The Red Eye :: Leinster (A)

Playing Leinster in the Aviva is the very definition of “not easy”.

After all, you don’t become double PRO14 and Heineken Cup champions without having massive amounts of quality all through your squad and that is certainly the case here. Forget the guff about a “weakened” team – there are 12 internationals in Leinster’s starting XV and 7 on the bench, with 6 British & Irish Lions in their matchday squad overall. Even with that, Leinster have chosen to rest Sexton, Furlong, Fardy, Ringrose, Conan and Larmour from their matchday squad which shows the benefits of having a deep squad with a settled style of play over the last two to three years. Everyone who comes in will be able to duplicate the role of the man they’re replacing – to a certain extent – and it shouldn’t affect the overall flow. Essentially, Leinster will be able to play the same way regardless of who starts or not and, ultimately, it’s because of this depth that they are where they are in 2018.

From a Munster perspective, we’ve selected close to what would be our starting Heineken Cup team, bar injuries to Chris Farrell, Conor Murray and a few options on the bench. Why will Van Graan have done this? Our evolved style of play with a new starting #10 needs cohesion and cohesion needs time on the pitch. If we’re to travel to Exeter next week and take on Sandy Park, we’ll need everyone on the same page and running the same lines. A transition based gameplan is one that requires finesse and flow from everyone, regardless of how low the number on your back is and that can’t happen in the stands.

Leinster are strong, Munster are strong – it should be a belter. Let’s have a look at the teams.

I’ll go over these teams in detail in the Blood & Thunder Podcast coming later.

The Red Eye Report: Leinster

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

Open Play

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

The Narrative

I haven’t given much time to the whole Joey Carbery thing in the 434 words to date. For me, it’s a sideshow when it comes to a Leinster guy moving to Munster because it’s happened so often on both sides that it’s barely news to me.

Carbery moved to Munster for completely understandable reasons of international recognition. Had he not decided to make that move, Carbery may well have been nervously awaiting the teamsheet this week to see if he’d won his selection battle with Ross Byrne for the #10 shirt or if he’d slot in as a second pivot at #15 or if he’d be on the bench. Instead, he knew last week that he’d be starting as Munster’s main man in the attack in a team that is set up to play to his strengths.

I can certainly understand why Stu Lancaster would look to reject claims that Leinster didn’t play Carbery in his preferred position given the affection Carbery was (and still is) held by Leinster fans.

Lancaster said this week that;

“We picked Johnny at out-half, to start with. And also, in terms of the opportunities to get to play there, he was injured. So, let’s not rewrite history and say that we never picked him at out-half – the opportunities were clouded by the injuries.”

While the injury thing is certainly true, I think by the end of the season Leinster had made their thoughts on Byrne/Carbery pretty clear. When Joey could have started a marquee game at #10 in the PRO14 semi-final, Byrne got the nod instead. I’ve been over why I think that was – Byrne gives Leinster very similar lines to Sexton and allows them to play broadly the same way week after week around Heineken Cup time. Carbery was a perfect second pivot for Leinster in that scenario but a guy like him only wants to be first.

As you might expect, Joe Carbery will be quite important to what Munster will look to do in this game.

Leinster’s defence has been really good this season so far but the pack they’ve selected in this game has a lateral pace issue for me. They’ll be positionally quite good, as you’d expect, and unbelievably physical but selecting a back five of Ryan, Toner, Ruddock, Leavy and O’Brien leaves a little exposed to getting cut on the outside edge by moving Carbery around in his initial reception of the ball. What we want to do is take away the initial contact where Leinster will be strong and force them into a game where they’re chasing up and across.

You can see Carbery taking the ball behind a two-man forward screen here with a third forward, Marshall, closing the door as a flat decoy option. This is a staggered three-man screen which is perfect for Carbery as it gives him a carrying option in the second layer (Marshall in this instance but it’ll be CJ here) and a three-man wide pod of Sweetnam, Arnold and Cloete to use on the edge.

When Carbery pulls that ball back to Arnold (who was a little deep for my liking) it gave the outside centre an isolation on the edge to attack.

This is the kind of pattern that I think can work against this version of Leinster from #12 out. You can see it again here against Ulster with a slight variation – a three-man screen with a fourth forward (O’Donnell) closing the door.

You can see the three-man wide pod here again – O’Mahony, Conway and Wootton – with Scannell using a kicking option to try and attack the space. Don’t be surprised to see Munster use a variation of this today with Carbery swapping places with Scannell on the above play and someone like Beirne or Goggin acting as the initial pivot.

Plays like this are the way to get at Leinster.

We can’t waste too much energy trying to truck through their middle of the pitch defence – Leavy, O’Brien, Ryan, Toner, Henshaw and Ruddock are very strong in the tackle and over the ball, so we’d be setting ourselves up for a scrap that we’re not geared up to win right now. Essentially, Leinster are very strong up the middle of the pitch but have exploitable aspects in the wider areas – pace in the back three, the defensive positioning of O’Loughlin, and the tendency of Henshaw to try and do it all on both sides of the ball.

Carbery’s work directly at first receiver will be important here too. His ability to break close to the gainline will be really important in challenging Byrne and Henshaw’s defence off scrum and maul.

Even off static centre field rucks, Carbery can generate opportunities because of the way he moves close to the gain line when in possession. In instances like below, he’s managed to successfully isolate heavy forwards from backs so that the next phase can have a cut off a bad alignment.

He’ll be trying to do the same here on centre field rucks – essentially looking to increase the lateral space between the back row and Byrne/Henshaw/O’Loughlin. If we can create that space, we can attack it. The selection of Goggin and Arnold to start with Scannell on the bench gives Munster a good variation for different parts of the game. Goggin and Arnold can slot into Munster’s wide-angle game quite well with both capable of a kicking option along the floor and a hard carry into the edge. Ultimately we want to swing Leinster’s defence back and forth across the pitch to see if we can stretch any gaps between their back five and front row that we can attack directly or concertina those players into targeting McFadden, O’Loughlin and Kearney.

A play like this inside feint by Carbery off the lineout does the latter;

I’d expect to see it here with Earls and Conway attacking wide and Sweetnam, Arnold and Goggin taking the 13 channel with forward support from O’Mahony, O’Donnell and Cloete.

Blue Wave

Leinster will be slightly reduced in their phase play by the absence of Tadhg Furlong in his ball carrying but especially his work at attacking breakdowns. Furlong can turn any ruck into a quick ball ruck and his absence gives Munster a shot at duplicating Scarlets’ successes against Leinster in recent years – disrupting their possession chain.

This didn’t work last season, of course, because whenever Scarlets played Leinster in a knockout game, Furlong was a key part of nuking their breakdown defence and Tadhg Beirne in particular. Leinster have become accustomed to targeting the blue scrum cap and they did it to great effect in the last two meetings against the Scarlets.

Leinster’s greatest strength is their ability to cycle through massive forward pods across the pitch without losing steam. Even when they transition to wider pods, they have the forward support to make sure they don’t get killed at the breakdown – something that has been a constant in their bigtime losses to the Scarlets in the last 18 months.

As of late, Leinster have been tweaking their game and adding to the way they construct these phases. They’ve started to add a two-man impact pod off 10/12 on certain centrefield rucks

You can see Toner sweeping around the back in this first GIF as ruck support. You can see another example here with Henshaw passing to an impact pod of Furlong and Ruddock with O’Loughlin running behind;

You can see Furlong’s impact in a game here in microcosm. He carries the ball, attends the next ruck and then cleans out the one after that.

Leinster went a little off structure in the aftermath of the first carry, something which happens more with Byrne at #10 than it does Sexton. These impact pods give Leinster dominant gainline in most cases and stretch out the opposing defence for isolation on the next phase. It’s more effective with Sexton but Byrne can play this role just as well because it depends on the physicality of the pivoting player.

A variation of this play is Leinster’s gainline impact pod that they play off #9.

McGrath hits Conan at the edge who can attack the “C” defender’s outside shoulder before the scrumhalf tracks the break to act as a pass option. The presence of Healy in this gainline pod adds to the decision making the C defenders have to make – is it going to this massive carrier with ruck support? Or that one?  The risk of the ball carrier makes a shoot for the ball a risky one, but it adds to the unpredictability of Leinster’s ruck possession when they crank up into the phases.

Off of the lineout, Leinster are particularly dangerous. They have an excellent maul – even if Toner can be attacked when he’s a lifter at the front of a maul rather than the build point – and they have effective strike runners to use once the maul breaks. Look for this variation of Carbery’s inside feint later today to draw out Arnold or Goggin off a maul feint.

Lowe did huge damage in this position in the PRO14 semi-final and we must avoid him getting angled possession on an isolated retreating winger at all costs.

The scrum is an area I think we can target with Bent/Porter/Tracey/Cronin depending on the bench rotation in the same way that Cardiff and Glasgow did to us on both sides of the ball. Furlong is a tough guy to angle, but I think Kilcoyne/Cronin coupled with Scannell can really go after the Leinster put-in and on our own strike with a slight bore in from loosehead, a solid pinch by Archer on McGrath and Scannell going through on Tracy. Whether we’ll get the same reward that Whitehouse gave Glasgow for the same thing in Scotstoun remains to be seen, as does our effectiveness against a very decent Leinster front row. Michael Bent might not be a Furlong or Porter, but he’s a very solid pro who’s racked up a load of caps for Leinster.

The narrative around the game will be one thing but I think Munster have it in them to win this game. We’ll need to hit every transitions opportunity perfectly and run flawlessly off the lineout in particular but we have an opportunity to repeat what Scarlets did in their defeat of Leinster with a unique Munster flavour. But do not underestimate Leinster – as if you are, anyway – they have a serious team packed with internationals and ball carrying threat. Can Munster disrupt their possession chain and attack them in transition as planned? Or will Leinster overpower their way to another win in the Aviva?

Let’s see how it plays out.