Munster head into the now annual back to back series against Leicester with a tonne of injuries, a new head coach (again) and with a real feeling of a season that’s yet to fire fully.
Facing a side we’ve played as often as a PRO14 rival over the last three seasons makes this a trickier back to back than most. Normally, the opposition gets a good read on you from week to week but Leicester have had three “grinds” of how Munster operate over the last three years – that gives you a wealth of direct video analysis to work with. What combos work well for you against ours, what our scrummaging looks like against theirs – and so on.
The last time this fixture was played in Thomond Park, Munster won 38-0. That may lead some fans to take this game for granted but if you look at the last four games between the two sides, Leicester are 3-1 up. They will have no fear of Thomond Park this weekend and will really fancy their chances of taking a 4-1 lead in this impromptu perpetual trophy we’ve been tangling over since 2015/2016 and, in doing so, become the only European side to win three times at Thomond Park.
Let’s not forget the revenge angle, either. Last time they rocked up here, they got battered 38-0 and you can bet that they’ve been pumping all this week in team meetings. That seems like abnormal speculation but when you see a coach talking like this in the build-up, you get an idea of their mindset. Even their social media walk back couldn’t mask it. The Tigers will be out for revenge, to quieten the crowd and banish the memory of getting wiped by 38 points the year prior.
Let’s have a look at how they’ll go about doing that.
But first, lets’ have a look at the lineups.
15 Telusa Veainu, 14 Adam Thompstone, 13 Matt Smith, 12 Mathew Tait, 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs
1 Kyle Traynor, 2 Tom Youngs (c), 3 Dan Cole, 4 Mike Fitzgerald, 5 Graham Kitchener, 6 Valentino Mapapalangi, 7 Luke Hamilton, 8 Sione Kalamafoni
Replacements: 16 Harry Thacker, 17 Logovi’i Mulipola, 18 Chris Baumann, 19 Dom Barrow, 20 Mike Williams, 21 Sam Harrison, 22 Joe Ford, 23 Nick Malouf
The Tigers will miss Ellis Genge in particular; he’s a good ball carrier for them, a fantastic scrummager and a real aggressive presence on the pitch. They’re also missing Bateman, Toomua, Owen and Tuilagi who would all have been in with a shout of starting this one.
Their combination at 10-12-13 is an interesting one that I’ll look at in more detail later.
The Munster side is pretty much as expected. Wootton makes his European debut at 11, Arnold makes his Munster European debut at #13, Cloete makes his at #7 and Darren O’Shea is poised to make his European debut off the bench. Sweetnam was always likely to bench given that Conway makes more sense at #14 with this selection.
Williams gets the nod ahead of Hart on the bench, most likely for his ability to bring a different kind of tempo if needs be.
George Ford is the main focal point of everything Leicester do with the ball. Naturally enough, you’d imagine, he’s a fine, fine player. A lot of Leicester’s phase play direction can be determined by following Ford’s movements. Wherever he goes, so goes the ball. This creates an element of predictability on Leicester’s phase play, as without Toomua they don’t have that second playmaker that allows them to split their playmakers and give defenders width to worry about on both sides.
Follow Ford on this GIF here;
Whatever side Ford drifts to is the side the play goes. This happens on almost every play. Sometimes Ben Youngs will go to great lengths to hide this reliance on Ford, but they invariably go to him when they want a bit of width from first receiver.
With Owen in the side, they’re slightly less predictable but as he’s injured that means that following Ford is a good way to organise your defensive alignment.
To tell you that George Ford is an excellent player would be a pretty obvious statement – he’s Eddie Jones starting #10 – and I’d rate his passing (especially off his right side) and tactical contestable kicking as being top drawer. That said, he doesn’t usually look as good for the Tigers as he does for England as of late and that’s almost entirely down to the lack of a second passing option at 12 (or 15).
England can (and do) split their receivers on all kinds of ruck position and that gives Ford time he doesn’t really get at the Tigers. He has to take an awful lot of ball to the line into pretty clustered defences to generate some momentum and, like all quality players, he’s got a go-to move.
He’s got a very specific George Ford move that he does whenever he takes the ball to the line for the Tigers – the Brace Feint.
I’ve included a few examples for you to look at – 1, 2, 3, 4.
He takes the ball to the line, steps out with his right foot, comes back inside and then fizzes a pass out to the right.
Why does he do this? Well look at the GIF; the stepping movement is quick enough to stutter the defender and worry him about an inside break, the “brace” movement he brings with his left shoulder stands the defender up and gives him the separation he needs to bang a lovely flat pass right at the gainline, usually to a runner coming in the second layer. This example of a pullback pass going to Veainu is one we should probably expect to see quite often in this game.
For me, I think you’ve got to gamble on nailing through on Ford in these circumstances. In the games I’ve seen, he’s never actually made that inside break and the defenders he freezes with this would be much better advised to follow through on any tackle they can get on Ford. If you see that right step and left shoulder brace (and you’re tight to the man on your inside shoulder) then piledrive through with no remorse.
George Ford is a small flyhalf – around 5’8″/5’9″ and no heavier than 14 stone – and guys like that only have so many hard tackles they can take before they start dipping back from the gainline. We need to fill up his contact card early, force him deeper and get the Tigers playing more off 9.
When you can get the Tigers playing ball to their forwards off Youngs, you’re halfway to beating them. With Genge missing, the Tigers are missing the combination of power and dynamism in the close exchanges that would cause Munster a lot of trouble. Our first up defence in close phases has been consistently good for the last 18 months and if we bring the same physicality that we brought to the Racing 92 game, I’d fancy us to stop up the Tigers in the pack and, with slower ball, expose them to the likes of Cloete, Stander and O’Mahony over the ball.
The Tigers, however, have added a small little wrinkle to their forward carrying game – the tip-on pass at “C”.
Sometimes they’ll have a stationary receiver at the point of a three-man pod to draw the man out of the line…
… before popping the ball onto the man in space.
They use this pattern in almost every game they play;
But this kind of forward passing is about as expansive as they go. Their forwards, in general, don’t tend to involve themselves in passing moves across the pitch.
If we can funnel the Tigers into narrow carrying patterns, stuff this three pod tip-on gimmick, attack the breakdown relentlessly and force them to kick through Ford or rely on Youngs breaks, we’ll be most of the way there.
Attacking The Tigers
Leicester are a tough tackling side that can be relied to front up on defence all over the park. That doesn’t mean they can’t be targeted though – remember, you can’t miss the tackles you aren’t in a position to make in the first place.
As you might expect, targeting George Ford and the area around George Ford is always a good option. That isn’t because Ford is a soft boy in defence – far from it – he shows up and makes his tackles but there’s only so much that his frame can take in defence.
This tackle here doesn’t count as a missed tackle but you can see that he lost the collision and drew two additional players into the tackle area to cover for him.
So, naturally, there’s a lot of scope for attacking Ford off lineout ball to the tail. Again, this is one of the drawbacks that come with having a smaller 10. He more than makes up for it in other ways but it is an exploitable aspect of Tigers setup.
In this GIF, you can see Ford is right up there leading the line but the men outside and inside have to squeeze narrow to prevent him getting run over up the middle.
If Willie Le Roux doesn’t blow his running line here, then Wade has an excellent pass option that probably leads to a linebreak down the tramlines.
This next GIF has a similar set up;
Look at the narrowing around the 10 channel in particular. May (an excellent wide defender) makes a great read to stop Le Roux but space was there to exploit.
Eventually, Wasps would time their lines correctly and punish the Tigers off set-piece ball. Look at the compaction around 10.
That narrowing is a real area for Munster to exploit – and not just on set-piece.
If Munster’s expanded gameplan is to bear fruit, it’ll be in this game. This isn’t about targeting Ford – Tigers do a good job of cycling him out of traffic but that, in itself, is exploitable.
Outside of their 22, Leicester tend to defend on phase play with a 12-Up-3-Back if they feel the opposition are a threat with the boot.
In practice, it looks like this;
Sometimes the positions will change depending on circumstances but Leicester like to cycle Ford out of the line to defend the wing from depth.
When the ball moves either side, Leicester adjust like this;
This gives them good protection against kicks over the top, prevents Ford from soaking up too many hits from opposition forwards and gives you a strong fringe defence. Problems emerge when, for whatever reason, the Tigers lose this basic defensive shape or are forced to use physically weak (relatively) defenders to cover the outside edge.
Ford and Tait – the two weakest tacklers physically in the Tigers backline – have been exposed on the outside edge and once Wasps get into space, they create a huge overlap.
Wasps exposed Tigers like this by taking them through 5+ phases of wide-wide patterns. That caused the Tigers to lose their shape as the forwards cardio flagged and that dragged Ford and Tait into a position that they would have liked to avoid. There’s a lot of space on the reverse here and if Munster can get the forwards passing as we have in parts during this season, I think we can find their edges again and again once we manage to drag them through some heavy phases beforehand.
One wrinkle that I’d add to this is the Tigers’ selection at 12 and 13 – Matthew Tait and Matt Smith – tends to upset the Tigers defensive patterns quite a bit. Tait and Smith last played with Ford at 12 and 13 away to Newcastle Falcons in the Aviva Premiership in October.
Leicester won that game 30-13 but the defensive alignment of Ford, Tait and Smith was quite unusual.
On a relatively harmless wide ruck, Ford ended up defending the 12 channel inside Smith on big open plays.
This happened more than once. Why? Because Leicester were cycling Tait – the #12 – into the wider channels to defend there. This meant that Leicester often had one midfielder (and one with a lack of defensive pace, at that) defending outside the last forward.
Look at this;
Ford, Smith and Tait all on the 15m line on the wrong side of a ruck after getting slowly pushed out into the wide channels by two fairly innocuous set up carries. This is a massive problem for the Tigers. If the 10-12-13 are on this side of the pitch then on the other side of the pitch there must be…
.. and with Tait jogging in the second layer to make it to the touchline.
The phase plays out like you’d expect.
And then on the reverse;
Look at Smith in midfield – indecisive. He’s not a guy who plays a lot of first-class rugby these days so I’d wonder if Munster can use Leicester’s tactic to split Tait and Ford into the edge position or the backfield to open up space through the middle like Newcastle found here.
I think the forward handling that Glasgow used to kill the Tigers last season is still a massive weakness and, if we can get that right, could well find space all over the pitch with the right platform and pace on the ball.
Leicester are a very decent side. They have a good pack – depleted by the loss of Genge and Bateman – a good scrum and a functional lineout. They are a little over-reliant on Kalamafoni at the front and Kitchener to the tail, as well as prone to Youngs up and down throwing form, but I wouldn’t expect to force an implosion on them here. I would keep an eye on their loosehead Traynor in the lineout. Unlike Genge, Traynor is a little over eager when he’s being used as a front lifter and tends to go early to compensate for his lack of power compared to Genge. That could be useful for timing their ball to the front.
I wouldn’t kick a lot of contestable ball to Tigers early on. If you can isolate Ford in the backfield, sure;
But I wouldn’t be kicking too much loose ball to the likes of May and Veainu if at all possible. May is quite good under the high ball and Veainu is competent at the very least.
I’d look to keep the ball in hand and work some tight-tight-wide phases early on to see how their 12-Up-3-Back system holds out and if there’s a particular side of the pitch that exposes Smith in space. Murray’s excellent mid-long pass could do serious damage here if we can target that 12-13 channel on phase ball.
It’ll be closer than last season but if the pack bring the hammer, we should win handily enough.