The test window has different rules for assessing opposition.
Glasgow in February, for example, aren’t the same Glasgow that you’d play in December. The same is true for Scarlets, Leinster, even Munster, so if you’re scouting an opponent you almost have to enter a parallel universe where the opposition are the same, in theory, but ever so slightly different.
The key to navigating this time of year is largely rooted in being able to stay as close to your “A” game as possible while traversing the loss of front-line test guys (in training, if not on the pitch), the slowdown of new combinations and the lottery that trying new faces can sometimes amount to.
Our opposition this week – Cardiff Blues – have gone for a settled selection, with only one change to their starting 15 from the side that beat the Cheetahs and two Welsh squad members (Steven Shingler and Rhys Gill) slotting onto the bench.
The rest is as you were from last week;
Cardiff Blues: Rhun Williams; Aled Summerhill, Garyn Smith, Rey Lee-Lo, Owen Lane; Jarrod Evans, Lloyd Williams; Gethin Jenkins (C), Matthew Rees, Taufa’ao Filise, George Earle, Seb Davies, Macauley Cook, Ellis Jenkins, Nick Williams
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Rhys Gill, Dillon Lewis, Josh Turnbull, Olly Robinson, Tomos Williams, Steven Shingler, Ryan Edwards
Key names to watch out for there are Rhun Williams, Owen Lane and Jarrod Evans.
We’ve brought in a few new names to the matchday squad.
Munster: Stephen Fitzgerald; Darren Sweetnam, Sam Arnold, Rory Scannell, Ronan O’Mahony; Ian Keatley, Duncan Williams; Dave Kilcoyne, Rhys Marshall, John Ryan, Gerbrandt Grobler, Darren O’Shea, Jack O’Donoghue (c), Chris Cloete, Robin Copeland
Replacements: Mike Sherry, James Cronin, Stephen Archer, Jean Kleyn, Dave O’Callaghan, James Hart, Tyler Bleyendaal, Simon Zebo
As promised, Johann Van Graan has mixed around the personnel and spread out the game time. The key retentions for me are the trio of Ian Keatley, Rory Scannell and Sam Arnold; that trio worked incredibly well in the second half against Zebre from a play variation perspective.
The changes in the pack are considerable but I don’t think any weaken it. We’ll certainly miss Holland’s IQ and work rate around the place but Grobler, O’Shea, Marshall, Ryan, Kilcoyne and Cloete are powerful additions.
Let’s get to the breakdown.
A lot of the issues that were there earlier in the season are still there from a Cardiff perspective. They have a pace problem with four of their starting pack, but that doesn’t mean that they are weak defenders. On the contrary, the likes of Williams and Filise will wipe you out if you run down their channel all day. They can be caught out of position with some staggered multi-phase patterns – working the ball in quick two-left, one-right punch phases before attacking the seam between the last forward and first back in the line.
The Cheetahs didn’t really get to expose this against Cardiff last weekend, as they just didn’t hang onto the ball long enough. The conditions played a large part in that – it was a very windy, rainy night in Cardiff – and we can’t pretend that didn’t give Cardiff an advantage.
The pace differential between the heavy four (Williams, Filise, Rees and Gethin Jenkins) and the quicker four (Davies, Earls, Cook and Ellis Jenkins) can present itself in dramatic defensive spacing at times but it usually means you have strike options like this;
The space on the inside and outside shoulder of Ellis Jenkins (and outside Gethin Jenkins, as a result) gives you an idea of how Cardiff can be attacked. Strike into those lanes either side of Ellis Jenkins for a possible linebreak or, more likely, a good dynamic ruck; you’ve also got a tip on option to attack Gethin Jenkins in space.
This is a common enough alignment for Cardiff after two or three good phases of possession and it provides a good target for forwards to strike into.
That spacing can show itself almost anywhere;
Look at the space on the outside shoulder of Ellis Jenkins and Earle on this phase – what kind of linebreak might a tip on at the point of contact unlocked for the Cheetahs here?
If you bring Cardiff through some cardio intensive phases you can create bad alignments in the spacing between the heavy four and the quick four, and separate the backs from their forwards while you’re at it.
Why is that desirable? It gives you an opportunity to get forwards attacking backs in close quarters;
See the A-B-C alignment at the end of that GIF? That’s a 10 in the “B” position. This happens Cardiff a little more often then you’d expect and you have a big shot of it happening if you get a wide strike on Jenkins when he defends at “C”. If your recycle beats the Cardiff defensive fold, you have a shot at catching Cardiff like this.
Johann Van Graan mentioned Cardiff’s kicking game in the build-up to this one, and it’s certainly a strength of theirs. Their halfbacks have a good, varied kicking game from the base and at first receiver.
Their 10, Jarrod Evans, isn’t afraid to bring his boot into play;
This was a nicely timed and executed option to crack the Cheetahs’ blitz. Given the way Munster’s midfield like to pressure the offensive line, I’d bet that Cardiff will be looking for this option more than once.
Evans is a deceptive player, too. He feints an up and under here to sit down the defensive line before threading a kick through.
He was unlucky in this instance but we’ll need to be rock solid in our back three positioning because Cardiff will be looking to work this kind of scenario all evening.
Evans has a variety of kicks in his arsenal, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him trying to exploit Munster’s lack of height in midfield/experience at fullback by working on angled cross-field kicks/contestable options like the below.
Cardiff’s wingers – Lane and Summerhill – are big, hard running lads that’ll cause trouble on any spilt kicks, so we’ll need rock solid aerial work from Sweetnam and Fitzgerald. My big worry will be O’Mahony in his first game back – will Cardiff look to target him? The weather is predicting a dry night, so hopefully that holds out.
As you might imagine, Cardiff played a fairly simple lineout game against Cheetahs. There were a few new combinations at play for them so keeping the complexity to a minimum was the sensible option. They completed all of their lineouts bar one, so they’ll be happy enough with that. Overall, they didn’t do all that much with their lineout in that last game.
Off their 10 completed lineouts they;
Went to the front on 70% of their throws and of those, they mauled 57% of the time.
Any ball that went anywhere near the middle of the lineout tended to be a maul fake.
60% of their throws ended up going to the backs, with 33% of these coming from Nick Williams based maul feints.
Their main target in the lineout was Macauley Cook (at #6), followed by Earle (#4), Davies (#5) and Turnbull (#19).
If Cardiff are under pressure on any given throw, they’ll tend to go with Cook at the front – he’s probably their best quick jumper so expect him to go there early to combat O’Donoghue’s strong counter-jump at the front. Cook is also their main “feint” option in the middle of the lineout. He’ll line up inside Jenkins on a few early throws to try and lull Munster into a tempo that he’s the guy to mark there but if they want to maul from the middle, they’ll probably use him to feint so one of their locks – probably Earle – can get a good jump/brace in. That’ll be context-based for the most part, as Cardiff will try to avoid mauling too far away from the opponents 22.
Cardiff use Williams as the main mauling weapon on both sides of the ball. They’ll probably keep him as a halfback on most plays but he’ll generally take the ball off the drop so “marking” him from a maul is fairly high percentage, given how likely he is to feint out of the maul. The real key is their prop lifters. If Cardiff are mauling, watch the urgency of their props. If you see Jenkins or Filse making effort to get to the maul build, they’re going to maul. If the effort isn’t there, then something else is happening.
Look at the body language of Jenkins on this play;
He’s jogging to the point of the maul before the ball’s even thrown in.
Compare that with their tighthead prop (at the tail) on this play;
He’s walking because he knows he isn’t needed.
That guide can be used on all of Cardiff’s maul feints;
Look at Blue #3. He’s walking to the maul point and leaning on it and, low and behold, there’s no maul and Williams breaks away.
Peikrishvili isn’t playing this week – he’s off with Georgia – but Filise has the same issues. Williams will generally be the guy who takes the ball off the jumper, but the actions of Jenkins and Filise will tell you if they’re actually mauling or using the maul to narrow our forwards like they did in the above GIF.
If they’re going off the top in a middle jump, you’ll see little to no movement from Jenkins or Filise. If Cardiff have Ellis Jenkins as a lifter, you can reference the prop movement for further confirmation of their mauling plans. If they’re mauling off the middle or tail, then expect to see one (or both) of Jenkins and Filise moving with a bit of zip to add weight to the maul because, without them, Cardiff don’t have a lot of grunt. This lack of mobility in their heavy lifters is also why they tend not to maul in their half unless they’re trying to set a feint for later.
As an added point – Rees tends to eyeball whoever he’s throwing the ball to. Look at his eyes on this throw;
That screams “MIDDLE” to me and that’s exactly where it goes;
It’s always worth tracing Rees’ eyes at the lineout because he’s usually looking right at his target.
As a general strategy, I’d deploy O’Donoghue at the front and O’Shea in the middle to get Rees lobbing the ball. If we can get Cardiff worried about O’Donoghue they’ll either move Cook there (and we’ll have that as a trigger) or they’ll move him to the front and give O’Shea two slow targets in the middle to get his arms on.
Rees’ lob throw is quite accurate but it’s a little slow. That’ll be a tempting target for O’Shea, Grobler and O’Donoghue.
They have a few intricate setplays off the setpiece and most of them involve getting the ball to Lane on a pullback.
He’s a strong, agile strike runner and he’s a guy well worth keeping an eye on floating behind the line because Cardiff tend to look to get the ball into his hands on a pullback. They like a little sneaky shortside super stack too (which they like to pull off restarts) but there’s nothing here that Munster won’t have seen in advance.
They’re a dangerous side when they’re given opportunity to attack so we need to be rock solid on our exits and phase play.
From a Munster POV, we have a few different attacking options in this game. I think our general pattern will be similar to the Zebre game in that we’ll want as much width between our rucks as we can support with good tempo on the ball.
It isn’t too important for us to crush the gainline as long as we get any kind of ground and quick ball.
Expect to see a fair bit of this kind of width applied;
Well a linebreak would be nice but what we’re really hoping to do here is target this area;
We want to get these guys moving across the pitch as often as we can, get them sweating and then catch them on a big openside play when spaces appear. That’s when you’ll see tip ons from the likes of Marshall and Grobler coming into play.
Ultimately, Munster want to get the ball to our trio runners in the tramlines. You’ll see a combination of Sweetnam, Cloete and Arnold in the wide areas.
It’ll be hard to resist a few contestable kicks off slow ball too. It’s a huge area to target. Look at Cardiff’s defensive reset off this linebreak that was mostly kick based.
See that? A full defensive line on halfway and a broken line on their 22. That’s a good slow ball option if we find ourselves in a defensive overlap situation.
One thing I’m quite looking forward to seeing is how Munster use Keatley and Scannell. Against Zebre (and other times this season) we used Scannell and Keatley in a very interesting way.
Have a look at this from the build up to the third try;
Scannell steps in at first receiver, with Keatley floating behind in the second layer. Scannell’s carry line narrows Zebre’s defence because they know that Cronin and Ryan are live options off Scannell’s carry. When the ball comes back, Munster have Keatley in the middle of the pitch directing traffic with options running off him.
We used a variation of this a few minutes later;
Scannell steps in as first receiver on a wide line, he pulls back to Keatley and a good read from Zebre’s midfield prevents this ball from going wide to Zebo and Wootton in the trams.
Have a look at this pattern off the scrum;
When we roll on this play;
We bring Keatley around off Scannell’s carry and we’re looking to get Wootton into space off an Arnold pullback. The accuracy wasn’t there this time but you can see the intention – all brought about with the second five.
If we get anything close to a majority of possession, I’d back us to get the win here. Cardiff will be a danger on kick turnovers and if we give them too many penalty opportunities but we should have enough in the tank to play this game any kind of way – wide tempo, kick-heavy or even hard through the fringe if needs be.