To enter bonus territory this weekend, Leinster and Munster must not try to force things
FROM THE BLINDSIDE:At this stage, it’s crucial to find the balance in order to progress
When you get to this weekend in any Heineken Cup season, it’s crucial that you try to play as naturally as possible. No matter what the situation is – whether you need a win, a win with a bonus point, a losing bonus point, whatever. The key is try and strike the balance between being full of intent and actually trying too hard and forcing it. Leinster got that balance right last Saturday and got their bonus point as a result. Unfortunately, Munster fell short of it and failed to get theirs.
Now obviously there’s a lot more involved and it’s not that simple.
Leinster were playing at home on Saturday night and no matter how poor Edinburgh have been this season, Munster still had to travel there in search of the bonus-point win on Sunday. You’re not exactly comparing like with like there.
But it was clear from the start of their game against the Scarlets that Leinster were looking a lot sharper than they had for most of the Heineken Cup season so far. They had a lot more pace in their game, a lot more intensity. The fact they’re not in a good position to get out of their pool didn’t seem to weigh them down at all. They went out full of purpose, as if to say, “Right, this is out of our hands so we may as well just throw caution to the wind.” We know that when Leinster are in that sort of mood and when the passes stick, there’s very few teams in Europe can handle them.
They’re such potent attacking force primarily because of two things – the fact that they have dangerous threats in every part of their backline and the pace at which they do things in order to get those threats into the game.
It starts with their work at the breakdown. They’re just so efficient in that facet of the game. I’d love to see some stats on what the average time is for the ball actually staying in the breakdown when they’re in possession – I would imagine it’s only in or around two seconds. They recycle it so quickly that it releases the players running onto it before the opposition defence can get properly set. It sounds so basic on paper but it’s very difficult to do, especially when you’re playing to keep your season alive.
But Leinster were able to do things at pace on Saturday, knowing the best time to put their stamp on the game was right from the start.
When you’ve won the competition three times in four years, you know you carry some bit of intimidation factor. They know that teams are nervous of letting you get a run on them. So you have to play into that by going for it and playing with pace but also with confidence.
Leinster know if they do happen to make it into the quarter-finals, there isn’t a team in Europe that will want to play them. They have struggled and they don’t look like the team of last year but they have more firepower than most teams when they get it right.
Even allowing for them being a bit below par this season, the reality is that if they had pulled just about any other team in Europe only Clermont in their pool, they would more than likely be qualified by now.
I don’t care how below par they’ve been – no other team would have beaten them two weeks in a row home and away. And maybe no other team in Europe would have managed two losing bonus points against Clermont, which is what has kept a chink of light open for them.
I expect them to go to Exeter this weekend and get their bonus-point win. If you had to choose any team that you needed to go and score multiple tries and win a game like this, Leinster would be it.
For some reason, Munster didn’t look like they had that intensity last weekend or that they were able to find it when they needed it.
Possibly it’s a lack of confidence, possibly they were a bit tired. Whatever it was, they looked a bit out on their feet. They’re just not humming at the moment and I’d say it’s as frustrating for the players as it is for the people who are watching them.
You can see the effort they’re making and you can see how annoyed they are when what they’re trying doesn’t come off. It’s the classic sign of a team that is forcing it.
Again, it should said that we’re not comparing like with like. Munster were away from home and when that’s the case, you have to do certain things differently. Where Leinster kicked early penalties to the corner, Munster took their points. They had to try to win the game first before they could go for the four tries.
Still, I thought they stuck with that mindset for too long. By the time their third and fourth kickable penalties had come around, they had established a foothold in the game. That was the time to kick on and go for the corners and try to turn lineouts into tries.
But it has to be said, Munster just aren’t playing as well as Leinster. They didn’t look at any stage on Sunday like they were going to get the four tries. Their effort level was high but their accuracy was off.
They made a lot of mistakes, dropped a lot of balls, took the wrong option at the wrong time on a few occasions. The worst of it was that some of the really bad errors came at the end of good passages of play.
Nothing is more frustrating for players than periods of good continuity spoiled by simple errors at the end. It reminds them of what they’re capable of but brings no reward. You can be direct, you can run hard, you can take good lines but when that mistake comes it ruins all the good that went before. It drives you mad because you know what’s there if everything comes together.
The biggest reason it happens is that players are forcing it. Then it becomes a vicious circle. Your good play falls down because of simple mistakes. In trying to eradicate them, you lose some of the flow you had in the first place. You’re working your socks off but getting nowhere.
And what people maybe sometimes forget is that you’re doing all of this in public, with loads of pressure and loads of scrutiny. Your response is to want to show people how you can make amends for the mistake you just made but of course when you’re thinking like that, you’ve lost a bit of your focus.
Munster looked to me to be a team that was forcing it last Sunday. They have the look of a bunch of players that are under a bit of pressure because there’s a lot of focus on Rob Penney’s gameplan. They want to do their best for the coach and they want to make the gameplan work but sometimes if you try too hard, you lose the natural flow.
They didn’t have any penetration against Edinburgh, they weren’t getting over the gainline with any regularity. The longer it went on, the more panicky they got when what they needed was to do the simple things well, to build confidence and get the natural flow going. It’s like playing golf – the harder they swung, the less control they had.
In the end, it was actually pretty easy for Edinburgh to defend against and to stop Munster getting the four tries they were after.
I haven’t lost all faith for this weekend though. I still think there’s a decent chance that Toulon will do both Irish teams a favour and beat Montpellier, leaving the door open for Munster and Leinster to make the quarter-finals. I fully expect them both to win their games and for them both to score enough tries to get the bonus points.
It’s out of their hands to a certain extent but all they can do is go out with the right attitude. Get on top early, get into a rhythm and above all try not to force it. Do that and we might well have three Irish teams in the quarter-finals yet.