrell passed the ball 38 times in this game – Bleyendaal and Hanrahan passed the ball 21 times between them. Sure, Saracens had better quality possession than we did but that mostly came from the positions their passing put them in. Munster passed the ball 141 times but only 34% of those passes went beyond the first receiver. Saracens, on the other hand, passed the ball 212 times – 71 more than Munster – and still, 39% of their passes went beyond the first receiver.

Saracens were working smarter than we were. Given the size disparity between Munster and Saracens, you’d expect these numbers to be reversed but we were playing a heavy game that, in some ways, played right into Saracens hands.

Is this game plan? Or is it players going within themselves on the big day? Either way, it’s not a surprise to see talk of a “senior attack coach” being spoken about after this result. Did the players have confidence in their skill set and attacking structures? I can’t tell you. But what I can tell you is that when it came to moving the ball beyond one-out runners, we just didn’t do it against Saracens until we were 16 points down.

LEINSTER VS MUNSTER

The last game of Munster’s season saw a bit of development – a learning of sorts – from the knock out games that came before. We saw that we didn’t really fire a shot against Saracens and that we made life more difficult for ourselves against Edinburgh by not passing enough. We also saw that we reverted to conservative carrying rugby when Benetton came back into the game after 20 minutes of Munster attack in the PRO14 quarter-final and almost lost that game because of how far into our shell we went.

Playing Leinster couldn’t have the same pattern.

And it didn’t.

Leinster were the better team at the end of that game but Munster were a lot closer on the watch back than it seemed even at the time. We played with more pace, more variation and more passing than we had in the other three knock-out games combined.

Munster had 39 passing sequences of a pass going beyond the first receiver against Leinster. That meant that 31% of our passes (184 in total) ended up going outside the first carrier. Leinster, on the other hand, had 36 passing sequences, which made up 37% of their total passes (159). They were more expansive with less passes and got the reward. Leinster’s pass rate beyond first receiver went up right before the decisive Sean Cronin try. We, in the minutes before that, went into our shells a small bit and stopped playing. Leinster weren’t throwing around wild passes but they were moving the ball more effectively.

It’s not just about throwing extra passes for the sake of it, that isn’t what I’m saying. Our most effective attacking sequence against Leinster came after this series of pick and goes, for example, and earned a penalty under the posts;

But we have to vary how we structure our attacking sets. Yes, we have good ball carriers – enough to beat most opposition – but when it comes to teams like Leinster and Saracens we can’t play into their hands as we did in these two games. We made things harder than they needed to be, in my opinion.

Now, the quality of our passing is another thing entirely, and I think it’s the biggest work on that we can do this preseason but we need to have the confidence to play. If Larkham is to earn his money, we have to get our passes beyond first receiver going up or we need to get a bigger pack to dominate those one-out collisions more. I don’t see us signing the big beef we need for the pack so we have to play smarter, more expansive rugby. Playing wider isn’t a luxury in 2019. We have an athletic, mobile pack, small, agile wingers, a good mix in midfield and potentially a very good half-back pairing; that isn’t a recipe for banging around the corner.

The smart play is, for me, putting more hands on the ball and playing with more structure and width. If Larkham get prevent us from going into our shells in big moments and backing our skillset and structure, we’ll be worlds better for it.