Liam Toland: Munster’s tactical smarts lets them be David against Goliath

Andrew Conway is our most improved back and is morphing into another Schmidt clone

An té nach bhfuil láidir, ní foláir dó bheith glic is a phrase I bumped into last Sunday morning – the morning after the night before. For the night before I was in Thomond Park and was fascinated by the many events that unfolded. Racing Metro turned up in all their representative glory and turned up to play.

Well, they played their version of rugby and in the number three jersey was Ben Tameifuna. At 145kg, it's very few people of any ilk who can alter his intended actions. James Cronin was his first immediate opponent. You'll notice over the coming Six Nations' weeks that when two packs come together it's not unusual for the entire weight differential to be two stone. However, Cronin had to face the first scrum five full stone (27kg) lighter than his prop opponent, Tameifuna. This is highly unusual and requires a very different approach: "He who is not strong must be clever."

As the half unfolded, the various tactics at play settled in my mind and it was obvious Munster’s game plan was ‘one out, hit the gainline’ rugby with pace of recycle uppermost to ultimately get their wonderful back three running. The problem, unlike the game in Paris, was that Racing had learned from their atrocious performance and equally learned from Munster’s powerful one.

Racing killed the Munster lineout maul anyway they could and killed every Munster ball on the deck, counter rucked (legally) throughout, essentially powering through. This slowed Conor Murray down and nullified advantages gained. Possibly because of their success in Paris, Munster were intent in imposing their will on Racing. But in all this heavy traffic Munster failed to see the available space out wide; which opened and shut in the seconds they were ploughing around the fringes.


Brilliant try

This was the very antithesis of their brilliant try in Paris off the reset penalty scrum where they hit midfield to immediately hit Simon Zebo out wide for a cracking try. Why were Munster bogging themselves down in the trenches when space and fatiguing players like Tameifuna were vulnerable wider out?

As frustrations developed in the stands, half-time arrived. Here is what impressed me: “he who is not strong must be clever” was clearly discussed in the famed Munster dressing-room. At half-time I wondered about the first half and the requirements for Munster who found themselves in an arm-wrestle they couldn’t bully.

Immediately their second-half tactics changed. Again Racing were prone to the turnovers they offered in the first half but this time the first few were kicked long into green grass; even Peter O’Mahony drilled one down the tram tracks. The coaches’ orders were obviously ringing in his ears; the captain led by example. In the first half Racing were up for it alright but their sloppiness was still evident; however, Munster couldn’t maximise the opportunities so for the second half they chose to become clever.

Many inquire: why are Munster winning games all of a sudden? Well, that shift at half-time tells a lot. They kicked their first penalty of the second half for a valuable three points where they had been going to touch for the lineout maul. But they learned that Racing were wounding that approach as the referee paid scant regard for the accepted laws of the maul; ditto the breakdown. Off their first attacking scrum they wiper-kicked through Rory Scannell. Off their first lineout steal they pulled back in midfield to get the ball wide off two passes.

In other words, understanding the question/tactic of when to stick at the coalface and when to search for space out wide is a constant balancing act that requires real tactical intelligence in real time. Munster, through Murray, are getting there but half-time afforded the entire organisation to swing the balance their way. That Tyler Bleyendaal has the ability to execute these instructions to switch from the trench warfare to available space wider out is hugely beneficial also.

Trades space for time

Finally, a thought on Ireland's 23-man squad for Scotland. Surely Andrew Conway is the most improved back in Irish rugby. He is morphing into yet another Joe Schmidt clone who shows supreme workrate and is strong in the air, but his comfort around defence as he reads onrushing attacks and ably trades space for time is really impressive. This is a nod to Munster's defence coach Jacques Nienaber.

In fact, the Munster defensive line speed in the second half neutralised much of Racing’s massive ball-carrying ability where their fine athletes were starved of those initial warm-up strides to wreak havoc. In addition to Conway’s brilliant display was his stand-up, fend and offload for Ian Keatley’s try with the touchline advancing – sublime skills.

Competition will stunt his progress a tad next weekend but he can't be far off. As for the two key units; backrow and back three. Josh van der Flier is set to change the old guard of assumed Irish backrow certainties forever and Tiernan O'Halloran can't be far off doing the same. With Scotland away as an opener, what is the clever thing to do; form for fireworks? Irish rugby is very, very strong but as the Six Nations approaches and with Mathieu Bastareaud entering the French midfield and various English behemoths arriving on Paddy's weekend I can't help but think "he who is not strong must be clever".