The Wally Ratings

URC Round #3 - Munster 21 Zebre 5

When I do radio coverage on Munster games in Cork, it wipes me out. That bloody 90 minutes on the road down and then back up again completely saps the natural boost of Cork Energy I get when I pass through Charleville so, when I finally got a chance to watch this game back on Sunday, it felt a little bit like a new game. Watching it live, I was disappointed and frustrated (and a little frazzled). Watching it on TV – well, a laptop screen thanks to – my primary feeling could be summed up by this Simpsons’ screengrab.

A Simpsons reference? What a concept. It’s also not fully accurate because I can blame my grandfather’s bald genetics (plus an incredibly stressful and yuck yuck yuck traumatising spell in my late 20s/early 30s) for my own eggish skull but it gets across the “tearing what little hair I have left out” vibe quite well.

What must the coaches be feeling? Once again, I think anyone watching this Munster squad – the players established since 2014/15 primarily – isn’t fooled by any talk around the coaches being under pressure after this start to the season.

The coaches aren’t knocking on simple catches, throwing brick passes to knees and nobody, or hitting rucks and collision points with anxiety radiating off them. You might say “well, they’re picking ’em” and I’d say right back that “there’s no one else close to ready right now”. This comes back to the players. One coach in, you can talk about coaches. Two coaches in, you can talk about coaches. Five coaches in, you’ve got to ask these senior players some serious, uncomfortable questions.

Johann Van Graan and Stephen Larkham took a lot of flak last season – some of it fair, most of it not, and almost all of it aimed at Johann – but they managed to create a system that suited this group of senior players. Last season, Jack O’Donoghue was Munster’s Player of the Season playing in a system that, for all its middle-of-the-road, not-one-thing-or-the-other faults, allowed these senior players a level of comfort they seem to no longer feel.

What other reason could you have to explain why players who were mostly decent to good last season now look like they’re liable to turn the ball over every other phase? When’s the last time you remember Munster giving up so many clean offensive breakdown penalties?

The offensive breakdown penalties are new, sure, but we’ve been handing out clean turnovers for months now. Go back to the URC quarter-final from last season and you’ll see Munster coughing up 20 turnovers. It was 13 the week before against Leinster. Last week against the Dragons the turnover count was 16. This week it was 13. On a dry evening perfect for rugby, those mistakes will be costly, especially when you are playing with another size and weight differential in the starting packs.

Injuries are playing their part there too, of course, as is the Emerging Ireland tour, but this has been true of Munster for a while. We’ve consistently struggled to get size and power on the field through either injury, both to senior players and younger players at the academy level or just out of the academy, NIQ dispensation and horse trading or younger prospects just not working out as hoped. I think we’ve also been guilty of “making do” with players who’ll never make it at test level because of their lack of size and power in certain positions – think 6’3″/110KG Billy Holland in the second row getting 247 Munster caps – because they are the ones who have been available when others have been plagued with knocks and niggles.

We’re doing the same with 6’4″/112KG Fineen Wycherley I feel. He seems to me to be a guy perfectly suited for any type of half-lock role you want in the back row – he’s got test potential in that role, for me – but in the modern second-row battle, he’ll almost always be the shortest, lightest player in the position across both teams. How does that “light” second row affect the balance of our play?

Ireland’s system at the national level uses locks as primary ball carriers with flankers and props used to mainly support the rucks. Ireland uses Beirne, Ryan and Henderson + Dan Sheehan/Ronan Kelleher ball carrying from a purely “volume” basis.

How doesn’t Munster’s pack break down in this regard?

In the first game of the season against Cardiff Munster’s forward ball-carrying load was mostly by the back row (21 carries across the 80 minutes), with the locks and front row tied on 15 each. Our front row had the most ruck entries in this game with the back row second and locks third.

Against the Dragons (when Munster were without Kleyn for most of the game and Kendellen & Hodnett) our usage of the front row as primary ball carriers went through the roof with 26 carries across the 80 minutes compared to 14 by the second row and 14 by the back row. Oddly enough, the front row had the highest number of ruck entries here by some distance despite also being the primary ball carriers. The back row came second on the list this week followed by the locks in third, although this was distorted by Kleyn going off the field early.

In this game against Zebre, Munster’s starting and finishing front row carried 27 times across the game, our back row carried 19 times and our locks just 10 total.

I haven’t done the ruck score work – that’s on the €10 tier tomorrow – yet but I think it’ll look similar to the Dragons as opposed to Cardiff.

If we rely on our front row to carry and clean, I think we look objectively worse because I don’t think we have a natural set of carriers there – having just one isn’t enough. Last week and this week we struggled to create dominant collision points within our attacking system, making us incrementally easier to defend.

Have we increased the load on our front row in the absence of Kleyn? Will Kleyn’s return with, potentially, Gavin Coombes change up our carrying structure? In this system, does Fineen Wycherley’s profile actively work against the system when he starts in the second row? I think as a heavy half-lock he can get back into test consideration but these last three games he’s looked undersized in the role.

For this Munster side, I think a ball-carrying balance that tilts more towards both locks and one power forward is optimal, with others then filling in the gaps, especially at the edge of the attacking line. I’d love to add a power hooker to that roster too but as we’ve seen, support forwards are just as important.

Essentially, if we’re going to be playing a system that looks to stress sides between the 15-metre lines we have to retain the ball better and we do that by winning gainline in key zones.

This comes down to roles and roles are, at a basic level, your job on the field. In any successful team, you will find players with highly specialised on-field jobs that blend in with the other jobs around them. In this system, the Inside Barrel Cleaner – imagine the ruck is a target you can shoot with a shotgun and give “both barrels” – is hugely important because it allows us to play “out” because they are coming on the inside shoulder of the middle ball carrier closest to the ruck where the ball just came from.

The Inside Barrel has to stay active for a potential pass and, if they get it, the next active player in the pod becomes the most important player at the ruck where they have to attack the ball with the kind of “exploder-lock” that makes discourages any kind of counter. Explode into the contact either as a latch or a cleaner, lock out the ruck, create a tunnel for the clean presentation of the ball, and lock down any counter-ruck.

That creates a quick ball ruck, resets the offside line – this system working well kills lazy offside teams – and lets our high-tempo scrumhalf get the ball away for the next phase. Track, stay active, explode, lock, lockdown.

Let’s have a look at these and assess;

Where we need explosivity, we instead have hesitancy. Where we need rucks locked down, we instead have guys fretting over technique, exuding passivity and losing rucks/collisions.

No system can run effectively with breakdown work this inconsistent, never mind a system that wants to be ball dominant and played at a high tempo. Everything in this system, from the breakdown to the lines you’re running in a pod should be about taking out the opposition – blocking them, getting them to the floor, moving them off straight lines of defence. They want to use straight lines to cut off our attack, we want them getting off the floor, bumping into our blockers running natural lines and cribbing to the ref about the legal lanes we’ve opened up for our runners.

Look at what happens when we dominate the opposition at the breakdown to create good spacing.

Sure, Carbery knocks on at the end but Edogbo’s colossal physicality at the breakdown creates the gaps that attack was fueled on. It didn’t just happen by accident. This is another good example of it working and then breaking down at the last second. There is good physicality, good Inside Barrel work for the most part and lo and behold, the space appears.

If Pa Campbell decides to carry that instead of passing, this is a try all ends up. It still should have been – O’Mahony was far too casual – but it gives you an idea of what solid Inside Barrel work plus an explosive runner who can get you good gainline on the edges can do for this attacking framework.

With three interpros on the horizon, we’re getting close to the time where we have to see results from this group. Sure, they’ll be bolstered by the returning EI internationals, some of whom I think are close to being actual legit Category A starters at this point but there’s no doubting we need the likes of Coombes, Kleyn and Snyman on the field sooner rather than later to make what we’re doing work as we want it to.

The Sportsground will be a huge test of this group’s character, though, because all of Cardiff, Dragons and now Zebre have felt they can shithouse us off the ball and at the breakdown with the idea that we’re just too nice to respond in kind. Connacht are past masters at this whenever red jerseys show up.

If we’re not at the races mentally, physically and emotionally we’ll get stung with a loss that will make last season’s Sportsground defeat look like a lovely weekend glamping in comparison.

The pressure is ramping up and the clock is ticking.

Notable Players

This was generally quite a poor performance from most of the squad.

Craig Casey and Ben Healy did relatively well here. Casey’s pass quality was quite good but didn’t really have much of a platform to bring his breaking game into effect during his 50 minutes on the field. We looked more consistent while he was on the field.

Ben Healy started the game relatively well but struggled to get variety into his game as it progressed. Sometimes the windows weren’t there, sure, but he reverted to stomping and slinging a little too quickly for my liking. He still has an awful lot to work on.

Joey Carbery and Conor Murray started brightly when they came off the bench for the last half hour but they slowly drifted back to last season’s baseline. That is to say, slow service ruck to ruck and weirdly high-risk box kicking right at the death when we couldn’t lose the game and only win it from Murray along with inconsistent passing, hesitant line running and the same stomp and sling issue that Healy has from Joey Carbery.

I thought Jack O’Sullivan had a really poor game by the standards I’d set for him in my head, which I know is meaningless enough but some really passive breakdown work and inconsistent passing dropped him down to a one-star performance as part of a back five that just doesn’t work against any side we give up a size differential to. Yes, that now includes Zebre. It’s not necessarily Jack O’Sullivan’s fault all on his own, because he was surrounded by three other players with a very similar role profile to him while all playing different roles to differing levels of ability.

Fineen Wycherley looked a little undersized and underpowered when he was rolling through the middle two pods in this system. The same could be said of Jack O’Donoghue who seems far better suited to an edge role rather than the quasi-half lock role he seemed to be playing here. Peter O’Mahony was absolutely dominant on the Zebre lineout throw but I felt he drifted in and out of the game offensively and the key error at the end cost Munster a bonus point.

Edwin Edogbo looks like a future star. Actually, no, that’s wrong. He looks like a now star. I’ve spoken a fair bit about this new way of playing hurting some players and making others – Edogbo is in the latter camp. He’s big, he’s strong, but he’s got an innate instinct for this game that you just can’t coach. This breakdown steal is big boy stuff when you’ve got two opposition forwards on you.

But he just “gets” it. He knows what to do and how to do it. Elements of his game are raw, sure, like some of his maul entries on the run and some of his carrying but how could they not be? He’s 19. So yeah, he’s raw but he’s also an elite prospect in my opinion. He’s got heft and the athleticism combined with rugby smarts that are growing in leaps and bounds with every minute on the field. Look at his offensive breakdown work where he just moves guys, verging on effortlessly, and puts them where he wants them. Mark my words, he’ll win a game for Munster practically on his own very, very soon. ★★★★

Ruadhan Quinn is 18 human years of age and already doing objectively cool stuff like this in a professional rugby game. It could and should have won the bonus point for us.

It’s ridiculous to pour too much hype into an 18-year-old young lad who only got his leaving cert results two weeks ago but it’s notable that the best, most effective forward ball carrying we saw in this game in a red jersey happened a few short minutes after he ran onto the field.

More of this, please. ★★★★

Dave Kilcoyne★★
Niall Scannell★★
Keynan Knox★★★
Tadhg Beirne★★★
Fineen Wycherley
Jack O'Donoghue★★
Peter O'Mahony★★
Jack O'Sullivan
Craig Casey★★★
Ben Healy★★
Pat Campbell★★★
Dan Goggin★★★
Malakai Fekitoa★★★
Conor Phillips★★★
Mike Haley★★★
Scott Buckley★★
Jeremy Loughman★★
Stephen Archer★★
Edwin Edogbo★★★★
Ruadhan Quinn★★★★
Conor Murray★★
Joey Carbery ★★
Rory Scannell★★