2 March 2019; Dejected Munster players following the Guinness PRO14 Round 17 match between Scarlets and Munster at Parc Y Scarlets in Llanelli, Wales. Photo by Ben Evans/Sportsfile

Punching The Wall

Thirty-three phases of Munster possession. Thirty one carries. Three and a half minutes of in-game action. Three penalties. No points scored.

Munster had a few red zone failures on Saturday night in Llanelli but the key series of possession happened in and around the 20th minute of the first half. First of all, when you’re looking at “Red Zone” entries – some people call it the “Green Zone” to imply “Green for Go” as a positive mental thing – you judge success in the outcome, rather than process. A successful red zone entry is considered a try or a converted penalty; anything other than that is a failure of execution.

Red Zone entries aren’t necessarily “tap ins” in the way that close range attempts at goal in soccer would be considered incrementally easier from an xG perspective. They’re a little more complex than that. When you consider entries into the 5m Red Zone, I like to break them down into three categories – Scrum, lineout and phase play. All have their strengths and weaknesses as starter positions but I’d rank them as follows in terms of “ease of execution”.

  1. Lineout
  2. Scrum
  3. Phase Play

My use of “ease” here is relative, of course, and depending on your team’s strengths and weaknesses the order might change. Conditions have a similar impact. If it’s a sunny day with a hard track, phase play can move up the order. If there’s a strong, gusting wind the lineout becomes riskier. A really wet day can make scrummaging the way to go. As I said earlier, closeness to the line doesn’t necessarily translate directly to how easy it is to score a try.

Lineout

These aren’t a slam dunk to finish off from 5m out – as Exeter will tell you after Billy Holland’s steal in January – but if you get the ball down right most teams at a professional level would back themselves to finish it off.

You can maul it over, you can feint and send it to a power back or a forward on the crash with the defence at a natural disadvantage just due to the differences in momentum you can get when attacking from this position i.e. I’m running harder in attack than you are in defence because of how much room I have to run into so physics dictates that you’ll have to work very hard to win this collision at this range.

Mauling is usually a very solid option as the opposition have to work very hard not to infringe and give away a card and penalty try. This would be my favoured starter point, even if it gives the opposition a leg up from a defensive perspective if you head into phase play after a stopped maul.

Scrum

This is more of a lottery than lineout because of differing scrum interpretations by referees but if you’ve got a decent scrummage you’d normally back yourself to finish off the Red Zone opportunity within the scrum itself through a drive over or within a phase or two of a break.

The ideal attacking scrum position is centre-field because of the way the opposition have to arrange their backs defensively, and the two options (left or right) that their back row have to think about on the break. The threat of the break usually means if you get a good 7/8 man shove on, you can bank on going against an opposition that’s got one or two of their back row popping their heads looking for a break from #8 or #9.

Even an attacking scrum further out on the flanks has its advantages because of the compacted nature of the opposing forwards and the predictable nature of their movements from it. If you have a good scrum, I’d go with this as almost equal to a 5m lineout but the riskiness of referee’s throwing an arm up for the opposition after three straight dominant scrums is a nightmare all too many of us remember.

Phase Play

Executing a Red Zone opportunity through phase play is probably the most difficult of the three, especially the higher the phase count as you progress through the sequence. It’s entirely possible to get into a 5m scoring opportunity through open play from further out in the field but for the most part, it’ll be in the aftermath of a set piece close to the 5m line.

Once you go beyond the second/third phase after a close-range setpiece, it gets incrementally harder to score, in my opinion. Why? Because as the defence settles into a close-range defensive set, it becomes a game of physicality with fairly simple defensive decisions. If the defence can prevent getting angled and pinned into rucks, they’ve got a good chance of going 10+ phases deep into the set and on every one of those phases, something can go wrong for the opposition. All it takes is one blown pass to lift the siege and, as long as the defence keeps bodies alive and hitting tackles, they’ve more than a good chance of coming out with a big win.

Let’s have a look at how that broke down in this sequence of Munster attack.

Playing The Conditions

This sequence starts with a 5m lineout after Munster had won a maul penalty from a lineout just inside the Scarlets 22. Munster took the ball down from that 5m lineout and drove again, earning another maul penalty from a Scarlets’ collapse.

Mathewson and Sweetnam have an interesting decoy position at the front of this lineout. I think they were setting up a one on one for Sweetnam on Hardy (#9) on the maul break (watch Alby alerting Sweetnam at 19:51 on the match clock).

Referees tend not to like giving penalty tries for these but if #5 Red doesn’t collapse this behind Wycherley, I have no doubt that Munster are peeling this around and driving over the line for a try. The ball is with Rory Scannell at the tail of the maul with an inside peel opening up space for the back of the maul to surge into.

Once the maul comes down, Munster have an advantage and set off on a phase sequence, safe in the knowledge that they have a free shot to work with. Oliver carries off the back of the collapsed maul and Munster hit centre-field position through Botha’s offload and then a good carry from Kleyn.

From here, Munster have a better to attack from but Scarlets have recovered their defensive position into a pretty solid set up, as is the risk when lineouts from this range turn into phase play.

We try a little blocking play to get us closer to the line – and it works. John Ryan steps in to secure the ruck and just wanders a few footsteps ahead of the ruck to give Loughman a corner to hit around. That gives him a one on one with Kruger and it gets us the gainline we needed to get back to the 5m line.

This is a good position. Marshall runs to the base of the ruck and then hits a lovely pass to Wycherley, who has Goggin as a latch.

We get a 2 on 1 but Wycherly loses his feet right before contact, can’t get a good leg drive and sets up an isolated ruck point that the Scarlets can attack. They think they have a hand on the ball but there’s a bit of confusion as the referee leaves the call to release quite late and actually gives another penalty against Scarlets for this action.

The delay has Marshall, Botha and Loughman standing around looking confused for a second. Mathewson ships the ball onto them and we get a good latch and drive through Botha and Ryan to inch a little closer.

So far, so good. Wycherley’s latch and drive with Goggin could have been a little better to work the isolation he had but we’re doing OK up to here. Right at the end of this GIF, we start to run out of forward carrying options and go to the backs.

Mathewson assesses the pod to his left – Wycherley and Holland – and sees that the rest of the pack are in front of him. Time to hit the backs.

In the conditions, this is a pretty high-risk move but it works out well enough. O’Mahony comes on a deep line and hits Scannell’s inside shoulder, which sets up a huge colision.

If I was to critique this a little, I’d have liked to see Johnston taking the pass on the move and attacking the line to maybe set up a bigger dogleg here.

Either way, it works out – O’Mahony isn’t held in the tackle, he keeps going and we’ve got a surge point with three Scarlet defenders out of the game post-collision. Only a small inaccuracy stops us from finishing this off on the next phase.

Mathewson just loses his balance right as Goggin and Holland surge onto the ball.

If this hits Goggin at pace, then Hardy and Fonotia have a massive task to stop him hitting right through the middle.

Mathewson carries instead and, after a few more phases we end up going back for the original penalty.

Now, what happened on these phases?

We never got outside the Scarlets defence and missed some key opportunities to unbalance them. Given the torrential rain and greasy conditions, Munster were somewhat limited in what we could do with the ball and that gave Scarlets easier decisions once we started racking up phases. They had to;

  • Stay on their feet where possible.
  • Double tackle carriers where possible and then swing behind the ruck to make the next ball slow.
  • Don’t lose massive numbers competing for the ball.

If they could do this, they could keep a flat angle on Munster in the conditions. What’s the angle? Put simply, if the opposition (red) keep can defend the main thrust of our forward carriers square to where we (sea green) are positioning them, then they’ll keep us out if they make their tackles and will have a better chance of making tackles if they can slow the previous ruck.

If Munster start losing multiple forwards to rucks, it becomes easier for Scarlets to defend the next phase from a numbers perspective. That’s when they have an angle on us.

Ideally, we want to narrow their defence and force larger and larger spaces. That’s when we have an angle on them and a try is likely if we can get it through the hands.

That’s the basic premise of “angling” and in wet, greasy conditions it’s important when you’re carrying to a standstill against a good defensive side.

We still had a penalty though but I don’t think we used it well.

Bad Decisions

We tapped and went from the penalty.

I’m not sure if this was always the call or it was shouted by Marshall to Johnston, but for me we had to get this into the maul again. We’d won two penalties in a row and had good dominance there. The Scarlets were after a big defensive set and if we could force another penalty out of them, we might well get a penalty try or a man advantage for 10 minutes. Once we tapped and went, we started to play into Scarlets’ hands a little bit.

It’s a good initial carry but Scarlets swing around post-tackle stops Holland and Loughman from driving Marshall over the line. From here, we get good pace on the ruck and decent opportunity on the next phase through Wycherley.

Scarlets are tackling all three Munster players here as Botha and Kleyn try to drive Wycherley over the line almost like a battering ram. Dan Jones rolls around onto Botha’s latch and separates him from Wycherley.

I think Scarlet’s infield “wipe” around Wycherley drives him away from where the optimal angle on this carry was. If Wycherley follows Kleyn’s line here, I think Fineen gets a chance to stretch for the line with green grass in front of him.

After this phase, Scannell makes a good go for the line but gets stopped short.

The tempo on these rucks has created an angle for us to work with. We’re finally outside the Scarlets defence and have a clear forwards on backs advantage on the next phase.

But the pass just isn’t good enough.

You can literally see it squirting out of Mathewson’s hands.

If this goes to Botha’s hands, he’s got Ryan behind him and a nice, oblique angle to attack Scarlets’ #10 with space to work with.

Cassiem actually overruns the ball here, and a bit more accuracy would have given Botha a great look at a try.

But the ball spills. Munster retain possession – just about – but have to reset in a hurry. We get another look at that angle two phases later, all created by a mighty carry by Jean Kleyn with Billt Holland and Jeremy Loughman driving him;

The Kleyn carry forced Scarlets to narrow again and gave us an angle to work with. It takes three men to keep Botha out. Halfpenny gets a good initial stop on him but Price and McNicholls help finish the job. If Botha takes this with Ryan attached as a latch – and I think a slip right before contact (a) takes Botha away from Ryan and (b) bails out Halfpenny big time  – then I think we barge this one over.

From there, the quality of our carrying decreased quite a bit. We started to go on isolated carries into heavy fringe defence and every time we recycled the ball there was a new set of Scarlets forwards to match us.

Alby Mathewson did try to create an opportunity as we pushed back infield after Botha’s carry. What do you notice on this set of carries, besides Mathewson ordering Munster to crab tighter in field?

Look at the space on the blindside. 

As the phases develop, a tired Scarlets defence starts to cluster around the ruck, leaving one player defending the blindside. Mathewson realises this and darts out from the ruck to take the pass but it never comes. We carry into the Scarlets fringe defence, the ball spills and Scarlets retain possession.

The try was there with a bit of calm, communication and a simple pass. We went for the contact rather than the space and with a greasy ball, that leads to spills and thrills. Here’s an illustration of the challenge – a compacted openside or an empty blindside?

It was a fatigued decision. Three and bit minutes of close contact and thirty-two phases of heavy contact in that kind of muck and rain will take a lot of out of you in the moment, even twenty minutes into a game.

Some poor decisions, some poor underfoot conditions, a greasy ball and some excellent defence by Scarlets kept us out.

Our execution here wasn’t great – a common thread in this game – but the negative elements are more than fixable.