The Red Eye

What do you already know about this game?

You know that it’s knock-out rugby. You know that it’s win or go home time. You know that Edinburgh are one of the form teams in the PRO14 coming into the playoffs and arguably the form team. You’ll also know that Munster are the red-hot favourites for this game based on the fact that it’s (a) being played at Thomond Park and (b) it’s knock out rugby against a side without a lot of recent experience of the unique pressures of knock out rugby in the last few years.

This is what we know but there’s much of this upcoming quarter-final that we don’t know. How will Munster start? How will Munster adapt to Nigel Owens? Will Munster “bounce-back” after the Racing defeat?

The last one – bouncing back post-loss – is something you would expect to be a given but the proof of that will be 10 minutes in. From a Munster POV, this game is as much about detoxing the effects of that first half in Bordeaux as much as anything else.

Edinburgh should be approaching this game with the freedom of a side who really don’t have all that much to lose. Who expected them to be top three of Conference B back in September? I know I didn’t – but here they are. That should free Edinburgh to play without too much pressure but Thomond Park has a strange ability to crank up the heat on a lot of teams – even those who swore that such a thing wouldn’t happen to them.

Let’s have a look at the teams;

Edinburgh

15. Blair Kinghorn; 14. Dougie Fife, 13. Mark Bennett, 12. Chris Dean, 11. Duhan van der Merwe; 10. Jaco van der Walt, 9. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
1. Jordan Lay, 2. Stuart McInally (C), 3. Simon Berghan; 4. Ben Toolis, 5. Grant Gilchrist; 6. Magnus Bradbury, 7. Jamie Ritchie, 8. Bill Mata

Replacements: 16. Neil Cochrane; 17. Allan Dell; 18. WP Nel; 19. Lewis Carmichael; 20 Cornell du Preez; 21. Nathan Fowles; 22. Duncan Weir; 23. James Johnstone

Munster

15. Simon Zebo; 14. Andrew Conway, 13. Sammy Arnold, 12. Rory Scannell, 11. Keith Earls; 10. JJ Hanrahan, 9. Conor Murray;
1. James Cronin, 2. Rhys Marshall, 3. Stephen Archer; 4. Jean Kleyn, 5. Billy Holland; 6. Peter O’Mahony (C), 7. Jack O’Donoghue, 8. CJ Stander.

Replacements: 16 Mike Sherry; 17. Dave Kilcoyne; 18. Ciaran Parker; 19. Gerbrandt Grobler; 20. Robin Copeland; 21. James Hart; 22. Ian Keatley; 23. Darren Sweetnam.


The Red Eye Report: Edinburgh

An “A” would be considered top class by Champions Cup standards, a “B” would be considered good by regular Champions Cup standard, a “C” would be considered decent by PRO14 level, a “D” would be considered below par by PRO14 standards and an “E” would be something I’d consider an exploitable weakness. 

Set Piece

Offensive Scrummaging – C
Defensive Scrummaging – C
Attacking Lineout – C
Defensive Lineout – B
Offensive Maul – C
Defensive Maul – B

Open Play

Defensive Structure – C
Phase Play Power – D
Attacking Creativity – C
Structured Attack Off Set Piece – C
Structured Defence Off Set Piece – C
Overall Fitness – C
Kicking – C
Back Three Kick Positioning – C


I already covered most of Edinburgh’s set up early in the season (read the Red Eye for it here) and not an awful lot has changed in the interim for them. They still segment themselves into two distinct attacking layers and they struggle to consistently get their primary forward ball carriers over the gain line in the middle of the pitch when faced with a one on one collision.

Their primary ball-carrying forward threat is – in my opinion – Bill Mata. He’s a powerful runner who’s got a good pass out of the tackle and Edinburgh like to get the ball to him on second phase. Even though he’s the #8, you won’t really see him carrying straight into contact off the back of the scrum on any platform they want to work with in their own half. You’ll likely see him coming off the back of the scrum to hit the second phase into our #13 channel after an initial carry from Bennett.

Outside of Mata, I don’t think Edinburgh have a forward with huge ball carrying potential outside of (maybe) Marcus Bradbury but that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of forcing narrow breaks up the middle of the pitch. Edinburgh have a few little gimmicks that they like to run around the fringe of the ruck to generate space and exploit defences that are too focused on pushing out and up.

Heavy Exchanges

A lot of what Edinburgh will look to do in this game is based on their set piece and their lineout in particular. As a scrummaging side, they’re decent and certainly a long way removed from the side that took a real pumping in Thomond Park last season. I wouldn’t expect to see much scrum dominance from them on their own ball bar getting the angle they want. Most of their best work is done from the lineout.

Their main outlets are Gilchrist and Toolis with Bradbury acting as a solid third option. Ritchie can jump in the lineout but he’s not a regular in their rotation and is only used two or three throws in when they want to throw off the read.

Gilchrist is the main man for Edinburgh on any lineout that they really want to work with though. If it’s a 5m lineout at either end and it’s Edinburgh’s throw, they tend to go to Gilchrist.

He’s a guy that’s worth tracking on pressure throws inside their own 22. Almost all of their throws are triggered by Gilchrist’s arm-raise and his importance to their lineout is such that that have a tendency to go back to Gilchrist in the aftermath of a failed throw to one of the other two jumpers.

There’s a reason for that – he’s a good strong jumper and he sets a good mauling platform. Billy Holland flagged Edinburgh’s maul as a strength of theirs in the build-up and I’d agree with him, for the most part.

Edinburgh tend to build mauls of their locks primarily and off Bradbury on occasion. Bradbury is a little vulnerable to getting sacked though, so they won’t use him for any maul they really need to move. Most of Edinburgh’s maul setups fall into two categories – “pocket” mauls and momentum mauls.

This is the pocket maul;

You’ll see Edinburgh use this setup on any jump that they can get straight up and down on. The maul forms around the jumper – this is the pocket – and the ball transfer happens as the “pocket” closes around the jumper. Here are a few more examples (large GIF).

This is a solid way to retain possession and put a good “drive” portion in place on landing but it does leave them open to the kind of counter-mauling that Munster have made a speciality of this season.

First, the “pocket” setup demands that the maul has to remain upright during its initial phases, otherwise the rest of the maulers in the pocket can’t get as tight as they need to be. Those upright bodies prove a tantalising prospect to overeager counter-maulers who see guys in weak pushing positions. I’ve been asked about this positioning a fair bit so do this at home. Get someone to stand across from you and stand upright. Walk over to them, put your hands on both shoulders and push – when they’re upright, they’ll go backwards easily. Now get them to lean into you at an angle; when you push now, it’s much harder to move them. This is the basic principle of mauling and maul defence, except it’s with multiple people.

Glasgow’s mistake here was taking the weak side that Edinburgh gave them and surging around the corner.

All that did was remove defenders from the Glasgow side and give Edinburgh momentum. The pocket maul can’t be effectively stuffed by a left or right side surge like this. They only start moving when Glasgow attack one side. Munster will have to “pinch” this maul and they can do it with four defenders.

That’ll force Edinburgh to go around the corner after the first stop where our cover guys will be waiting.

Edinburgh have to build this maul with at least six attackers – especially against Munster – and that gives us an opportunity to hit a few crucial psychological blows early on and throughout.

Their other maul set up – momentum mauls – usually happen at the back of the lineout when they’ve had to get some motion into their call.

This set up has a more segmented approach to its build. If Edinburgh are under pressure with their regular build – they prefer the pocket maul – then they’ll go to the tail with this kind of set up but it’s vulnerable to getting turned, exposed and beaten up.

Kicking

If I was Richard Cockerill, I’d be looking to target Munster’s outside backs and midfield with as much aerial bombardment as I was willing to risk. None of our backs will shirk a tackle but the height issue is an issue. Edinburgh aren’t a massive box kicking side but I’d expect to see them try a few here, as well as crossfield kicks to Van Der Merwe and Fife over Earls and Conway.

Van Der Merwe is Edinburgh’s most potent backfield weapon and I’d expect them to get him into the game through the boot. He’s a great close quarters finisher but further out, he becomes a physical challenge – can you stop him one on one? Most guys will get hands to him and cede ground but he’s at his most dangerous in situations like these;

He’s an absolute nightmare when he’s chasing down a ball with the defender on the turn and Edinburgh are really good at getting him into those kinds of situations. They will absolutely look to get him jumping against Earls or Conway (or Arnold) on crossfield kick situations, as well as targeting the wingers for “treatment” under the high ball. He might not get the ball but he’ll be looking to time Conway on the way down.

While I’m on Van Der Merwe, they’ll also try to get around a narrowed defence by springing him onto the ball in situations like this;

The key here will be making sure we “close the door” on these plays a little sooner than Ludik did on this play because Van Der Merwe will hurt you if you give him a target like this.

Getting At Them

From a Munster POV, I think we can get at their scrum early on but our front row from 60 minutes is a little untested at tighthead and prone to getting attacked at hooker. If we can avoid the pitfalls that we fell into head first in Murrayfield earlier in the season, I think we have the power to drive Edinburgh in the maul from everywhere on the pitch.

I never got great footage of Edinburgh’s work in the maul in that game (thanks BBC Alba) but I a lot of it was based on some loose building from us at the front and then, as a consequence, setting up too close to the front.

Ben Toolis and Grant Gilchrist are really good at punishing loose setups by getting hands over the top of the maul early.

Edinburgh, as a collective, aren’t the strongest counter-maulers when it comes to power but they are excellent – up there with the best in the league – at getting hands on the ball carrier. They do this in a few ways, but mostly like this;

See what happened there? The shove up one side pushes away the support for the ball carrier which allows the man who initially latched on at the front to peel through onto the ball carrier.

They (1) latch onto the jumper on landing and the (2) push around the side to make it easier for the “latcher” to complete his job on the ball carrier. Edinburgh love to swing around the side of mauls – almost to the point of coming in from the side – as a tactic to make space at the front for Toolis or Gilchrist to come through the front of the maul. When they do this, they give up ground but if their initial set up is right, that momentum helps to loosen the front of the maul and allow them to get hands on the carrier.

This was extremely effective against us in Murrayfield earlier in the season and, to get around it, we need to change how we set up.

Narrow, long mauls are harder for Edinburgh to attack in this way. Their work up the side looks more like obstruction to the ref and it leaves them vulnerable to giving away penalties. If you want to look at most sides maul defence, just look at their attacking maul. Edinburgh have a good pocket maul so it stands to reason that they’d also be quite good at defending setups that look like that because it’s one they’ll be seeing a lot in training.

This kind of long maul construction can be hugely effective against Edinburgh because it removes their ability to get onto the ball carrier and forces them into a power confrontation.

I think this is a confrontation they’ll lose if Munster can engineer it.

Edinburgh are aware of their power problem and, if they feel like they’re under pressure, you’ll see them pressure the throw in a big way. They’ll do this early on regardless – especially with Toolis at the front – but they can and will throw two guys into the air if they’re feeling the pinch power wise.

We have to recognise the mauling opportunities that this overcommitment in the air presents.

In the loose, Edinburgh are still vulnerable to getting caught on small openside rucks where they can narrow on the ball carrier, over blitz and leave massive space on Van Der Merwe.

They’ve been doing this all season and they’re especially vulnerable to a forward pullback pass, so expect Stander to try a few of these as he’ll be a marked man for Edinburgh from minute one. We’ll have to watch out for their work in clogging up the cleanout lane in a similar manner to what Racing did but whenever Owens has been reffing – like against Ulster and Glasgow – they haven’t really tried it to the same extent as they managed in Murrayfield.

If Munster can get the maul and scrum going to the level we saw in other big games at Thomond Park this season, I think we’ll win handily but if we aren’t accurate Edinburgh have the weaponry to hurt us.

Have we learned lessons from Racing in Bordeaux? We’ll see.