The GIF Room :: Halfback Decisions

I don’t need to tell you that Munster’s opening 40 minutes against Cardiff was our worst performance of the season so far.

Your eyes will tell you that.

In just 27 minutes, Munster managed to concede 19 points and, in doing so, find themselves with a mountain of their own making to climb if they even wanted a losing bonus point. So how did it happen? As with most things in this game, there’s no one size fits all answer but before we get to that – a little detour.

Around this time last week, I found myself standing on a training paddock in sunnier climes watching a team run through their warmup prior to that day’s session. I was doing the kind of standing around that only a spare prick can do. Nobody knew who I was, or why I was there, and we were all waiting for the coach and the boss man to come down and explain, amongst other things, who the hell I was and what I was doing on the grass side of the railing.

While we were waiting, I tried to banish the rising sense of imposter syndrome by talking to one of the forwards who was kicking around a ball back and forth with a few of the backs. He was a nice guy – South African – and we had a good laugh about how you can always spot the forwards who are closeted backs by how quickly they take to dropping goals and placekicking when left to their own devices for 5 minutes.

“Can you imagine doing it in a game?” he chuckled. “I’d fucking shit myself twice just kicking an out”.

After the coach arrived and I’d had my introduction, I spent the rest of the time watching by the sidelines, holding an odd tackle bag, putting out the half-bags for rucking (cool yokes), and then talking with the coaches about what they wanted the halfbacks to do at the weekend. I was struck by how much responsibility they had, even at this level.

One of the things that I was most taken with was the demand that the halfbacks manage the defensive sets. We have to remember that in rugby, your attack is defence and your defence is attack.

How you use your possession in a game and where you use it is one of the crucial aspects of a halfback’s responsibility. They are the decision makers.

On Saturday night against Cardiff, we didn’t get the best decisions or execution from our halfbacks and we suffered again and again.

I looked at all of our possessions in the first half. How we got the ball, how many phases we put together on that possession and what the outcome was.

Here’s the list;

PossessionMethod of PossessionNumber of Phases End Result
Possession 1Tackle Turnover0Kickaway Possession
Possession 2Kick Turnover2Kickaway Possession
Possession 3Kick Turnover2Knock On - Cardiff Scrum
Possession 4Scrum0Forward Pass - Munster Advantage
Possession 5Receiving 22 Drop Out2 Turnover
Possession 6Lineout/Maul0Kickaway Possession
Possession 7Scrum 1Turnover
Possession 8Scrum0Kicked Out On The Full
Possession 9Kick Turnover0Kickaway Win - Munster Scrum
Possession 10Scrum3Kickaway Possession
Possession 11Kick Turnover1Chargedown
Possession 12Post Try Restart0 Kicked Out On The Full
Possession 13Kick Turnover0Kickaway Win - Munster Scrum
Possession 14Scrum1Knock On - Cardiff Scrum
Possession 15Kick Turnover0Kickaway Possession
Possession 16Kick Turnover1Munster Penalty
Possession 17Restart1Kickaway Possession
Possession 18Maul0Kickaway Win - Possession
Possession 19Contestable Win0Munster Penalty
Possession 20Missed Touch/Kick Return3Kickaway Possession

On our 20 possessions, we had 14 negative outcomes (where we lost the ball). We had ZERO phase possession inside Cardiff’s 22 and we didn’t put more than 3 phases together at any point.

We were operating to a gameplan in the first half but our execution of it was extremely poor. What was that gameplan?

Here’s how it was supposed to look – kinda.

This is Possession 18 and Possession 19.

Here are the box kick and chase on Possession 18.

Look at Grobler binding onto the ruck and elongating it – this gives Williams time and space to get his kick motion settled and also makes a charge down more unlikely. Williams gets good height and distance on his kick which gives Sweetnam and Cloete room to work.

This is the aftermath – Possession 19.

Again, this isn’t perfect by any means, but this is what we were looking to achieve with our kick-heavy approach. Kick against a set Cardiff line, make them turn, claim the ball and then attack the disrupted space.

We were let down here by a wobbly pass from Rory Scannell to Sam Arnold, but you get the idea. This was our A-game in the first half, but it worked out way too rarely. The work from Williams and Keatley is good here; the pass is snappy, the alignment is as flat as it can be and the passing is pacey. If this ball gets into Arnold’s hands, we’re on for a try but it wasn’t to be.

First Eight Minutes

Johann Van Graan made reference to the decision makers in the team making a few errors that put us on the back foot after a solid opening 8 minutes.

He’s right on both counts. The opening 8 minutes were fairly solid from a Munster POV. We had four possessions in that time and didn’t make any massive errors, even if we did pass up some opportunities.

Our first possession was a clean turnover, which Keatley kicked away for no real territorial advantage.

You might think that was a bad option given we had numbers over but when you see that we had no ruck support on their feet within reach of that wing, a kick away wasn’t the worst option. The first bounce killed us by standing up the ball and moving it infield rather than towards the touchline. Small margins. This wasn’t really a bad decision, just a bad moment. If this ball bounces right and over the touchline, we’d be buzzing, marching up to the Cardiff 22 and squeezing their throw. The perfect start. Instead, we overthrew the resulting lineout and lost possession.

When we get the ball back a minute later we just looked a little ragged in possession;

Kilcoyne makes a good hit up and gets the ball back quickly but the work on the second phase isn’t what it might have been. Grobler’s poor running line takes out the kick option and from there, Keatley gets swallowed up. That one was really unfortunate, as you could see the two-man chase unit we had in the tramline to go after this kick over the top. Keatley did well to hang onto the ball, as passing anywhere to his right in this instance would have been a super high-risk option.

Then we had Jack O’Donoghue’s knock on in Possession 3, and this small margin misread from Arnold on Possession 4.

As an aside, just look at Cloete’s arrow straight openside support line from the scrum.

His pass to Fitzgerald is adjudged to be forward but it’s high enough that the fullback has to readjust to take it, which doesn’t help his body position in contact. The pop out the back option to Scannell was there, but it’s hard to know if that was the primary option on this play – O’Mahony was powering around the corner as a strike option on a ruck primarily, I think.

This sums up our opening 8 minutes. Not great by any means, but better than what was to come. If anything, it illustrates why “flow” is the most important part of a player’s performance, and that goes double for creative positions like halfback.

When you’re in the “flow” – like Keatley against Zebre last week – then the right decision just comes to you. When you’re not, then the game begins to creep on top of you.

Bad Decision City

With these first four possessions out of the way, we seemed to narrow our ambitions considerably. A lot of that comes down to the decision making we saw at halfback but they are far from the only culprits. I’ll have a look at some of the ones that stuck out to me, but please keep in mind that some of these are split-second instances and I’m mainly highlighting them to show you how decisions made in less than half a second can lead to incremental errors in creative positions. This is what happens when you aren’t in the flow.

Possession 8 – Halfback Error

This lead directly to Cardiff’s first try. That isn’t Keatley’s fault, of course, we should have defended much better but look at where we’re defending – just inside our 22. Cardiff didn’t have to do any work to earn that field position and they punished us for it. We weren’t paying any attention to the narrow spread of Cardiff’s scrum defence and have committed to kicking before the ball ever leaves the scrum. The kick itself is one that Keatley’s done a thousand times but it came off his foot wrong.

Possession 5 – Halfback Error/Attacking Alignment 

After a good kick return from Fitzgerald off a Cardiff 22 drop out we ended up giving away a stupid turnover. This is a combination of poor halfback passing option and poor attacking alignment.

When you take this down to the split second moment, you can see what I mean.

The three things we have to consider here are:

  • The bulk of our forward support is in the white box.
  • Cardiff have a strong defensive line in a clustered alignment.
  • We have two forwards in a position to take the ball.

In this instance, Keatley has four options; kick the ball away, carry the ball himself (my preferred option), hit Marshall or hit O’Donoghue on the switch.

By passing to Marshall, he sets our lightest forward into the heaviest part of the Cardiff defence with only one ruck support option (and that option is running past the point of contact when Marshall takes possession).

That split second option puts us in a bad position to support the ball carrier and we get punished. This is exactly how incremental pressure builds on a team and it illustrates perfectly why the halfback jerseys are the toughest ones on the pitch to play in.

Possession 7 – Pass Blindness/Halfback Speed and Decision

The kick is fine. It looks a little ugly but it does what it has to – get to the wing quickly. My issue is the decision making from O’Mahony in the wing. For me, he has three options here and he picked the wrong one.

O’Mahony could have;

  • Carried the ball on the outside.
  • Pass to Fitzgerald so the smaller, quicker runner could have possibly exploited that gap rather than be forced to try and clean out the next phase.
  • Kicked the ball over the top (like Keatley is calling for in the white circle).

He picked the first option and, while he didn’t lose the ball, that action elongated our attack (stretched ruck resources, made our attack work as hard as the Cardiff defence) when there was no real need.

From there, we have another halfback mistake at the ruck;

Williams has to run the width of the pitch to get from scrum to ruck (elongated attack) and then takes too long at the base when the ball is “out” of the ruck. Jenkins spots this and runs a killer line on Copeland, who has to take the ball standing still and knocks on under pressure. In the split second of slow motion, we can see that this is the wrong option in the context of the situation – the best option was the pass to Keatley, even if it was the more difficult pass to make. Look at the Cardiff front row on the outside edge; a pass to Keatley might have given us the chance to have a cut off them but instead, it’s a Cardiff scrum.

Possession 10 – Halfback Error and Attacking Alignment/Winger Error

The first part of this possession is a classic halfback error. After two really nice carries off the scrum Williams almost throws an intercept pass. What happened? Well, let’s look at the context – we’ve just conceded a try, and we’re looking to make something happen after not really throwing a shot in the opening quarter.

Williams initial work is good but when it comes time to release the ball out, we take a bad option. Here’s what Williams was looking at;

Firstly, Fitzgerald is the only guy actively demanding the ball so it’s no surprise that he was the player who Williams targeted.

From Williams POV, passing to Keatley is high risk as Marshall’s in his line. Marshall is on a heavy line that saw him get wiped out a few minutes prior and we can see now that passing to Kilcoyne was probably the best option here. Throw in the excitement of getting good ground and the pace of the ball and you have a decision to go with the wider option.

Our attacking alignment isn’t great here though, in my opinion. We’re too flat. At this point, I think that we should have looked like this;

We retained the ball and managed to get the ball wide where Darren Sweetnam kicked the ball away after a badly executed kick through.

Possession 11 – Bad Kick Reception / Chargedown

We all saw the end result of this play.

There’s no way around this – it’s just bad execution and kick protection. Marshall was doing this exact thing in the second half, so we can presume that it’s to instruction or a new refereeing directive. From Williams POV, this is a nightmare. He has a lot of time (maybe too much), good space to work with but he’s giving the Cardiff defender all the indicators he could look for on his charge down attempt. Williams trajectory is too low and his kicking action isn’t quick enough to beat the defender.

He shouldn’t have been in the position to make this kick though – this should have been a fairly simple exit a few minutes prior but a slip let us down forcing a reset under pressure. Compounding errors.

Possession 12 – Kick Out On The Full

Look, you don’t need to be told that this wasn’t what was needed here. Straight after the charge down try we needed a bit of stability but the restart went straight out on the full.

We can slate the 10 here but what’s the point? Directly after a try like that you want to make something happen and we wanted a deep restart to chase and force and then force an exit. The ball came off his foot wrong – as it can do – and we have got a defensive scrum on our own halfway line that Cardiff would score from on first phase.

At that point, we were 19 points down without firing a shot and mostly through self-inflicted wounds.

Creative Position

Yes, our decision-makers didn’t do a fantastic job on our possessions but that’s what happens when both your halfbacks (and others) have an off day. Some people don’t like that term, I know, because when they hear “off day” they hear “excuses”. It’s not an excuse, it’s a reason.

The baseline for most scrumhalves and flyhalves is to have games like this every so often where things start poorly for them and they just can’t pull themselves out. That’s why the likes of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are multi-cap Lions and widely recognised as being among the very best in the world at what they do – they are consistently good. Players like that have way fewer off-games like what we saw in Cardiff than the average player does and that consistency is what makes them the modern day greats that they are.

Knee-jerk pronouncements about a player “not being good enough” are a lot easier to make than looking at the how and the why of a performance and accepting that for all but a few special players, days like this will happen. If we accept that playing Conor Murray every week is not possible and that a player like Conor Murray doesn’t come along very often, then we have to also accept that “not being good enough” is an emotional term that doesn’t really say anything useful. Aaron Smith is the only scrumhalf that’s anywhere near Conor Murray’s level. Below that you have solid test level guys like If you’re slating Duncan Williams because he’s not Conor Murray, then I’m not sure what to say. I’ve seen dozens of halfbacks have similar games to Williams and Keatley in the Aviva Premiership, Top14 and SuperRugby – some of them have had multiple caps – and it happens in creative positions. It doesn’t mean they’re bad players, just that they aren’t at the level of a Murray or Sexton. But very few players are.

One thing is for sure – Keatley and Williams (and the rest of the team) are capable of much better than the performance we saw here and I’m sure they’ll show that on their next opportunity.