Liam Toland: Munster can trust their defence and Conor Murray
If Munster can steal turnovers and counterattack, they can tire Racing out
Munster’s Conor Murray in action against Cheetahs in the Guinness PRO14 at Bloemfontein, South Africa on April 13th. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Conor Murray looks like a young father in the front garden, mobile phone stuck to his ear, engaging in some pointless conversation with a mate while also engaging his toddler son in a mindless game of over-and-back soccer.
The problem for world rugby is Murray is doing this against the All Blacks or whilst winning Grand Slams – in essence he is that comfortable against the best players in the world.
So who are the best players in Europe? We saw the negative impact on Saracens with the loss of number eight Billy Vunipola, where they were no longer the championship winning side.
We’ll see on Saturday the wonderfully talented Scarlet Tadhg Beirne. Don’t expect his rampaging ball-carrying, breakdown-stealing game to automatically transfer from Scarlets to Munster and subsequently Ireland. Will Ireland and Munster afford him the Scarlets’ offloading game platform and the subsequent freedom to play his way? Will/can Munster mimic Scarlets? Irish secondrows tend to have a much more specific role, with the ruck being the building block, while Beirne’s outrageous numbers are based on a vastly different game – so be patient.
What Donnacha Ryan did in Paris in beating Munster at the death places him right up there with the best in Europe. But he’s capable of much, much more than chasing a dead kick-off. Ditto his Racing 92 team.
In Leinster’s case, many of the best players in Europe can’t even make their starting team; some not even the bench. That’s why they are currently the best team (left) in Europe. So this weekend the best players afforded the best tactics (coaches’ remit) will win – assuming the crucial dollops of luck.
Tactically, Munster can trust their defence – rope-a-dope, if you will – for two reasons. Firstly, they have an excellent defence and, secondly, the state of the French Top 14 and Racing 92 in particular. There is a strong argument to suggest that as Racing remain in possession, sending their big (fat) men off their scrumhalf they’ll expect Munster to tire, creating holes to be exploited by their big (athletic) backs.
This I feel is a trap Munster can set. For within six minutes against Toulouse last Sunday, having enjoyed total possession, the Racing pack were blowing big-time. They’re tough tackles for Munster but will tire Racing. Some years back, Leinster, against the Welsh regions, kicked the ball intending to keep it in play. It was an educated strategy acknowledging that the Welsh will return ball in hand, but that their attack was not going to tear Leinster’s defence apart, and allowing Leinster to press up, making contact with the Welsh on their terms, especially with field position in mind.
This same method will lead to opportunity for Munster – in not purposefully giving Racing the ball but allowing Racing to tire themselves out. Racing are big and athletic and their very “bigness” will provide three v twos across the pitch – not when the Racing backline are united in chains, but when the likes of Ben Tameifuna or Edwin Maka populate the defensive chains in midfield.
Be it a Racing spill, loose lineout or breakdown, Munster can paradoxically find space around the bigger Racing players
Most oppositions hunt for an overlap in the wide reaches of the pitch, but Racing’s defensive line contains vulnerable chains of fatties infield. Tactically, Racing appear to go the same way, all along the width until the opposite touchline is reached. On arriving, their scrumhalf will take an age waiting for his resources to fill in on the open side, and off they’ll go. In the same way, rugby makes them vulnerable to a turnover rewind, especially after a couple of phases one way.
By half-time their big men were simply not working up both sides of the defensive breakdowns. That’s when the opposition ball goes the same way. Racing don’t push up on the blindside but fold back behind the defensive breakdown, hunting for the ball. This makes them vulnerable to a starter play that rewinds immediately into that slot, especially as, after long periods of same-way rugby, Racing on turnovers can have the totally wrong players defending the midfield.
Munster’s defence will gain turnovers by placing pressure on the crispness of Racing’s lateral passing, which is often behind the shoulder of the receiver. How they utilise these valuable opportunities is hugely important.
Will Munster keep a vigilant eye on the likes of Tameifuna, shifting him not yards but feet . . . even inches? That’s all it can take when creating a midfield overlap. Munster’s outside centre slot has had a number of incumbents, and it appears Sam Arnold will start here. He is young man but with huge physicality, and is more than capable of cutting down a flowing Racing. This is especially important when factoring in Racing’s lack of top-end accuracy in transitioning along the backline. His fellow backs need not wait for their backrow but can pounce on the breakdown.
So, along with all the other building blocks, Munster must add a clear counterattack from stolen turnovers; be it a Racing spill, loose lineout or breakdown, Munster can paradoxically find space around the bigger Racing players. Ideally, it will come via an offloading tactic or passing before contact once the big men are sucked out of position. Bordeaux could become a Rumble in the Jungle with Racing’s George Foreman monsters bullying their way. Murray is brilliant but, for me, Jean Kleyn is the beast for Bordeaux.
As for Leinster and Scarlets on Saturday, don’t expect too many lineouts; this will be a humdinger where the ball may never leave the park. Both sides have excellent offence and are totally comfortable ball in hand; hence Beirne’s impact. However, I do trust Leinster’s defence more – but only just.