This was a very good win. I’d struggle to call it a very good performance if we look at large tracts of our phase play and set-piece work purely in isolation, but there isn’t a whole lot to criticise about two wins in two weeks against what you’d imagine would be our chief in-conference rivals this season. This particular win over an Edinburgh side going as strong as they can go – injury permitting – will be particularly satisfying because it was achieved with a heavily rotated Munster selection packed with young talent all the way through the matchday squad.
To grind out a win against such a strong Edinburgh side that we weren’t really equipped to go phase for phase with from a selection POV is a testament to this squad, especially after a week so heavily disrupted by the uncertainty that only the new reality of positive COVID19 tests can bring.
We’ll never know who exactly would have played in this one relative to who actually did play, but whatever the combinations it was an incredibly difficult challenge to essentially only train fully once ahead of this big in-conference showdown against a smarting, strong Edinburgh selection packed with internationals.
The game started relatively well from a Munster perspective. Two well-struck Healy penalties stretched us out to an early 6-0 lead before a few average defensive moments pulled Edinburgh into the game.
This was a tough one for Alex McHenry after an Edinburgh maul drove them to just inside the try-line. McHenry looked to blitz out on his opposite number but got caught coming in-to-out. It was a little moment of inexperience in a tricky defensive position.
For me, he has to keep pushing out onto Bennett and not stutter down on his stride here;
It’s a natural enough thing for a young player – “I don’t want to get caught inside!” – but if Bennett can somehow jink back inside, McHenry has to back Scannell to get across and make the tackle. The play here is to keep pumping out and look to make a dominant collision with Bennett but that little second of doubt gives Bennett space to break.
Later in the half, Edinburgh found the impressive Duhan Van Der Merwe just outside the 22 for a massive gain while Munster were down to 14 men while O’Donnell was down after a knock to the head.
Van Der Merwe is a dangerous power winger but some of the tackling in this sequence leaves a fair bit to be desired and the position he earned would lead to a second Edinburgh try two phases later.
The natural position for O’Donnell here would be outside Loughman on the initial push out to McInally but the forward work on both of these collisions needs to be a lot better. WP Nel scoring this one from the 5m line just can’t happen.
Offensively, I felt we struggled to stretch our attacking lines despite some nice looks at our 3-2-X structure. I wrote before the game that I felt Munster would have the best chance of success by attacking Edinburgh with this shape and we saw some evidence of that strategy.
After a series of 11 tight phases dragged Watson across the field, we aligned up with a 3-2-2 shape with O’Donoghue holding width on the touchline directly in line with Healy.
What’s the benefit of this? It makes O’Donoghue legal if Healy wants to take the option of kicking diagonally over the Edinburgh defensive press but it also gives us a nice connection for a 3-2-2.
Once the ball leaves the screen, we want to extend our play to target the edge. It doesn’t quite work out. Healy takes his eye off the ball as it comes past the screen, juggles possession as the central two pod sets the screen and the moment evaporates.
Ideally, we’d want Healy to release Haley around the back of the central two-pod and allow Haley and Stander to “join up” with O’Donoghue to isolate this edge defender.
You can see the kick variant of the play here to give you an idea of how the first or second receiver could use the boot option with an “in-line” wide forward chaser. I thought we worked hard to create those positions through the forwards – some nice interplay at times – but didn’t take as much advantage as I’d have liked.
There was incidents like this where a player took a little too much out of the ball.
You can’t blame McHenry for wanting to make an impact on this play but I think the smart play would be to find Matt Gallagher, who ran a long loop route to create an overload on the short side with Hodnett and Conway.
McHenry’s attempted offload on the floor was the play of a guy who wanted to get the ball to where he knew there were numbers but that’ll be another learning experience.
Some aspects of our work with this structure left me wanting a bit more. This is a nice kicking action from Scannell here and O’Dononghue makes a nice chase.
Could we have a call from the screened runner – Rory Scannell – to get this ball back and have a cut at isolating Van Der Merwe when O’Donoghue has kept his width so well?
The kick worked out OK but I’d like to see us go after these moments a little more. Coaches put these structures in place to give the players tools to work with on-field but it’s not a video game. I read a misguided piece by a rugby man I admire last week who spoke about Munster kicking “to order” as if Johann Van Graan were directing the play with an Xbox controller in the stands while Stephen Larkham tries desperately tries to press the “mad offloads and Barbarian rugby” button over his shoulder.
That isn’t how it works. Teams will prepare things in advance for a match week with several context-specific plays or directives that reflect things like the weather, selection issues, and the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. That information will all be adapted around your usual principles of play but once the players go onto the field, there’s only so much that can be done phase for phase. That’s why a full week of training is so important but you still need your playmakers to use the structures available to make things happen and I felt rewatching this game that we left a few of those opportunities behind.
Some of those opportunities, in fairness, were interrupted by Edinburgh indiscipline and Healy punished them relentlessly with kicks from all angles and ranges. His one miss in the 69th minute felt like it could be important but such is Healy’s poise off the tee, you just knew if he got an opportunity to win the game he’d take it.
It would come after Munster conceded a sloppy technical penalty to stretch the deficit out to five points.
First, the restart, which we kicked long to invite a transition in return.
When Healy restarted, Stander, Haley, Gallagher and Healy himself dropped into the backfield.
We used Stander in this way all during the game as a transition attacker. We’d kick long to Edinburgh off the restart, give them enough space to exit and then use Stander in the backfield to compress and exploit their transition defence on the return.
With 75 minutes on the clock and five points down on the scoreboard, we needed to ensure we got what we wanted on this return. We did.
Edinburgh kicked back to Haley who found Stander running into space against Watson.
It isn’t enough for Watson to make this tackle and win the collision from a metres conceded perspective; he has to prevent Stander from pulling him into an illegal position where he’ll concede a penalty.
Roman Salanoa and James Cronin did the business and made sure Watson went nowhere but back onto his try line awaiting a kick down the line from Healy, which was delivered exactly where it needed to be.
From that position, Munster broke from a maul and started to punish the Edinburgh close-in defence. An excellent narrow carry from Hodnett got us over the 5m line, Stander kept gain line before Salanoa powered us to a metre out.
A few more carries from Coombes, Cronin, O’Donoghue, O’Byrne and Salanoa dragged us closer still before CJ Stander battered his way over the line to tie the game.
From there, it fell to Ben Healy to win the game and, as has become his signature move, he did just that. Munster survived the restart, won a scrum and saw out a win that looked a fair bit off with five minutes to go. Scarlets’ loss in Scotstoun made this an excellent opening two rounds for Munster and our next game will be against a test window affected Cardiff Blues, who happen to be ahead of us in the early going by virtue of a bonus point.
All of a sudden, the path to a strong conference lead against our chief in-conference rivals looks to be taking shape with key young players putting their hands up in multiple positions.
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. DNP means the player did not feature and N/A means they weren’t on the pitch long enough to warrant a fair rating.
I felt that Rory Scannell, Alex McHenry, and Mike Haley had below-average games in the backline. With McHenry can excuse the missed tackle and the two handling errors because he’s making his debut in an extremely challenging position against full-strength, international opposition. Even with his two errors, I felt he carried the ball well when he was brought onto the ball correctly and I really do believe that he’ll come good with time and while he had a difficult enough game here there was enough to hint at much more to come.
Mike Haley had one or two errors under the high ball and kicked away a decent opportunity in the second half when I felt that backing his hands would have been the smarter play. Andrew Conway didn’t have a great game going forward but made a try-saving tackle in the second half that saved the game from a Munster perspective.
Rory Scannell had a disappointing game in my opinion. I don’t want to be writing this about him but he was the senior head in that 10/12/13 axis and, for me, didn’t produce what I’d look for in a player with his skillset. He kicked the ball well on two occasions but I thought this game was crying out for him to impose his passing game on Edinburgh.
He doesn’t want this ball directly from Casey, even though we have McHenry, Gallagher and O’Donoghue holding width and Loughman, Marshall and Wycherley patrolling if we need breakdown support.
Let’s make a play here. Let’s stress them. Scannell has good range off both sides so why not use our width here? I felt that Scannell went to the carry too often and it rarely lead to anything, except for one poor turnover that would have lead to a massive Edinburgh break if not for a sloppy pass from one of their forwards.
There’s a really tidy second-five waiting inside Rory Scannell if he’d just let his hands go and stop crashing into collisions he doesn’t win often enough to make worthwhile.
I felt Gavin Coombes had a quieter game than his cameo last week – one silly penalty blotted his copybook – but his physicality in defence and attack was a real plus. Fineen Wycherley had a very prominent game in the set-piece but he’ll be pissed off at a few blown lineouts and one poor tackle on Van Der Merwe.
John Hodnett replaced Tommy O’Donnell after half an hour and I thought he had a cracker of a game. He didn’t get the space to run with the ball in hand but he made some tough carries off #9 into the teeth of the Edinburgh defence and made a huge impact at the offensive breakdown and in defence. This shot on WP Nel is the perfect example of a dominant chop tackle.
He looked sharp around the field and bristling with the kind of malice you’d want from a flanker. Good stuff.
I thought CJ Stander had a really tidy game as captain. Tough as nails, consistently industrious and he came up with the goods right at the end when it was needed most against high-quality back-row opposition. Has there been a better player for Munster in the last decade when we consider consistency of performance and output? I don’t think so. CJ Stander is the rugby player’s rugby player and is as important to Munster and Ireland as he’s ever been.
Ben Healy just keeps producing. He kicked six penalties to repeatedly punish Edinburgh’s infringements and his kicking from hand put us in position to win the game before winning it himself off the tee. Healy was our primary exit and showed reliability off both feet when called upon. He put his body on the line in defence, took the ball to the gainline when there wasn’t anything else on and ran through his progressions pretty well. He’s still a little rough around the edges when it comes to stitching phases together and some of his contestable kicking needs a tweak but not every young player has Healy’s ability to dominate a game with his boot and at his size, he looks like he’s got a lot of room to grow tactically and athletically. A big two rounds for Kylo Ben.
When Craig Casey stamps his personality on games, they twist around him and make it feel like you’re watching the Craig Casey Show.
Anyone who saw Casey play at u20 level will know that feeling that you’re watching a human highlight reel in motion and he’s bringing that to senior level with every minute he plays. He made breaks, he hit difficult passes, he harried, he scrapped, he looked like he could make things happen in a game that was played out in a narrow 20m box at times and he’s not even close to where he’ll be even a year from now with a bit of luck.
He’s not just a sizzle reel either – the nuts and bolts of his game, his fundamentals, are right where they need to be too. Box kicking would look to be his only work on but when you’ve got a guy with Ben Healy’s boot alongside you, he doesn’t need to kick 6/7+ times unless he wants to. When he saw an opportunity to kick offensively here, he had the confidence and technique to do so.
At 21 years of age, Casey looks to have “it” – that intangible thing the separates out great players from good players and even managed to sound like a future captain in his post-match interview, deflecting praise from himself onto his half-back partner.
This was good, really good, and the scary thing is that he isn’t even a tenth of what he’ll eventually be with a bit of luck with injury. Craig Casey is the real deal, folks. ★★★★★