CLERMONT ARE CLEAR favourites for today’s Pool 1 clash with Munster at Stade Marcel-Michelin, but Anthony Foley’s side will accept nothing less than victory in France.
Here, we pick out five aspects of the game Munster need to control to pull off an unlikely victory.
Simon Zebo makes a break at Thomond Park last weekend. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Win the gainline more often
It was clear that the narrow nature of Munster’s attack played into Clermont’s hands last weekend, although Conor Murray pointed out that the slippery conditions made it difficult to put more width on the ball.
“With the greasy ball and conditions, teams can take more linespeed,” says Munster scrum-half Murray.
“You know there’s not going to be a floated pass over your head or a double skip, whatever. In fairness they defended us really well and we struggled with the first ball carry to get go-forward, a momentum builder for us.
“We’ve little tweaks to our gameplan that might help us get that, so we’ll find out Sunday.”
Certainly, Munster need to stretch the French side’s defence across the pitch more often, as we’ll discuss in more depth below, but Anthony Foley’s side are still going to have to carry the ball in tight channels, as does every team in the world.
Simply flashing the ball wide every time is a recipe for disaster, so it’s obvious that Munster’s forwards will need to win the gainline more often when they carry off Murray close to the rucks. Clermont’s linespeed was stifling in Limerick, but the home side were also guilty of taking the ball in static positions.
We get an example above, as Paul O’Connell receives the ball virtually standing still as Munster desperately search for an equalising score. It’s very easy to point this out when reviewing the game on video, rather than facing a blitzing Clermont team, but Munster will be aware of their need to bring momentum into their carrying today.
James Cronin did a fine job of doing exactly that off the bench last weekend, and although he misses out for this return leg, his example is one to follow.
As we see above, Cronin delays his run coming around the corner from right to left as Munster attack. He stutters behind the ruck, hovering slightly, before bursting around in an arc and straightening up to win the gainline.
It’s sloppy control of the ball thereafter, but the point about running onto the pass is clear. Another aspect to notice is how clean the ball is for Murray at the base of the ruck preceding Cronin’s carry, allowing the scrum-half to scoop up the pill and engage a defender.
We don’t need to point out how intrinsic strong breakdown work is to ensuring success on the rugby pitch; it feeds into everything. By being more aggressive in that area, Munster can ensure cleaner possession for their narrow carriers.
The men running off Murray will need to hold their lines a hint more, not allow Clermont to get easy reads on their attacking intentions and then enter each collision with violent intent. A Munster team that wins the gainline is normally a team that emerges with victory.
Attack with more variety
Having discussed the need for Munster to win the gainline when they do inevitably carry in narrow channels, we now turn our attention to the possibility of Foley’s men adding more variety to their attack.
As we’ve alluded to above, it was simply too predictable from the southern province with ball in hand last weekend. They are not going to burst out at Stade Marcel-Michelin with an all-new, offloading, long-passing approach – nor should they – but there is certainly scope for fresh wrinkles in their game plan.
Brian Walsh, Munster’s attack coach, does have a number of mini-plays that his charges can use, but we didn’t really see a whole lot of them last weekend.
We see one of the few examples in the clip above, as Keatley runs a loop off Peter O’Mahony and then takes a slight risk by floating a pass over the top to Tommy O’Donnell. It’s not quite slick, and there is no huge bust, but it does allow Munster to carry in a far more favourable situation and stretch the Clermont defence.
In O’Mahony, Munster possess a wonderful handling back row, and it would truly test Clermont’s ability to shift around the pitch in defence if the Irish province used their captain’s skills more often in this regard.
Another shape that Munster have in their playbook, one that doesn’t involve running Keatley at first receiver, is shown below.
It may simply look like a straight-forward carry, but this shape provides Munster with a further chance to stretch Clermont’s defence.
As we freeze the frame above, we get a better illustration of how Munster have set themselves up. Cronin [red circle] is the primary ball-carrying target in the middle of a trio of forwards, Duncan Casey and Dave Foley either side of him [green circles].
Munster want all three of those forwards to be viable carrying options from Murray’s initial pass, asking questions of Clermont’s decision-making in defence. Cronin’s main options once the ball is in his hands are to carry himself [purple arrow] or find Denis Hurley [yellow circle] with a pass out the back door [blue arrow].
Furthermore, he can slip a pass short on his outside shoulder to Foley, but the option we’re concerned with in this instance is the pass out the back door to the Munster backline. It’s a standard set-up for a link pass through the forwards, but Cronin opts to retain possession himself here.
Munster did get into this set-up on a number of occasions and an error from O’Donnell while passing out the back door early in the game might have resulted in them deciding not to risk losing possession through these types of plays.
However, those slight risks become a necessity if Munster are to stretch the Clermont defence this afternoon. The examples above are just two in a wide range of mini-plays Munster can use to open up the pitch.
The point is that Munster can, at times, move the ball more fluidly in order to give themselves more favourable ball-carrying situations, resulting in linebreaks or offloads. With a win so vital at this stage, it’s time for Munster to take the odd risk and really ask questions of Franck Azéma’s team.
Get the line-out and maul motoring
Munster take deep pride in their mauling ability, which naturally ties in with their line-out. To say that pride was stung in Limerick last weekend would be an understatement, and Paul O’Connell’s pack will be out for a hefty dose of revenge over Jono Gibbes’ charges.
The former Leinster coach orchestrated a deeply intelligent disruption of the Munster maul last weekend, essentially ensuring that the ball didn’t even make it past the transfer from line-out jumper to the tail of the maul.
That was achieved through tactics that frustrated O’Connell and his teammates, and ultimately Munster were out-smarted.
We see above that O’Connell is adamant Clermont have closed the one-metre gap at the line-out before the ball is thrown, but Wayne Barnes has little time for the protests. Whatever about the legality of Clermont’s actions, it’s up to Munster to deal with it themselves second time around.
If it requires Munster being patient, holding an extra three seconds on their throw and even stepping back up the pitch themselves to open the gap, then so be it. O’Connell will have been pondering the issue obsessively all week and will back himself to have came up with a solution.
The Ireland captain was also unhappy with what he perceived as Clermont’s competing jumpers being dropped in on top of Munster’s lifters, as below.
Clermont’s intelligent actions ensure that the Munster lifter at the front of the jump is in a poor position to anchor or close up the front of the maul, and that rebounds to the transfer, which goes to ground. Another mauling opportunity gone.
Four times Munster had chances to maul inside the Clermont 22 last weekend and four times they failed. Even with their poor performance around the pitch, those opportunities could have led to a crucial try to earn a win or draw.
Today in Clermont-Ferrand, Foley’s men simply cannot afford the same profligacy. O’Connell and his pack must shore up the line-out and maul, using whatever tactics necessary. If Clermont can test the limits of the laws of the game, so too can Munster.
Maximise what JJ brings
Foley has opted to bring JJ Hanrahan into his midfield at 12, both an exciting move and one that involves an element of risk. The 22-year-old’s combination with Andrew Smith will be important, especially in an area of the field where Munster have had little consistency in selection and form.
Hanrahan brings another excellent kicking option for Munster alongside Murray and Keatley, which will be important in their usual search to control territory. To have that ability in the 12 shirt takes some of the pressure off Keatley, allowing Munster to kick the ball from further out the backline and perhaps with fewer defenders looking for blocks.
It will be fascinating to see whether or not Hanrahan is also handed responsibility off the tee, another area of real strength in his game. Keatley has been inconsistent with his place-kicking and in what seems like set to be a close encounter, every point will be vital.
Away from his fine boot, Hanrahan is also an additional playmaker for Munster, again complementing Murray and Keatley. His passing is crisp, he has good vision to pick the right option and his footwork in tight spaces is usually sharp.
Source: James Crombie/INPHO
We’ve already underlined the need for Munster to stretch Clermont more often in phase play, and Hanrahan’s inclusion will be crucial in that facet of the game. Expect to see him in at first receiver very often at Stade Marcel-Michelin, prompting forwards onto the ball, as well as delivering wider passes.
That in turn may free up Keatley to be more of a threat on the gainline. While we haven’t seen too much of it recently, the former Connacht out-half possesses good pace and is robust through contact.
The knowledge that Hanrahan is present to guide Munster around the pitch should allow Keatley to run the ball himself more often. It’s one of the real advantages of playing a second-five-eight style of 12, ensuring the out-half does not fear any loss of control if he is briefly out of the game.
Ensure Owens is onside
Munster had their issues with referee Barnes last weekend – that’s in the past. However, it does point for the need for Munster to paint strong pictures for Nigel Owens early on this afternoon.
BJ Botha was in real trouble at the scrum in the first half at Thomond Park, conceding three penalties and being issued a yellow-card warning by Barnes. He and the Munster pack managed to turn that situation around in the second period, but those problems did affect the final outcome.
Munster felt Clermont loosehead Thomas Domingo was angling in on Botha, while the French side pointed to Botha’s binding on the elbow of Domingo. Whatever the argument, Munster simply must get Owens onside around the scrum.
John Ryan gets his chance on the Irish province’s loosehead side, and again that early picture is vital. The first three scrums are going to be the biggest of the Cork prop’s career; he has to be solid against the power of Davit Zirakashvili or Owens will have an easy target for penalties.
The fact that Paul O’Connell is not Munster’s captain has been an intermittent issue on the pitch for the province this season. So often, the experienced second row appeals to the referee for penalties, attempts to influence decisions, and looks for explanations on penalty decisions.
Despite his standing in the world of rugby, referees are having less and less time for it from O’Connell, given that he is not the actual skipper. Whether it is through O’Mahony, O’Connell or any other leader, Munster need to be wholly in Owens’ favour today, particularly around the lottery that is the scrum.
Originally published at 11.50pm on 13 December.
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