Munster must engage Toulon in warfare long before the inevitable ruck
To do so they must recognise their weaknesses and play to their strengths
For Munster to keep the ball on or beyond the gain line against Toulon in Marseille. James Downey (with ball, above), in particular, must get flat, quick ball ad nauseam. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
I’ve a different view on Leinster’s performance against Toulon. It was said by themselves and others they didn’t land a punch; but in not conceding three tries in the opening 15 min they landed huge punches. Leinster scrambled brilliantly, forcing handling errors from Toulon to stay alive in a fixture that could have been over in 20 minutes.
Toulon clearly had a ruthless game plan to counteract Leinster’s and in going through the personnel that employed same it’s hard to argue with Bernard Laporte.
My concern for Munster centres on what game plan Laporte will bring to Marseille.
If he has paid attention to Munster’s last two outings he will have encouraging food for thought. Munster played badly against Glasgow and against Connacht, where their defence off set plays, especially on the right wing, was abysmal; but they beat them comfortably by converting Connacht errors miles out into brilliant scores.
So Laporte is likely to adjust his game plan towards territory and away from risky gain line plays. The key to this is Toulon’s ability to play tactically as they wish. This is especially so with the boot of Jonny Wilkinson at 10 and the hands of Matt Giteau at 12.
Aligned to them are 13-plus players who can play intricate gain-line plays at full pace but also carry/power into weak shoulders, offload, run devastating support lines and crucially, tackle.
What’s most impressive in the Toulon tackling is the devastating combination of power, pace and technique.
I’ve long been a fan of yards after contact; but that’s when carrying the ball. Toulon have developed yards after contact when tackling and it’s frightening; raw power, perfect technique, right on contact.
All this before you get to the breakdown or as Muhammad Ali noted, the fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.
This Sunday the breakdown will be won or lost long before the breakdown occurs, where the steal can be sourced phases earlier. Hence Munster must engage Toulon in warfare long before the inevitable ruck.
To achieve this they must recognise their weaknesses and play to their strengths.
Connacht’s back line was far superior in every facet last weekend to Munster’s. They played with comfort on the gain line, executing at pace with decoy running to confuse Munster’s defence and ultimately score tries.
Munster, at times, play miles behind the gain line in lumbering back line moves that fix no one in particular, with the ball consistently arriving behind the shoulder of the receiver. When they move closer to the gain line, as they did against Glasgow, they cough up too many turnovers. Danie Poolman’s try for Connacht came from such poor distribution.
Toulon’s tackling technique puts the potential breakdown miles behind the gain line and impossible for Munster’s backrow to secure. Munster’s 10, 12 and 13 must have the games of their lives to keep the ball on or beyond the gain line. James Downey, in particular, must get flat, quick ball ad nauseam.
With an eye to Leinster’s opening 20 against Toulon, Munster’s team selection is paramount; the back three especially so. Munster’s defensive systems, especially off set-piece will be tested.
I always wondered why Gerhard van den Heever was not getting more game time with his powerful go forward. The answer is found in his loitering in no man’s land; unable/unwilling to make a hit. His try in Galway on 33 minutes came from an intercept; nice play but yet again he’s loitering, avoiding a hit.
Connacht’s second try on 52 minutes had van den Heever facing a three-on-one and electing to jump in the wind, avoiding contact, with Conor Gilsenan floating a beauty to Eoin McKeon for a try.
His clearing out of rucks is even less physical; Duncan Williams carried towards Connacht’s line on 68:19, with Paul O’Connell clearing Robbie Henshaw to leave van den Heever to protect Williams. But he made no impact and Connacht stole a soft turnover to escape.
Off defensive scrums Munster’s wingers stand four up and tend to allow the running threat slip outside them, in the confidence their pace will pull it down; this is risky as Toulon will have plays to expose such an eventuality.
Impressively, Munster have developed an offloading game and time and again their first forward receiver takes to the line and pops open to a hard line forward. This is good play but the initial ball-carrier must sell himself better to create the illusion he’ll run.
Too often the initial carrier, in making his mind up early, makes his decision obvious, which will ensure a double hit on the next receiver.
Munster breakdown play has always been impressive in technique and raw aggression but the role of the Munster ball-carrier going through contact can negatively impact.
Each ball-carrier must take the ball very flat, ideally from a blind spot, and then threaten with total commitment to the contact which will afford a better outcome in the offload or in body position on the deck.
This is huge for the trail runner who requires a symbiotic relationship with the carrier. Total understanding, total commitment.
There are but nanoseconds available to shut the door so the trail runner must be aware of Toulon’s defensive support runners, especially Steffon Armitage and Mathieu Bastareaud. Here is where referee Wayne Barnes will impact.
Push the boundary
Munster will have to push the boundary of the gate to its limit to ensure those two are neutralised as they enter the breakdown. The running lines of support runners need to engage them five yards out, blocking and inhibiting their natural entry. What Munster don’t want, in an attempt to secure the ball, is piling numbers into the breakdown.
In all this Munster must remember they too have ball-carriers as variable in physique as David Kilcoyne and Keith Earls, but they must cross the gain line.
Again this is where the Munster 10, 12 and 13 create the environment that will allow Conor Murray to probe the fringes in one-out passes to Kilcoyne et al that limit handling errors but also soak up defenders to create space wider out for Simon Zebo.
Munster’s scrum is a powerful tool but must remain very, very low. Error-free gain line rugby with reduced turnovers, green grass field positions deep in Toulon’s territory along with the Munster lineout maul; an ability to create a maul off various plays will also be key.
The trajectory of the Munster lineout ball, especially to front and middle targets can be very flat and Connacht managed to steal by targeting the space ahead of the Munster jumper. Fix this and the Munster maul will reign supreme in Marseille making anything possible.
Laporte may surprise us all and approach his home game as any sensible team visiting Thomond Park. Abandon Toulon’s ability to play on the gain line and instruct Wilkinson to keep the ball deep inside Munster’s half and simply ask them to score from there.
Laporte may choose tactics best suited to stunt Munster’s scoring ability and be satisfied by a single score arm wrestle win. If so, there’s a chance!