An old coach of mine once told me that you can always tell a rugby team’s personality by the makeup of its back row. Depending on the profile of player that you pick at openside, blindside and number 8, you can tailor your team to play a certain way or place emphasis on certain on-field scenarios that you feel you may have an edge in.
Often, the blend comes down to the players you have available to you at any one time.
When I talk about a back row blend, what I’m actually talking about is roles. The numbers on the back don’t always mean what they’ve traditionally meant. Every coach has his preferences in certain scenarios. Ultimately, as a coach, what role do you want your back row to play?
Sometimes you want a destroyer at 6, a groundhog 7, and a subtle, crafty 8. Then again, depending on what you have to work with, maybe you’ll go with a heavy hitter at 8, an all rounder 6.5 at openside and a half-lock on the blindside. That’s only some of the possible styles and permutations, but you catch my drift. Getting this blend of roles, styles and skillsets right is what will, ultimately, define almost everything that you look to do on the pitch.
The Munster Blend
Munster’s first choice back row blend at the end of 2016/17 was Tommy O’Donnell at openside, Peter O’Mahony at blindside and CJ Stander at number 8.
I’ve simplified this to make my point but with that combination, Munster had;
Blindside: Lineout specialist, wide carrying, rucking and defensive organisation.
Openside: Primary “C” tackler and second phase carrier.
Number 8: First phase carrier, impact carrier and impact defence.
That combination was, for the most part, quite effective. O’Mahony acted as a half-lock in most of his play, with a focus on the lineout, mauling and wide defence/attack. O’Donnell was used as a second phase ball carrier and slow ball hitter in defence. Stander was used as a forceful first phase/starter phase carrier and impact defender.
They mixed and matched in certain situations, but for the most part, that was their primary role.
On attacking phases, O’Mahony, Stander and O’Donnell generally lined up like this;
Stander as the heavy one out carrier, O’Donnell as the second phase “elephant” carry – a big truck into the opponents midfield – and O’Mahony as the wide pod forward. I’ve gone over O’Mahony’s role out there many times, but to reiterate, he’s there because of his deceptive pace, excellent passing, and his ability to clean out wide rucks incredibly quickly and effectively.
Now, of course, all bets are off inside the 22 but, generally, this is how we’ve split our back row across the pitch in the last 12 months – with Stander as the heavy carrier, O’Donnell as the second phase hitter and O’Mahony as the wide heavy support.
These next two GIFs emphasise the roles even clearer, on two consecutive phases.
The Saracens’ game I’ve highlighted above is actually quite critical for the development of Munster’s squad going forward because I think it showed the coaching staff where Munster needed to add some extra options – in attack, but especially defence.
The Quick Ball Conundrum
Munster’s game against Saracens in the Aviva was a defining moment for the squad. They were shown, quite starkly, where they were weak and where they weren’t. The Munster defence, a strength all year, was shown to be not quite at the level required on the big day.
Let me explain;
This small sequence of defence encapsulated most of Munster’s defensive work last season and, in a way, is the epitome of the no-ruck, numbers up defensive system used by the likes of Saracens themselves, England and the Lions, as well as a few more.
The emphasis is on stopping the man behind the gain line with a powerful tackle, slowing the ball as best as possible in the tackle, and in doing so, allow your teammates to number up in the defensive line, and repeat the process until the opposition makes a mistake or is forced to kick the ball away. There’s a little more to it than that, but that’s the general gist of it.
This defence was quite effective for most of the season but fell away against Saracens power as the game wore on. Why? Sarries just had too many heavy carriers and we just couldn’t deal with them past 55/60 minutes.
Sarries were able to cycle Billy Vunipola, Michael Rhodes, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, Vincent Koch, Maro Itoje and George Kruis again and again. Not all of these guys are massive carriers necessarily (outside Billy Vunipola) but they’re all big powerful men and, in a lot of ways, our no ruck defence set us up for a lot of collisions that we didn’t always win. They add up over time.
Managing Your Energy
Our back row blend here was similar to the attacking one in most instances. Stander was used close to the ruck as a heavy guard, O’Donnell was the “C” defender making a lot of hits and O’Mahony was the wide heavy defender. This was true for this game against Sarries and for the rest of the season, for the most part.
Again, this is largely a tactical decision on the coaches behalf. Stander is kept close to the ruck to make impact tackles against their heavy carriers. O’Donnell’s straight line pace and defensive technique is used to lasso guys in midfield on the second pass (C position), and O’Mahony is utilised as a wide heavy defender that can make stop tackles against big midfielders and wide pod forwards, while also being a breakdown threat in wide spaces.
This is a good example of why;
Look at his pace and reading of the game in this turnover passage. That’s why he’s in that wider channel, for moments like these.
Plus, there’s an element of energy management here too – you don’t want your best defensive and offensive lineout jumper killing his leg spring in lots of close-in defensive contact if you can avoid it. Not while nearly 50% of all tries are scored off lineout phases.
The back row blend their roles and manage their energy to benefit the whole. Energy is a finite resource on the pitch, so you have to give and take with your back row brothers, usually as mandated by the coach.
CJ is the better carrier, so O’Donnell does more of the cardio intensive “C” defending. Stander has to carry a lot of manky ball so O’Donnell comes in as the second phase carrier rather than the traditional link play and jackaling associated with opensides. And O’Mahony leverages most of his energy on lineout work, mauling and rucking.
To bring this back to the Sarries game, I think it’s fair to say that this blend was really effective for most of the season, but the Sarries game would have forced a serious rethink of strategy from Erasmus and co – regardless of how long he was staying.
Tackle Is Not Enough
A loss like that Sarries one can be very instructive. It can show the clever defence coach where his system can be sharpened or adapted. Much in the same way that the All Blacks used the Lions line speed against them in Test 1, Sarries used Munster’s system to engineer collisions we couldn’t handle on the back foot.
Munster needed to change their blend mid-game but couldn’t do it. Look at this sample here;
Donnacha Ryan takes a fringe ball to tidy up a phase in Munster’s 22.
George makes the tackle, but Itoje’s slowing down of the ball is just superb. Munster have to burn three forwards to clear him out and by the time we got the ball back, he was already back in the line. With that bit of work, Itoje saved his brothers four, maybe five tackles, and Munster were forced to kick the ball away right after, with Itoje already back on his feet competing.
When it came to it, Munster didn’t have someone who could do similar.
In the above GIF, Munster badly needed someone to get in over this ball and compete strongly. O’Donnell tries, but he can’t quite get low enough, wide enough or hard enough to stop Saracens from getting ultra clean ball. But it’s almost unfair to expect him to – he’s not really a defensive breakdown specialist. It’s the curse of the 6.5 role – excellent in most other facets of the game but not quite tailored enough to the breakdown to be a regular threat in circumstances like this one.
This was a common theme against Saracens – we just couldn’t slow down their ball post-tackle. Our hits were good, but Saracens got quick ball anyway and we just kept tackling on the back foot.
We needed someone to take on the role of fetcher to save our collective defensive energy, slow ball down by only losing one player, and still keep our numbers.
This is why Munster signed Chris Cloete.
I’m not saying they did it because of this game, or even the Scarlets game where we got burned badly at the breakdown, but our big defeats all had this common denominator. No one to slow down the opposition’s ball with any real reliability.
Munster don’t really sign guys in their mid-twenties to sit on the bench. Cloete has been signed to start for Munster in big games unless someone can provide a compelling reason for him not to.
It comes back to the blend again. In Cloete, Munster have a guy who can take up some of O’Mahony’s wide pod forward work, CJ’s first phase heavy carrying off lineout and buzz two of every four opposition rucks – where he can do stuff like this against the likes of capped Puma’s like Matera, Senatore and Leguizamon.
That isn’t a knock on O’Donnell by any means. He’s just not a fetcher. When I said that we’ll probably see him deputising at blindside a lot, it’s because I think he can bring all of his “A” qualities to the blend there – line speed, second phase carrying, and his underrated lineout work – while the likes of Cloete and Oliver attack the breakdown.
Munster don’t sign a forward like Cloete without a good reason – and this, I think, is why. It’s all about the blend.