04 October 2013

Tactical battle in full metal jacket

The most anticipated game of the season so far, for Irish supporters, is the Munster V Leinster game on Saturday evening. As always there is a lot of hype around these games and with justification as they rarely disappoint.

Munster supporters will point to the fact the game takes place in the citadel of Munster Rugby, Thomond Park, and that will automatically give Munster the edge. While it may help, there is no evidence that it will be the key to Munster winning the game. In fact the most recent derby game, last April in Thomond Park, Leinster won and completed the double having won the 1st derby of the season at Aviva Stadium exactly a year ago.

All the big guns are back on deck as both teams field their strongest available players. Although Munster have held back Conor Murray and BJ Botha on the bench, as they have just recovered to full fitness from slight knocks.

Leinster currently hold the bragging rights after dominating the fixtures last season. But this time around there are lots of chips on the table, Pro 12 points to be secured, preparation for the Heineken and a lot of pride at stake. It will be “Full Metal Jacket” as it’s called in the business.

The outcome is actually anybody’s guess. On recent record Leinster holds the advantage, but Munster are due to win one of these encounters. One thing is certain, with Munster V Leinster games, there won’t be much in it at the end.

When you line up both teams it is hard to see either team having an advantage in personnel. Also, in terms of skill, physicality and experience it is very difficult to separate the sides. It will come down to a battle of tactics and that’s where both coaches earn their corn.

For the past year, there has been an on going discussion in Munster about their wide attack. It is an attacking pattern that is designed to stretch defences out wide by moving the ball from touchline to touchline. There have been times last season when Munster have struggled with the pattern.

What’s more, when on occasion they reverted to their more traditional style, using one off runners, they had good success. Their victory over Harlequins in last years Heineken quarterfinal a case in point. Munster physically dominated Harlequins with one off runners and raw aggression.

The issues that emerged last season for Munster with the wide pattern could be traced back to a couple of problems. Some players, particularly forwards, struggled to execute skilfully when they received possession in the wide channels. Also, when defences adjusted and covered the wide channels, Munster didn’t adapt and attack the space up the middle of the field.

There is evidence this season, that Munster have become more comfortable with the wide pattern, are capable of adapting to the defence in front of them and making better use of the ball in the wide channels. Simply put, when the defence spreads out they attack the middle and when the defence compresses they attack out wide.

So you might think it is onward and upwards for Munster with their wide attack. Not so fast. Attacking the outside channels against Leinster is not always the best way to go. In fact Leinster cope very well with teams that attack in the wide channels.

They have the pace and the best defender in the world in the #13 channel, so trying to go around the Leinster defence is very difficult and fraught with danger. When they track you down in the wide channels, Leinster are very capable of turning over the ball, hence the danger of attacking them out wide.

Leinster’s line speed in defence has also increased this year so it is even more difficult to get around their defence.

But if Leinster have had a defensive weakness it is up the guts. They have, over the past couple of seasons, struggled with teams who pick and jam the ball from the ruck or use big pods of runners close to the ruck. In the famous 2012 Heineken semi-final against Clermont it almost cost them the game and ultimately the Heineken Cup.

With the last play of the game Clermont picked and jammed the ball, from over 30m out up to the Leinster line, before the Clermont centre, Wesley Fofana, lost the ball while grounding it on the goal. It was that close for Leinster.

The question on Saturday is will Munster adapt their game plan and attack Leinster up the guts and with one off runners before they consider attacking wide? Or will they stick to their guns and attack wide from the outset, stretching Leinster at every opportunity, before then attacking the Leinster defence up the middle. It will be intriguing to see how Munster set out their attacking stall.

In terms of defence Munster have contained Leinster extremely well. This is a Leinster team that scored the most tries in last year’s Pro 12. At Thomond Park last April, the last time the teams met, Munster curtailed Leinster to just one try and that try was scored by none other than Brian O’Driscoll. He squeezed in beside the Munster goalpost after twenty-five phases of attack.

Therein lies the key for both teams. Leinster’s ball retention is excellent. They take teams through phase after phase, almost baiting them to make an error. Eventually somebody makes an error, coming out of their line or missing a tackle. Or Leinster create a mismatch, a big player against a small player or a quick player against a slow player. That’s when Leinster strike and they are clinical when they do.

Last April Munster didn’t make mistakes, miss tackles or allow mismatches, which explains why Leinster had to go through twenty-five attacking phases to eek out their only try of the game. But Munster undid all that hard work by losing their discipline. They conceded five kickable penalties, which Ian Madigan took advantage of. Those five penalties were what undid Munster in the end.

It can be argued that the attacking pressure that Leinster exerted led to the penalties. But Munster will be confident they can keep that penalty count much lower on Saturday evening.

So it boils down to a couple of simple goals for both teams:

Victory Conditions for Munster:

  • In attack vary the strike point between up the guts and wide when the space appears.
  • In defence keep your discipline.

Victory Conditions for Leinster:

  • In attack be patient and take Munster through the phases to test their discipline.
  • In defence don’t allow Munster up the guts and force them to attack the outside channels.

Leinster to squeak home… just!