In this game, Munster had two opponents – Scarlets and the weather. On both counts, Munster came out with a bonus point. No easy feat considering Scarlets were quite decent here and Storm Jorge was quite a highly rated weather event if you speak to the right weather people who saw him playing in school.
My thoughts before the game were focused on decoding the Scarlets lineout in tough weather conditions but that was predicated on the idea that the wind would be consistent.
It was anything but.
It blew in different directions depending on where on the field you were and it could change direction from one minute to the next.
That’s a strong southerly gust followed by a strong northerly gust 60 seconds later with buckets of rain. So let’s agree that kicking for touch from anywhere outside your own 22 on anything other than a penalty immediately became a garbage plan.
You’d have no control over the kick once it left your boot and went above a certain height! With the wind gusting unpredictably, kicking close to the touchline became a lottery because the wind was as likely to pull your kicks out on the full or over the dead-ball line.
The wind seemed to be strongest and most changeable (Red) on the East side of the ground looking up to the Ballynanty End. That made the white box a place you wouldn’t want to kick from unless you were kicking a penalty from there and had no other option.
The West side of the ground (Orange) was easier to kick from but still was a bit ropey in the white box. The blue arrows show the rough direction of the competing gusts on both sides of the ground, based on what I’ve heard from people on both sides of the pitch.
Essentially, that made kicking on the Red side of the field when you were playing towards the Mayorstone End (as Munster were in the first half) something you didn’t want to do if you were near the touchline.
So how did Munster react when they needed to exit? They moved the ball away from edges and kicked from central positions with a strong kick-chase to pressure the receiver.
We didn’t exit from the East side of the pitch at all, even when you would traditionally assume it was the correct plan of action, like from a restart. These two phases, for example, were relatively high risk given the rain and general creasy conditions.
We kicked after the second phase once we had central field position obtained and we could kick centrally without much issue to isolated backfield defenders with a ball that was moving wildly in the air.
This was a great way for Munster to dominate territory in the first half. Munster kicked to pressure, waited for a deep kick back and then made up the ground on transition or off the lineout. We also kicked really offensively in the Scarlets’ half of the field and made a tonne of ground driving players into touch or kicking long, chasing well and pressurising the resulting exits for easy territorial gains plus possession.
All that translated to a lot of Munster lineouts. In fact, if you look at the set-piece numbers you can get a good idea of how this game was played. Munster had twenty lineouts and the Scarlets had eleven scrums. That showed a lot of Scarlets kicking to touch and a few Munster handling errors while bossing possession – it’s a story of both teams trying to leverage the conditions in their favour. We had twenty lineouts in this game and the Scarlets had THREE. Not only was this a waste of my time on the Red Eye last week – I’m never getting those two hours back – but attacking Munster’s lineout had no real material effect for the Scarlets because they were constantly playing at a territorial disadvantage.
Essentially, Scarlets disrupted five Munster lineouts and hurt our progress on one or two mauls but, for the most part, we maintained possession off that set-piece and retained the ball really well in tough conditions.
We can’t talk about the game fully without mentioning Lousi’s moment of madness that changed Scarlets’ approach dramatically.
That was mad. It seemed like a regular garden variety schmozzle until the Scarlets’ second-row just lost the plot and started swinging hands. The first punch on JJ Hanrahan was so pitiful it deserved a red card just for the optics of a 6’6″, 19 stone Tongan failing to wobble a flyhalf. The second punch on Wycherley split his eyebrow but going on Fineen’s reaction, Sam Lousi could be punching him for 24 hours straight and still not manage to knock him out. Anyway, long story short, Scarlets were down a man for the rest of the game and, rather than risk getting annihilated at scrum time – they had 11 of those overall, remember – they chose to lose a player from their backline.
That created some natural spaces in the backfield that Munster exploited well – for the most part.
Munster controlled the possession, the territory, did well at the set-piece, were accurate under the high ball and, overall, managed the game really well. There was very little for Scarlets to get their teeth into here and, with a man in the bin, they were holed below the waterline in a way that they couldn’t really recover from.
When the weather is this bad – and it was abominable – it’s a constant challenge to stay on top of the game when you choose to hold onto possession as we did here. You back your skillset, your ability to manage the possession and your collective IQ to change as the weather requires. We were a bit loose in the first 10 minutes but tightened up perfectly to near-instant results and managed to control the game from there bar one blip in the second half. Scarlets’ indiscipline helped the cause, certainly, but I felt we were getting on top even before Lousi turned into a sixth-rate Tyson Fury impersonator.
A bonus-point win in these conditions was a superb result. It took until the 84th minute, sure, but they all count and it created real separation at the top of the conference. We’re one point off Edinburgh, who have to go to South Africa for two weeks with the Cheetahs being a real potential roadblock for them.
The next block of games against Benetton, Coronavirus allowing, will give us a chance to hit the front of the conference with a bit of luck.
As far as Munster are concerned, we’ve done everything that could be asked of us from a results perspective. Three games, eighteen tries, fifteen points – you couldn’t ask for much more.
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.
This was a strong performance overall.
I really liked what I saw from our back three as a unit – Mike Haley, Calvin Nash and Darren Sweetnam. They weren’t perfect by any means but they stood up to the conditions excellently, chased relentlessly and hit back on transition really smartly.
Nash and Sweetnam were an inch or two away from converting this excellent maul break for the bonus-point win.
I thought Dan Goggin and Chris Farrell were hugely effective here too. When the pattern of play narrowed dramatically in the weather, you need your midfield to step up with some close-range impact carries and both men did that superbly.
Arno Botha and Billy Holland had very important performances on phase play. Botha was a consistent menace in close quarters and he regularly made ground in close quarters that he had no right to make while being a reliable lineout option.
Billy Holland did what Billy Holland does – all the important little things that add up to a win. This week, he found a big thing too, a crucial try. That try was a great illustration of what Holland does so well.
He’s like a heavy halfback when you think about it. He passes from the base regularly, he snipes, he stands at first receiver and moves the ball accurately while always being in range to fly into a ruck when needed.
I thought Fineen Wycherley had the kind of tough, energetic game that’s become something of a hallmark for him. He was a constant target in the lineout – and found himself under heavy pressure – but did well enough there, as well as in the tight exchanges and at the breakdown specifically.
JJ Hanrahan had another efficient performance where he showcased his chin – outstanding – and how you can manage a game well with just 16 offensive touches. He’ll want that missed pass in the end back but overall, he was good here.
I thought his halfback partner, Craig Casey, was outstanding. I was thinking while watching this game back – am I gassing this guy up? Am I wanting him to play better than he actually is because he’s a young player who I think can be incredibly special? We have to watch out for biases, after all.
So I decided to be extra critical on my third watch back and focus exclusively on Casey for the game.
This was a ★★★★★ performance from minute 1 to 74. In a game where Munster had the majority of the possession on a day where conditions were despicably bad underfoot, on the ball and moving the ball the first person who can fuck up the game is the scrumhalf. If he kicks badly in that wind, you’re in trouble. If he makes bad decisions at the ruck with the jackals that the Scarlets have, you’re in trouble. If he starts firing passes at fellas’ eyebrows or knees in this rain, you’re in trouble. Casey avoided every one of those problems and managed the tempo of the game with the maturity of a seasoned pro. It wasn’t flawless. There were three or four poor passes out of 61 and one badly managed maul but everything else was exactly what it needed to be to drive Munster around the field.
This is Casey’s seventh pro-game. He’s twenty years of age. We’re looking at something very special here, I think. ★★★★★
Kevin O’Byrne had another one of those games where he looks like a test international coming back to full fitness after a layoff. That’s the quality he showed here. He scrummaged well, lost a few lineouts, sure, but you’d expect that in the weather and with Scarlets contesting almost all of them. He made the important ones and that’s all that matters. His handling made the difference for me.
In the kind of weather than it would be really easy to just throw the head down and look for a metre here and there, O’Byrne repeatedly backed his skillset.
Flat on the gainline, right in the opponents face with a wet ball and zero turnovers. He’s a baller, and I won’t be convinced otherwise. Criminally underrated. ★★★★★
When you talk about impact over the last three rounds of the PRO14, you’re really talking about Gavin Coombes. He was impressive against the Kings, made important inroads against Zebre and smashed the Scarlets up in this game. Two tries, six carries for 26m and a couple of successful lineouts and maul builds.
Have a look at this GIF.
That’s a prop and a full Welsh international back row he’s jogging through. He made the bones of 10 metres off #9 with two forwards hanging off him. That isn’t something you see every day, folks. This isn’t a linebreak where you run through a hole, as impressive as that is, this is chewing up opposition forwards – shells and all – and making them look like they have nothing for you.
He almost scored the bonus point try a few phases before he did but what we’re looking at here is a 6’4″, 110kg wrecking ball that’s still only 22 years of age and a good five or six years off his peak at this level. I’ve always maintained that if Coombes got it together mentally at pro-level – something all young players have to do – he’s got the size and dynamism to be an absolute nightmare and after this game, a few of the Scarlets will be waking up screaming. Is he a back row? Is he a lock? Who knows right now. There’s plenty of time for that to be figured out. What I do know is that Gavin Coombes has impacted the last three games positively and scored two crucial tries from close range here.
I hope he takes confidence from this game and realises that, when he applies himself, there’ll be very few men that can stand in his way out there. Outstanding, game-changing impact. ★★★★★