Munster Rugby Squad Training, UL, Limerick 30/7/2020 CJ Stander, Conor Murray, Keith Earls and RG Snyman Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Munster Rugby

The Book Of Munster

Part 1: The Fast & The Furious

The PRO14 restart is coming soon and, with it, an opportunity for Munster to compete for an immediate PRO14 title before kicking into a new season where the possibilities for success should be endless. Munster haven’t brought in players like De Allende and Snyman to truck along – they have been brought in to push Munster into title contention in the PRO14 and Champions Cup now.

Stephen Larkham was hired last summer as a senior coach to add a point of difference to Munster’s attack and the evidence of that change was most evident in the early parts of the season. Larkham’s programme under Van Graan’s grand scheme is still in its infancy but the principles of play were quite visible during the season pre-lockdown and, in particular, before the end of the World Cup and the re-integration of the internationals.

In his own words, Larkham described his general attacking philosophy as follows;

“Roughly, it’s just playing with momentum. So, if we haven’t got momentum we don’t want to be putting ourselves under pressure by continuing to hold onto the ball. We don’t want to muck around with the ball when the opposition is in a dominant position. Things grew from there.

There are other facets to that – set-piece attack, the counter-attack, the turnover attack – and all that stuff was all implemented quite slowly after that period. The challenge was because of the European competition, Six Nations and World Cup we’ve got players coming in and out of the team all the time and we’d spent the first part of the season getting everyone up to pace with our set-piece plays, our patterns, what way we want to play our multiphase, our counter-attack, all that stuff and then the internationals come back in and we found ourselves as coaches going through that entire cycle again.

We were going through all that new stuff again but it just happens gradually. You can’t expect guys to take on too much stuff on board straight away, so we drip-fed it in. Making sure we prioritized what we needed to prioritise so that by the start of the new year we were ready to play. Not necessarily our best game, but we were ready to play. We had enough tools to play the game that we wanted to play.”

You might think – how long could it possibly take for players to get up to date with a game plan? To that, I would say this; the modern rugby playbook is an incredibly complex document – yes, document – that all players have to know inside out. There are multiple scrum plays, lineout plays, maul breaks, kick plays, phase patterns, phase play shapes, kick receipt shapes and transition plays that a new coach will add, especially for a new coach with responsibility for contributing to an area of the game as all-encompassing as the attack.

So it’s not as simple as “we’re playing a 2-3-2-1 now lads, get into it.”

Instead, there are multiple context-specific calls and patterns that depend on your ruck position, the direction of play and in reaction to the opposition’s defensive system. It takes to take in that information, process it, know it and then work out the biomechanics on the field. It’s one thing to know what a call is, it’s another to get that cohesion with your teammates so that you all know exactly what the scheme is to the point where you can just play. When you hear the call “Bull”, you should know instantly what your role in that scheme is if you find yourself aligning off #9, off #10 or beyond whether you’re a forward or a back.

I’m not going to second guess Munster’s playbook in this series but what I will do is try to find some of the key principles of play and how they might work with some of the key individuals as the season restarts. 

Dominant #9

I would consider Munster’s primary scrumhalves to be Murray and Casey going forward with Cronin and McCarthy dueling it out as role players. That might be completely off base on reality but after looking at the season to date, I’ve seen more than enough from Casey to consider him the de facto alternate with Murray.

I see two players with a lot more in common than it might look at surface level.

Murray is bigger, he’s currently a better box kicker (this applies to every scrumhalf in the game, as opposed to just Casey in this instance) and stronger in contact. I think Casey is quicker, more agile, a change of pace option and a better transition player even at his young age.

These are some of the differences but what they both have in common is an outstanding passing range, tempo and accuracy. I think for Munster’s offence to really kick into gear this year we need our scrumhalves to consistently find pod runners and screeners on the move with offloading being a key part of game plan.

During the pre-lockdown season, Munster tended to run a fluid 2-3-2-1 forward shape with a 3-3 centre-field alternate during most of the games I took notes on and did Wally Ratings for. I think that this kind of fluid shape suits a mobile, #9 based team.

You can get a rough approximation of it here on this passage of play;

Coming out of the 15m tram, you can see the 3-2-2 shape quite clearly.

The 3+1 arrowhead gives Neil Cronin three options off the ruck based on the comms he gets from #10.

The first action off the ruck looks like a complex enough play call.

Bleyendaal is running a tight line behind the screen and the pass from Holland to O’Donoghue looks pre-called. Bleyendaal peels around the outside of O’Dongohue’s carry line and a useable gap opens up right in front of him. Jack O’Donoghue can’t quite the pass away but I think the intent here was clear.

You get a wide, pacey pass from the scrumhalf to an arrowhead on the move, shift the ball to the outside runner and arc the flyhalf around at pace to take an offload from the ball carrier. That’s the first strike on this sequence.

Once we reset, the O’Sullivan pairs with the middle pod of two to create another arrowhead.

In this still, Scannell wipes across the back of the arrowhead three-pod with O’Donnell left solo in the outside two-pod position. This phase started inside the 15m lines so the three pod needed to address the progression of the Ospreys defence with contact point. Essentially, this pod of three trucked the ball up centrally to set a point where the Ospreys defence would have to rally around.

Holland then looped around from the previous ruck to link up with O’Donnell and is joined by Bleyendaal on his inside shoulder with Scannell wiping across the back of the pod.

It works in standing up the edge of the Ospreys defence but they soak the tackle. When the attack realigns it’s got a pod of two and three either side of the ruck for the scrumhalf to hit. Archer sweeps behind the ruck to create a subtle block line for Cronin and Munster swarm up the side of the contact point for a decent gain before getting turned over.

Marshall almost got an offload away to O’Sullivan arriving late but can’t quite navigate the referee’s positioning to make the pass. Again, look at Cronin’s line after the first ruck in this GIF. He’s arcing around as if he was expecting a pass out of the pod and the comms he got from Archer before the pass would suggest a more complex action might have been in the works.

A pop pass to Cronin and then a swivel pass out? Perhaps.

The key qualities are the pace of play, variety, offloading and momentum. When Munster have a moving defensive line in front of them, they play and the mobility/agility/pace of the scrumhalf is vitally important in unlocking the kinds of pictures that Munster want in the hammer zone, strike zone and run zone.

The 3-2-X shape gives you options, especially if Munster have shown a willingness to include the #10 as a gain line threat around the side of that three-pod.

I’ve included an L shape off #9 on this example because I think it’s something we might see more often when RG Snyman is in the team. He’s an incredibly effective ball carrier all throughout the pitch but he’s especially dangerous as that middle or outside runner in a dynamic arrowhead or “L” pod off #9.

In this position, Snyman produces a kind of offensive threat that is almost completely unique in this game. He’s got the power to commit defenders on and off the ball and then win that collision, he’s got the pace to be a legit linebreak option if he gets past the tackle…

… he’s a legitimate offloading option from both the middle and outside positions before, during and after the contact.

When Munster went after Snyman, it was this position that they had in mind. Yes, he’s just as dangerous further out in either of the outside two pods but his ability to affect that area directly off #9 while maintaining momentum and providing a viable offloading threat is exactly what Munster are looking for.

Stephen Larkham stressed momentum and where better to generate that momentum than in the Hammer Zone.

We’ve got the firepower to hurt teams in the Strike Zone but if we want to consistently hurt the very best teams, we have to consistently create fear of what we can do off #9.

When we build that threat – as we did against Connacht in the Sportsground earlier this season – we created workable space on the outside that allowed Casey to make quick, high quality and tactically obvious decisions. The entire point of running a structure is to allow good players to be put into a position to show off their skills. What we don’t want is guys getting squeezed at the ruck or on a release because the system has run them down a blind alley.

In the below example, we were able to bring Kleyn onto the ball with real momentum and, as a result, it created time and space for Casey and Hanrahan to make good, obvious plays. The two-way threat of Stander in the Hammer Zone – a dangerous ball carrier combined with an effective pass away from the carry target – creates a situation where Aki has to step in on Kleyn’s line as opposed to filtering out where he could step on Hanrahan’s space.

Instead, this kick by Hanrahan was done on the front foot with real space to drive the ball into. The 2-3-2-1 shape (you can see O’Byrne peeling off the pod of Kleyn and O’Donoghue) created a high tempo collision that gave our halfbacks a chance to link up and make something happen from a phase that started in our own half.

That 2-3-2-X structure gives you these radiating options but it increases the variety of skills you need in your forwards. Billy Holland is especially skilled, and Munster looked to use that in that midfield two pod a lot. We used this option repeatedly during the season – the edge swivel. You can see the threat of it against Connacht – Holland plants the foot for a second and shapes to pass out – and the same move being used to score a try against the Ospreys.

The same shape could see RG Snyman filling this role in the coming weeks. Something worth thinking about.

All these plays are based on the same thing – momentum and pace on the ball as it progresses through the pods.

All of that happens when you can compress the opponent as you play off #9. Without that, you have very little.

Pulling The Engine Cord

The value of momentum and the importance of it to Munster’s attacking scheme – especially when we look at our work off #9 – could be seen in our games against Racing 92 and Saracens quite clearly but I think it was best illustrated in our home defeat to Leinster. In all three games, you saw Munster revert to box kicking quite a bit because we struggled to win the gainline against three of the biggest teams in Europe relative to our selection in all of those games.

This is Larkham’s point; “We don’t want to muck around with the ball when the opposition is in a dominant position.” A “dominant position” as described here is a set opposition defence lined up on a slow or static Munster ruck. You try a few rucks to unbalance the defence and win momentum/a moving defence but if you don’t manage it, you kick to force a transition moment under the high ball.

The Leinster game featured rotated squads but it was illustrative of the same issues.

If you look at our starting pack for that game, it featured what was probably our “smallest” selection of the year with only Kilcoyne, Wycherley and perhaps O’Donnell as our lead ball carriers.

Kilcoyne, O’Byrne, Archer
Wycherley, Holland
O’Donnell, O’Donoghue, Cloete

Kilcoyne was returning from a long term injury in this game so, for whatever reason, he didn’t really feature on-ball for us so Wycherley, O’Donnell and O’Donoghue took up the slack and did relatively well in the circumstances. They were paired with our ‘smallest’ senior midfield, Rory Scannell and Sam Arnold. In my opinion, both Scannell and Arnold struggled to make an impact against a heavy Leinster defence but they weren’t really alone in that on the day.

Defensively, I thought we did OK in that game and our only real lapse lead directly to their try off a maul break. We handled their ball carriers relatively well but consistently struggled to gain any kind of momentum against their defence on phase play or off the set-piece.

Guys like Will Connors, Josh Murphy, Andrew Porter, Scott Fardy, Ed Byrne, Conor O’Brien, James Lowe and Devin Toner – big, heavy men for their position – shut our attack down repeatedly. Porter and Connors, in particular, were extremely effective.

This is a long GIF but it shows how effectively Leinster were able to shut down our attempts to get their defensive line moving – a decent carry from Wycherley aside.

Everything is very compressed and slow because we aren’t getting purchase off #9. These forays off #9 remind me of frantically yanking an engine pull cord on a lawnmower to get it to start. Each time Leinster’s heavy, sticky defence prevented us from getting the momentum we need and that, naturally, lead to a lot of box kicking to reset our position.

So why not just bypass the Hammer Zone and go straight to the Strike Zone and beyond?

Leinster were incredibly comfortable with our carrying off #9 so, as a result, they always looked comfortable when we tried to lengthen the play off slow ball.

We didn’t have a release beyond #10 because Leinster had a good handle on Scannell and Arnold’s offensive tendencies. The shutdown Scannell’s left-footed step and sling pass action and backed themselves to get hands-on Arnold whenever he was called upon off the set-piece or on phase play.

It was only when Munster got purchase off #9 that we started to threaten. In the below example, O’Sullivan breaks the line and O’Donnell adds momentum to the sequence but… you’ll see what happens.

McCarthy is looking for momentum so his first pass after O’Sullivan and O’Donnell’s carry is to Loughman, the outside runner on a three-pod. Our momentum comes crashing to a halt when Lowe makes a big stop on Loughman and Porter sits down on the ruck to ensure slow ball.

That gives five seconds of defensive certainty to Leinster as they recover from the initial linebreak and everything slows down from there.

Again, you’d ask – why not go out the back? I would say that we don’t have the physical threat to warrant a compression in the Leinster defence. Look at them as the ball is in the air – they have comfortable numbers and aren’t overly concerned with our options.

 

All through the game, you see this lack of concern with Munster’s ball-carrying options. This example is another version of momentum gained and then stalled. Look at Carbery running the tight arrowhead line off #9 for an excellent break and then O’Donoghue backing that up with a tight carry.

What we want here is pace from our scrumhalf but instead, Cronin is in two minds as to whether he should hit the ruck to secure it or pass the ball out. He’s always looking at the ball rather than scanning the defence so he doesn’t see that Leinster aren’t competing or that Knox is alongside him even if they were.

When the play rolls on, you see the same issues;

  1. Leinster not respecting our off-ball runners (watch Toner’s comfort with Holland’s pretty well run option line)
  2. Slow pace, hesitation and ruck fright – where a halfback gets sucked into clearing out rucks where they aren’t needed.

Leinster’s size didn’t have a massive impact on their attacking intent during this game – if anything they were worse off for it – but the team they selected ran on a gamble that we’d have to load up on our primary ball-carrying assets for the in-conference game against Connacht the previous week and that they could contain what we’d select in their absence.

Leinster were reduced too but, crucially, they had players with spare minutes to rotate into this game. All of them had a big impact but, even then, Porter played 74 minutes at tighthead (relatively unheard of in the modern game) because of his constant impact in the tackle and over the ball.

This has been Munster’s issue with elite sides in microcosm. I really believe that the Munster side that took the field against Leinster in December would probably win that game with just Stander and Farrell added to it but even with rotated teams, the size issue when it came to playing our primary attacking game was still a critical issue.

A lot of the conversation around the signing of Damian De Allende has centred on “who will be the second playmaker?” if De Allende starts at #12.

I would posit that Munster have been playing with two playmakers in most of our Category 1 games over the last four years but the impact against the biggest sides has been negligible. I can’t think of many examples of our semi-final defeats against Saracens (x2), Racing 92 or Leinster (x2) where having a second playmaker actively influenced the game positively in Munster’s favour.

We lost those games to decidedly stronger teams that hurt our progression off #9 under three different attacking systems, yes, and that will always influence perception but when I watched those games back, I was hard-pressed to find an area where our second playmaker – Rory Scannell – had much of an influence. He’s rarely a negative influence and I think that needs saying. He isn’t a bad player. He’s a good player. I’m just not sure if he has the game to affect opposition of the highest calibre as a midfielder. Defensively, he’s brave and pretty effective but, as with the offensive side of the ball, I think size catches him out.

You could compensate for that size with an electric change of pace – Matt Toomua, for example – but he doesn’t really have that, in my opinion. He’s not slow, he’s not sluggish, he’s not a poor ball carrier, he’s not a bad passer but when you compare him to, say, the current competitors for the Irish #12 shirt, where does he fall down?

He’s not as solid physically on both sides of the ball as Bundee Aki and I would say that he’s not as good a passer either. He’s not the kind of ball carrier that Stuart McCloskey is and while he has a better range of passing than Henshaw, I would say that he’s quite a bit less dynamic than him in almost every sense as a midfielder.

His left-footed kicking option can be effective from an exiting perspective and Munster have used him in this way regularly, sometimes to good effect.

But you don’t really see this outside of exit plays with much regularity.

I think a good proxy for Rory Scannell would be the impact that Owen Farrell currently has for England as a #12. Farrell plays like a modern second five at the highest level in a lot of the ways that we want to see from Scannell. It feels unfair to compare Scannell to Farrell, or to Aki, or to Henshaw, or even to Chavancy or Brad Barritt but that’s the calibre of player that regularly features at 12 at test level in these parts for the biggest teams. That unfairness is part of the reason why Munster went looking for a guy like De Allende.

Scannell’s work is good and he’s certainly shown an impact as a solid European level player against all but the very best opponents.

There’s his goal kicking to factor in. Scannell has landed some really big kicks at goal – who could forget that one against Glasgow – but he’s a 69% goal kicker out of his 29 career attempts at pro level and running at -8 VA overall.

When you consider these factors, you can see why Munster went looking for Damian De Allende. I think Rory Scannell has a lot of versatility and that he’ll continue to be an important squad player – especially as #10 cover – but De Allende is a World Cup-winning Springbok with a good argument to be the best #12 in the sport at the moment.

Rory Scannell will back himself to nail down a role despite this new addition and I hope he does. He’s a good player but he just needs that something extra to crack through to being an elite option. Perhaps the addition of De Allende will be the spur.

From a playmaking perspective, De Allende actually adds options. If we use the shape we used earlier, De Allende as the runner behind the midfield two-pod widens the range of defensive influence that this pod has.

If you have to defend one of the best ball carriers in the game behind a screen that might have CJ Stander and RG Snyman in it, you will turn in, you will stay close to your defensive partner and you will find yourself with outside threats to contend with that could include Peter O’Mahony, Chris Farrell and, say, Matt Gallagher, Shane Daly, Keith Earls, Calvin Nash, or Andrew Conway.

Does Damian De Allende have to flash a 20-metre pass to make that spacing work? No, he doesn’t, because the defensive compression that the threat of his ball-carrying impact causes means he doesn’t have to.

Farrell has an incredibly wide range of passing too and, after watching back his work in the last two big semi-finals, he has been more of a playmaker than the player you would describe as a “second five” in my opinion. De Allende and Farrell could be described as quite similar but this fills in the aims of a 2-3-2-X shape too. Both are better passers than they are given credit for and the physical presence of the one outside the other will make it easier for either of them to make a play.

If we’re talking about who steps in at first receiver when Carbery/Hanrahan/Healy/Crowley has a go off the back of a screen, I would put it to you that all of our players should be comfortable taking the ball in that position but that any of the central backs – De Allende, Farrell, Goggin, Scannell, or Haley/Gallagher/Flannery at fullback – should be just as good making a play there be it passing or driving a kick down the line when necessary. Both Farrell and De Allende have underrated passing and offloading games that, in my opinion, will only be enhanced when playing next to each other and in a system that prioritises speed.

Damian De Allende gives Munster the means to restart our momentum against any side in Europe and, with more time under Larkham’s attacking guidance and more familiarity with the finer detail on our overall attacking concepts, it will only be a good thing. It doesn’t mean more crash ball rugby – although that will form a part of the set-piece and some phase play structures. It means that the threat of that physicality will allow more expansive, high tempo play that will be driven primarily by #9 and #10. They will be our primary and secondary playmakers with others filling in as required.

I would expect Munster’s 2-3-2-X shape to develop in line with what we’ve seen this season. Farrell and De Allende – if they both can be kept fit – have the power and skill set to bring Munster’s attack into Championship winning territory.

In the next part of this series, I will focus on the current senior and academy players that Munster have and break down the roles in our game that they can fill.