Early season results don’t matter, depending on who you ask. Unless you’re losing.
So when you assess a relatively straightforward 38-0 opening round win against the Cheetahs, you have to compare it with the alternative – a tightly fought scrap or, god forbid, a manky home loss. Then the narrative isn’t one of facile victories, it’s of malfunctioning systems, trouble in camp and A Big Week In Training To Put It Right Ahead Of Next Week. I’ll take a facile victory any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Or Saturdays. Or Fridays.
So we won’t be throwing confetti at a handy win like this one, played as it was on a sunny, squinty Autumn afternoon in Thomond Park. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a furtive wink at the initial serving of Munster rugby after what has widely been considered to be an excellent first preseason under Van Graan.
So let’s do just that.
Transition and Width
After defending the initial wide-wide thrusts of the Cheetahs, Munster immediately settled into the pattern that they would stick to for the rest of the 80 minutes. Pre-game, I posited that Munster might get a bit of joy from attacking the Cheetahs at the point of their blitzing defender, especially from first receiver, because of the loose way the South African side had been defending their last two Currie Cup games, and that’s certainly what we did in the early going.
It was here that the work of JJ Hanrahan and Darren Sweetnam really stood out initially because of the way they consistently went after that crack in the Cheetahs defensive system. It didn’t always work out but it consistently stressed the South African line and generated good opportunities for Munster on phase possession.
That narrow focus at the point of the Cheetahs blitz dovetailed well with Munster’s ability to spread the ball into the wider areas of the pitch.
We managed this through a good use of heavy screens and some nice handling from our forwards. Billy Holland, in particular, acted as a heavy pivot at first receiver on multiple occasions;
Holland had 12 passes – more than any Cheetahs outside back – and he played a large role when we got the ball into the wide areas of the pitch. He wasn’t along though – Kleyn, Archer, Kilcoyne, Sherry, Marshall and John Ryan showed off their own range of passing;
When we got these passes right, we generated the isolations that we wanted on the outside edge for the likes of Sweetnam, Haley and Hanrahan.
This kind of scenario – a creative back with a hard carrier and strike running flanker running onto a turning edge defender and a tracking fullback – is exactly what we’d have been drilling in preseason.
This opportunity came directly from a perfectly executed pass back from the gain line from Stephen Archer to Joey Carbery that allowed us to slide outside the Cheetahs defensive line and attack the edge.
Ryan’s pass earlier in the game allowed Hanrahan to slide around and use O’Donnell to generate an isolation on the edge with superior numbers;
This opportunity could, and should, have been a try all on its own but for a few better decisions on the ball after the break, even if Kilcoyne would score a few phases after.
If this is anything to go by, I’d expect to see Munster using forwards passing close to the gain line to widen our attacking line and get the ball to the edge of the opposition’s defensive line when we’re constructing phase possession.
On transition, we showed the same kind of attacking endeavour we’d been showing since the turn of the year and our first try was a classic example of the genre.
We worked the ball to Sweetnam off a Cheetahs kick back, chased the space, beat the isolated defenders and finished the chance with excellent hands and support lines. Sweetnam, of course, will get the plaudits here for his technical excellence – ball in two hands, footwork beating Lee, the stagger step to hold Schoeman and the “out the back” offload to Sweetnam – but the support line of Scannell and Hanrahan shouldn’t be discounted.
Hanrahan’s selfless inside support line means that the Cheetahs cover support can’t just sprint onto Sweetnam and Scannell’s line. That kind of work off the ball is the difference between the last tackler sliding off Scannell’s back and smashing him into touch. It was as good a way to open to season’s try account as you could get.
That isn’t to say that we were relying on too much artifice on the ball either, as we were more than capable of playing the ball flat to gain line and bringing our carriers into the game – especially when Carbery came onto the field.
Look at how flat Carbery takes this ball to the line before slipping it to Scannell into passive defenders – that generates momentum. When the ball comes back after O’Shea’s carry, we can see why the Cheetahs had to infringe.
Carbery running onto a dynamic ruck with isolated defenders and two pass options to work with is exactly the kind of place Van Graan would want him. When he gets that space to work, he makes things happen.
We’ll see how Carbery, and our attacking work as a whole, develops over the next few weeks but on this initial viewing, it was hugely encouraging.
The Cheetahs will ship a few results like this away from home this season, but the way they attacked with pace and width showed bravery and endeavour. They’ll be better when they don’t have two squads competing in two games in two different hemispheres in one day.
As for Munster, this was as good a start to the season as they could have wanted. The defence was good, the scrum and lineout were decent, and we looked to have a good amount of cohesion in all facets of our attacking work. They don’t hand out trophies for that, of course, but if we scale up this work as the season develops – and the likes of Beirne, O’Mahony, Stander, Cloete, Murray, Scannell, Earls, Conway, Farrell and Taute return – then who knows how we’ll go?
Either way, it’ll be interesting.
The Wally Ratings: Cheetahs (h)
The Wally Ratings explainer page is here. This is the first game where I use the new FIVE STAR SYSTEM to easier track form over the course of a season.
As per usual, players are rated based on their time on the pitch, if they were playing notably out of position, and on the overall curve of the team performance.
The best praise I can level at Neil Cronin in the aftermath of his performance here is that he didn’t look like a guy who had been playing Ulster Bank League rugby last season. That isn’t a slight on the Ulster Bank League – Cronin’s quality is an indicator of the talent playing in it – but the gap in tempo and fitness between that level and PRO14 level is huge and Cronin hopped across that gap with ease. He was energetic, passed incredibly well and made good decisions on every phase. Sure, he seemed to run out of gas towards the end of both halves, but he looked like a guy who’s more than up to this level. Superb.
Dave O’Callaghan had a really good day as a primary ball carrier and he consistently made ground against physical opposition. One of the most underrated guys in the squad but he won’t stay that way if he continues like this.
I thought Dave Kilcoyne and Jean Kleyn had very good games, to the point that you’d wonder how many Kilcoynes and Kleyns were on the pitch. As good an opening day as both men could have wanted, with all the physicality, aggression and impact you’d want from your forward heavy hitters.
Billy Holland showed why he’s a key man in the Munster squad, with a display of rucking, lineout calling and passing from first receiver that showed why he’ll rack up more monster game minutes this season. A vital cog in the machine.
Arno Botha’s competitive debut highlighted all of his skillset – massive ball carrying, hugely aggressive defence and rock solid offensive rucking.
He looks an excellent signing.
JJ Hanrahan and Joey Carbery dovetailed incredibly well together. Individually, I thought both brought a slight variation to the similar roles they’ll play at 10, with Hanrahan excelling at teasing the Cheetahs out of the line before passing beyond them and Carbery bringing the ball right to the line and bringing runners on against passive defenders. When both were on the field, they showed the kind of instinctive lines that showed a lot of potential.
Both guys look to be perfectly suited to the game we want to play this season.
Who else but Darren Sweetnam? You can tell that his form over the last three weeks hasn’t gone unnoticed because of the ripple of energy that goes around the stadium when he gets his hands on the ball. Five clean breaks, five defenders beaten, one try, two assists – does that sound like a FIVE STAR MAN to you?
It should – Sweetnam was electric. His role in this game was really unusual in that he lined up on the wing, at first receiver, in a midfield passing role and as strike option off his wing on set piece. He looks to have returned to the kind of form that saw him press for Six Nations time in 2016/2017 pre-knee injury, with the confidence to match.
His in-game intelligence, technical excellence and willingness to involve himself all through the line for 80 minutes made him an absolute nightmare to play against and a dream to watch.
Sweetnam played like a guy that wants a green shirt in November, and on this form, few could argue against it.
I’ll be covering all the details of this game, as well as reviewing our attacking performance in detail on TRK Premium during the week.