European Rugby Champions Cup Semi-Final, Stade Chaban-Delmas, Bordeaux, France 22/4/2018 Racing 92 vs Munster Munster's Conor Murray on the attack Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

The Hunt for Red Composure

Have you ever been in a fight?

I’ve been in five fights over the course of my life. I’ve used one as an allegory for a game against the All Blacks – there’s a boutique reference for long-time readers – but the other four were equally as instructive. There was the one in Sixth Year over a girl (protip: girls really aren’t into that)(yes, even if you win), there was the one on a rugby pitch six years ago with one of my best friends over a ball, and there was one when I was 23 years of age on Tuckey Street when a guy punched me into the side of the head for no reason other than my hair was bleach blonde. Yes. I had white hair. Deal with it.

None of those fights were epic, John Wick style throwdowns – regular fights never are. They were scrappy bouts of shamateur boxing and half-remembered self-defence course shaping but one thing was constant in all of them; the sense of panic, the sense of time speeding up and the importance of returning every loopy wrist punch with one of your own.

If you strike back hard, you can win the fight and feel like A Big Man for a few minutes.

If you don’t, time speeds up, your pulse becomes the loudest thing you’ve ever heard and, before you know it, you’re broken up, the fight is over and bad news – you lost.

Taking a slap isn’t the problem in a fight, it comes with the territory. You run into trouble when you take slaps and don’t land one back in return. Having the composure to take a slap and then return one often dictates the flow of a fight and whoever dictates the flow usually wins.

That 294-word intro was a roundabout way of leading to this fact; Munster took too many scoreboard slaps on Sunday without responding adequately and, as a result, allowed Racing 92 to dictate the flow of the game from 25 minutes on.

6 Minutes to 16 Minutes

In the aftermath of Racing’s first try, Munster had 10 minutes of possession interrupted by one small pocket of Racing possession that didn’t have close to the same pop of sequence prior to scoring. That shouldn’t be a surprise – this was a little mini-dip from Racing that Munster had to capitalise on to take the impetus of this game.

By taking 10 minutes to score 3 points – and Racing would score almost straight from the restart after that kick went over – Munster allowed Racing to recover from their initial high-intensity possession while taking a small amount of damage in return.

In fight terms, Racing caught us with a right straight early on (try #1), we responded with a jab 10 minutes later (3 points) and they cracked us with an overhand right straight after (try #2) but it could have been much different.

08:14

Munster’s first opportunity to build some pressure came when CJ Stander won a penalty at the breakdown.

This was the first positive opportunity for Munster in the game and as an attacking platform, you couldn’t really ask for a better position.

Keatley’s penalty didn’t find touch.

There’s no way around this – it’s a key moment in the initial exchanges but you don’t need an analyst to tell you that this would have been better off dropping a few metres to the right and shorter rather than getting caught and booted back to literally where it was kicked from. I get what Keatley was trying to do here. He wanted a booming kick down the line to turn a penalty on halfway into a 5m attacking lineout. If the ball drifts another metre to the right he’s a hero but it doesn’t, and he’s instead he’s enduring 800-word think pieces about how he’ll never be good enough. The margins are small at this level.

10:00

From there, Munster went generated a kicking platform off a maul. We didn’t retain the ball but we did pull an astonishingly poor kick transition out of Pat Lambie. It should have been a Munster try.

When Alex Wootton took this out of the air and swung the ball out the back to Conway, it was on. When Conway found Arnold, I was out of my seat – it looked like a try all ends up.

Chavancy was isolated in 20m of space and Arnold had four good options – go at Chavancy himself for the finish, fix Chavancy and hit Conway for a run in or stagger Chavancy to hit Wootton or Scannell on the burst. The best option of all was just to follow Conway down the left and pop the ball off but Arnold took the toughest option – running back infield.

It’s easy to sit here on Thursday and say what a professional should have done on Sunday in the heat – literally – of a European Cup semi-final but this is probably one that Arnold would have wanted back.

When he hit contact, the opportunity was still there but Racing slowed up our recycle enough to give them a chance to repopulate.

When the ball came back, the opportunity was still there to be got at and Keatley had the right idea.

When the ball came to Keatley, he knew that a line between Machenaud and Vakatawa would open a 4-1 overlap on Thomas. All he need was the angle to get the ball out of the tackle he did everything right up until…

… the support line goes too narrow and the pass option isn’t there for him when he goes to make the pass.

You have to slow this down to see where the opportunity was;

Wootton wanted the ball when Keatley beat Machenaud and Keatley wanted a runner outside Vakatawa for a pass at this moment.

Munster would recycle the ball and a few phases later we generated short side numbers again.

 

It was a tougher opportunity to execute but with O’Mahony and Wootton holding Vakatawa and Thomas, a flat miss pass to Conway would have set Munster away into the corner at the very least.

The pass wasn’t there. Thomas is an intercept risk here but with a better pass, this gets to Conway’s hands.

Keatley has a flat pass like this in his locker but this one came out of his hands wobbling;

That took speed off the ball and put it in Thomas’ intercept range. Thomas knocked it on in his attempt to snag this one but the frustrating this is that this was another try chance that went begging. That’s three in forty seconds.

Munster would earn a scrum and then a penalty in the aftermath. We’d kick to the corner for a 5m lineout opportunity.

12:39

This was a beautifully constructed lineout manoeuvre that was built on exploiting the video work that Racing would have done in the build-up.

Munster sent Murray up at the front – as we did against Leinster where he took the ball – but that’s a feint. The jump target was Holland at the tail, who started the move as a potential lifter on O’Mahony.

But look at Stander and Kleyn.

Stander is the end target on this but Kleyn is equally important – he has to sell the maul at the tail because, without his decoy movement, the pod at the back would be a three-man pod with no “drive” section and, as a result, wouldn’t create the space that CJ needs.

The move works as planned – Racing narrowed at the front and at the tail – and that exposes the lane for CJ to attack on the peel from the front of the lineout.

Donnacha Ryan gets the Sherlock credit for reading this one but I think it’s got a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time as a consequence of getting back to where he thinks the Munster maul is getting set up.

Before Holland passes the ball down, Ryan is sold on Kleyn’s maul line;

It was fitting that Ryan was the man who got the stop on CJ Stander. Either way, it was another great opportunity and good last-ditch defence from Racing.

There were a few other chances…

… but the composure wasn’t there.

A lot of Munster’s composure was eaten up by Racing’s subtle work in the tackle and breakdown. Compare Munster’s attacking breakdown with Racing’s breakdown and the difference in ball speed is pronounced. This wasn’t an accident – Racing tailored their contact work to affect the subsequent breakdown. Munster would double up on tackles to try and win the contact area but Racing did it differently; they would send one tackler to chop the ball carrier but, almost more importantly, swing their body into Munster’s clean out lane post tackle.

That body in the clean-out lane would give the next Racing defender a chance to get at the ball while also slowing the tempo of the Munster cleanout as we would often have to adjust our footwork to adjust to the obstacle. Those half-seconds of disruption added up to difficult Munster possession and, for me, explain why you’d see Munster making ground in contact but ceding quick ball and sometimes losing possession after the ball hit the deck.

If we’re to do what we’re capable of, we’ll need to find composure when the heat comes on in the PRO14 playoffs and a way to defeat that defensive strategy as it’s caused us trouble against Edinburgh and Cardiff already this season and won’t have missed the attention of other sides.

Composure, though, more than anything else, will help us win more fights than we lose.