The Red Eye

Guinness PRO14 2020/21 Round 6 :: Munster vs Ospreys

Missing last week was far from ideal. Johann Van Graan was asked this week if the unexpected weekend off was a good thing for the squad as they face into what was supposed to be an unbroken 16-week block of games but he didn’t seem overly enthused.

A weekend off in a collision sport is always welcome but I think Munster would have much preferred to be out on the field, building on the momentum of the last few weeks if they had the choice but, as Van Graan keeps saying, you have to be able to adapt to ever-changing circumstances in this game and that’s what Munster had to do last weekend. They trained on the Friday right up until the afternoon, took the week off, watched the Ospreys lose to Leinster and then prepared to face the same Ospreys this Sunday.

The last two rounds of the PRO14 might give you a false impression of the Ospreys. They might have sucked up two losses on the bounce since their win over Glasgow at the start of the test window started but they’ve been pretty decent so far this season. Their win over Edinburgh on the opening weekend was impressive (and will probably look more impressive by season’s end) but you get the feeling that they are experiencing the same kind of test window dip that all of the non-Irish sides have experienced so far this season.

The test window has always been the most distorted part of the PRO14. The games have the feeling of being less important because they often take place around the “main event” of the test games but they are worth the exact same amount of points as a fully stacked InterPro game or late-season conference decider. So while Munster vs Leinster in Thomond Park at Christmas is more important than this weekend’s game from a status perspective, it’s worth the exact same amount of match points and, if the last few seasons are anything to go by, I would argue that it’s even more important because of the advantage that running up an early-season conference lead has given teams like Glasgow and Leinster over the last few years.

If you run up a big points tally during the test window while other test depleted teams are taking points off each other in your conference, you can go into December/January with a buffer that should – should –  see you roll out to a conference win by April with the capacity to eat a loss or two along the way without hurting too much.

That’s the aim for Munster and this Sunday’s game is of real importance for that very reason.

Ospreys: 15. Matt Protheroe; 14. Luke Morgan, 13. Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler, 12. Keiran Williams, 11. Hanno Dirksen; 10. Stephen Myler, 9. Shaun Venter; 1. Gareth Thomas, 2. Ifan Philips, 3. Tom Botha, 4. Adam Beard, 5. Bradley Davies, 6. Will Griffiths, 7. Dan Lydiate (c), 8. Gareth Evans

Replacements: 16. Dewi Lake, 17. Rhodri Jones, 18. Ma’afu Fia, 19. Rhys Davies, 20. Olly Cracknell, 21. Matthew Aubrey, 22. Josh Thomas, 23. Scott Williams

Toby Booth has had a calming effect on the Ospreys since he took over.

Sure, they’ve been far from perfect but Booth seems to have settled into a smart, coherent style of play that tries to highlight their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses as much as is possible. That sounds like a blindingly obvious thing to do but you’d be surprised at how many coaches come into a struggling team and decide that the only way to turn them around is by implementing a style of play that they are fundamentally unsuited to playing, just because it’s different to what they were doing before he arrived.

If I were to boil down the Ospreys work over the last few weeks to one key instruction, it would be “we play in the right areas of the field”. What does this mean? It means that the Ospreys aren’t about hanging onto the ball for long periods outside the opposition’s 10m line as they might have been associated with last season and, instead, they are kicking more and longer than anyone else in the tournament. The Ospreys have kicked longer than everyone in the PRO14 to date with 4329 metres off the boot. To put it into perspective, they’ve kicked almost a KILOMETRE more than the Cardiff Blues, who are second on the list with 3492 metres.

When you hear that a team “kick a lot” over the last few years, that’s come to mean that they box kick to generate contestable aerial duels, but that doesn’t fit with the Ospreys. It’s not that they aren’t box kicking contestably – although that is a tactic they’ll use from time to time – it’s that they are mostly kicking long off both #9 and #10 when they find themselves in a disadvantageous field position and then looking to back their transition defence.

Here’s an example of what I mean;

This is a kicking strategy that is growing in popularity with the advent of tighter defensive breakdown rules. You can see the benefit on this clip when the Ospreys get a good midfield chase that stops Kelleher in a well defendable position with Leinster struggling to get ruck support in place. The basic theory behind this tactic is that your midfield defenders will beat the bulk of the opposition forward ruck support to the first contact point after the kick and, in that scenario, there is an opportunity to win a penalty or heavily slow down the opposition to the point that you win a kickback that you can then look to attack off.

Problems arise when you don’t get a defensive stop on the kick transition;

So there’s an opportunity for Munster to use this kicking tendency from the Ospreys to bring our improved work on kick transition into play, right up the middle on long kicks after one/two passes or going coast to coast on kicks that get sent a little too long off the Ospreys lineout.

Speaking of the lineout, it’s another area of real weakness for the Ospreys. They seem to be trying to make an adjustment to their pack to fix these issues but it’s not just one fixed – their set-piece seems to be plagued by a few issues.

The biggest issue is one that has been affecting the Ospreys for a few season’s now – they are slow across the ground and, in my opinion, they have real trouble getting their primary jumpers into the air quickly and efficiently.

That’s why you see so many overthrows. Davies and Beard, in particular, have great size but if they can’t be lifted effectively the entire lineout falls apart and this has been an issue that’s been present all season. They’ve tried to effectively select three locks to present more options but it’s not been effective yet. If Munster can get any kind of effective speed and length into the air on most of their throws, we can get at the Ospreys’ lineout all day long.

Combine aerial pressure on a slow Ospreys lift with a transition attack and, well, look for yourself.

On the other side of the coin, the Ospreys have an excellent scrum so that’ll be an area of concern for Munster but we should have enough ways into the game to overload Booth’s side and get the win we’re looking for here.

This is the most “experienced” Munster side we’ve started in the PRO14 this season so they’ll be under an inverse pressure to match what the young guys have done during the season to date.