The Machine

When you’re slugging it out with a side like Toulon, you have to be spotless at the set piece.

Munster made life incredibly difficult for Toulon on their throw – something I went into yesterday – but the work on our throw was just as impressive. Munster had 16 lineouts and retained possession on every single one of them. Toulon, on the other hand, had a 69% success rate which, as concerning a return as that is, doesn’t capture the full extent of Munster’s disruption. Those margins – 100% compared to 69% – are just one of the small little battles that lead up to a win, especially one as narrow as this one.

The variety, accuracy and complexity of Munster’s calls and maul setups were really satisfying to watch, and they weren’t just aesthetically pleasing – they were the grains of rice that tipped the scales our way in the grand scheme of things.

Denying Toulon a clean lineout is one thing but when the three-time champions were bossing possession and territory for large stretches, Munster’s own lineout would be a key release valve.

I’m going to have a look at three that stood out to me.

Accuracy and Skullduggery

Munster’s first lineout of the game was no ordinary one in the context of the events to that point. Toulon had essentially owned the ball for the first seven minutes and this was Munster’s first real chance at putting some phases together in response.

We also have to remember that Munster had two lineout wins (a steal and a maul numbers win) on Toulon’s throw before this, so Toulon will have been eager to return the favour, especially when it came to disrupting the initial throw.

They couldn’t manage it, and Munster got spotless lineout possession to O’Mahony in the middle of the lineout.

How did Munster get a clean lineout take with zero competition in the air? Munster disguised O’Mahony as the jumper in this alignment by shifting Kleyn’s lifting spot once the movement began.

When the lineout is setting up, you can see Kleyn’s standing in a 50/50 position in front of Holland. He could potentially turn to lift Holland and, given Kilcoyne’s position, turn to take this ball at the front with Holland lifting him. This seeds doubt in the Toulon lineout defence and pulls the focus onto the front of the lineout, which helps Munster’s scheme.

Let’s have a quick look at the detail behind Munster’s alignment and action;

For a guide to the “Action” movements, follow the letters.

The most important part of this movement was Billy Holland taking out their jump pod prior to the throw.

Bumping the jumper is risky – it can give away the jump position and bring the officials into it – but taking out the lifter is a much easier play if done subtly and Billy Holland is a master at this.

In this instance – a reduced lineout – Holland’s “bump” hides Kilcoyne’s lift and O’Mahony can get a clean jump on Kruger.

You can see the maul already forming around the drop point as O’Mahony comes off his jump. Attwood (white scrum cap) messed up our ball transfer initially with a good swinging arm over the top and that gave Toulon time to mount a solid counter. We were looking to drive this one infield with a kick option into the blindside. Munster like to make a large blindside for the likes of Wootton, Conway and Earls to attack off these box kick mauls.

We didn’t get great ground on this maul, despite the good initial setup. Attwood slowed the transfer of the ball but didn’t stop it – you can see Stander transfer the ball back to Marshall below.

Post ball-transfer, our shape has dropped a little and that makes it a little harder to get the drive we need. Holland’s body position is slightly off – a side effect of Attwood’s presence up the middle of the maul – but that takes away some of the power needed to drive through the line.

You can see the power line we’re using to drill through Toulon’s infield defence – from Stander through to Kleyn – but we’re not getting the full effect. Holland is concerned about Attwood’s presence and doesn’t want to go all in on the push when the Toulon lock can potentially break up our maul’s “engine”.

Not a bad first throw by any means, though.

Accordion

As the clock ticked on, Munster’s ambition in the lineout grew, even under territory pressure. This throw to the tail on our own 5m line was absolutely superb from a technical point of view.

Everything from the setup to the throw to the lift is amongst the very best you’ll see in the game. In this context, Munster knew that an aerial challenge from Toulon was quite likely. They had nothing to lose from getting jumpers into the air and they’d have been comfortable with counter mauling anywhere along the normal bailout throwing spots in this position.

What did Munster do?

They shortened the lineout, which is the obvious thing to do in this circumstance (to limit the amount of counter-jump pods you have to worry about), but they compacted the four players in the line to the front as Marshall prepped to throw.

Stander is part of this lineout too, as the “halfback”

What does this say to Toulon? That we’re going to hit Kleyn or Holland on this throw. Why is that? Well, the percentage option here would be to hit one of your strong jumpers at 2 or 4 for a maul and a kick exit, be it a box kick or a pass back to the 10.

The big clue for Toulon about Munster’s intentions is O’Mahony’s position. At this point in the game, O’Mahony had been Munster’s primary jump target and Toulon will have been wary of any set up that could bring him into the jump. On this throw, as far as Toulon are concerned, O’Mahony can only be a jump option at the front or be a lifter for Holland/Kleyn at the front. Why is that?

O’Mahony doesn’t have a back lifter in the line. That will mean he can only jump forward or lift as far as Toulon are concerned.

When the throw is ready, Munster elongate the line of four.

This separates the Toulon jump pods and makes them “double down” on a target. If you have longer to move on a lift, it demands a choice to be made. You’ll note Kleyn in the 50/50 body position again and Kruger (red scrum cap) is paying close attention to him. Both of Toulon’s locks are lining up across from our locks – the trap is set.

Stander is the key to this movement. When he begins his run from halfback to lift O’Mahony, Marshall gets the ball to the tail where O’Mahony can take the ball unchallenged. Munster disguised O’Mahony’s lifting pod as a heavy halfback and Toulon were unable to read it in a way that would enable them to disrupt effectively. Why wouldn’t they? Stander is exactly where he would be if Munster were mauling the ball from the front so he can realistically take both options as far as Toulon are concerned. Is he a maul component or a lifter?

Munster did this quite a few times to great success but this one later in the game is my favourite example.

Look at that maul construction.

On the initial example, Munster were able to maul enough space for Murray to exit the ball outside the Munster 22. Job done, and then some.

Take The Penalty

Munster’s use of O’Mahony really affected Toulon’s lineout defence as the game wore on. Not only was he wrecking their lineout but he was getting clean ball time after time – look at how dominantly he beats Lakafia into the air on the above GIF for an example. With no real third counter jumping option, Toulon were forced to double up on their locks on O’Mahony as the game wore on.

When Toulon started to do that, Munster played the old shell game trick – just when they thought they had all the answers, Munster changed the questions.

Look at how laser-focused Toulon are on O’Mahony for this lineout.

Kilcoyne’s selling it beautifully (yellow circle) by sitting in a perfect lift position to get O’Mahony into the air quickly. Toulon have, essentially, five guys focusing on O’Mahony as this ball is about to leave Marshall’s hands.

Munster, as you might have gathered, go to Kleyn at the tail instead with, you guessed it, Stander stepping in as a lifter from halfback.

The beauty of this one is that O’Mahony helped sell the scheme even as the ball was in the air.

That makes sure that Toulon can’t flood to the point of the landing and, when the maul gets going, ensures that Munster have an immediate numbers advantage.

Toulon, as you saw above, were forced to bring the maul down and take the penalty. Why did they do this? Well, they were about to get pumped on this maul.

Munster had a strong front wall, a set “engine” in O’Mahony and Holland and Kilcoyne waiting to latch onto the ball with Marshall to come. Toulon had one man in a position to defend this front on (Kruger – red scrum cap) and Munster were about to start jogging this one forward as both Van Der Merwe and Lakafia were bound.

Mauls with that kind of momentum and numbers take an awful lot of stopping so Van Der Merwe, wisely, killed it straight away to prevent even worse from happening down the field.

The Roll

With the game in the balance, Munster found themselves with an offensive lineout deep in the Toulon 22. With the clock ticking away and the game in the balance, Munster would have to construct something special to force their way over the line.

Interestingly enough – and in line with recent games against Leinster – Munster initially set up with Rory Scannell and Darren Sweetnam at the front of the lineout…

… before James Cronin shooed them back into midfield. Was this indecision or a scheme to make Toulon think we were wiping a throw at the front to hit O’Mahony? I think it was the latter.

First, look at Munster’s positioning after Sweetnam and Scannell leave the line.

O’Mahony – who had 9 clean takes at this point – is lined up at the tail with enough separation from Kleyn that Toulon could reasonably expect Munster to go for a maul at the tail. Any kind of irregular space in a lineout is suspicious – you can run into that space or “pinch it” with all kinds of east/west movement of jumpers and lifters.

Toulon have invested a lot of heavy defenders to the tail because they’ll have memories of what happened earlier in the game when they left numbers short there.

When Toulon saw Sweetnam and Scannell move away from the front, Toulon probably reasoned that Munster were going to throw to their primary target for a maul at the tail – which is the best position to maul from. Toulon will have looked at Munster’s lineout work against Leinster – where we used backs at the front of 5m lineouts – so they would have been looking for those cues in situations just like this. Seeing both backs leave the line and O’Mahony settle in the space at the tail will have been enough to have them commit to stacking at the back of the lineout.

But, like the other examples, they’re all focused on O’Mahony when Munster have other plans.

Look at the space that Munster have to maul into when the ball leaves Scannell’s hands – Toulon have overloaded on O’Mahony’s position and that gives Munster the space they’ll need to run their scheme.

Remember that move from the Leinster game? Holland rolls the ball to Stander on the drop so that Kleyn and Scannell can pile him into the Toulon cover. Every second counts in movements like this, so it’s no surprise to see O’Mahony buying more time by feinting a maul set up.

That stalls Lakafia, Van Der Merwe and Isa long enough to give Kleyn, Stander and Scannell time to break the line and force Toulon to come around the front to stop them.

Munster made a good 5m off this scheme, but Toulon made a good stop on the initial shove and the resulting Munster maul eventually got the ball 2m out and we’d be just about held up over the line a phase later.

Munster’s smart use of the lineout will be enough to give them the confidence to tangle with any of the remaining teams in the competition. It’s a credit to the work of the players and coaches that we have this kind of ability on either side of the throw.

It’s a well oiled, well-drilled machine.