Liam Toland: Provinces show benefits of broadening their horizons
Munster try against Edinburgh demonstrated how they have added value to ball
Munster’s Dave O’Callaghan evades Edinburgh’s Michael Allen. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
There were many marvellous moments embedded throughout last weekend’s rugby, with Ulster’s performance the highlight. But something I spotted in the second half in Thomond Park made me smile.
Munster’s 56th-minute broken-field move had wing forward Dave O’Callaghan crossing for his side’s bonus-point try. It was lovely and the build-up is worth poring over.
Four minutes earlier Edinburgh had a scrum on their try line in their left-hand corner. A tough place to exit.
So they peeled open before box-kicking to Munster’s right-hand tram tracks wing.
Darren Sweetnam, a consummate footballer, fielded easily and heard an early call from his fullback Ian Keatley (sitting right above them, I heard it too). Knowing that Keatley had better eyes on the situation, Sweetnam fired a perfect pass infield to give his fullback opportunity.
But Munster have yet to develop a 15-man counter- attack and Keatley was gobbled up in heavy traffic. It should have all died horribly but for a silly Edinburgh penalty.
Worryingly from the subsequent attacking lineout, where Edinburgh had exited minutes earlier, Munster struggled with their attacking maul and in fact turned over.
Again Edinburgh box- kicked to Sweetnam who was in the exact same position but this time he had learned from earlier. So with Keatley in the exact same position, Sweetnam ignored and ran diagonally infield before checking his run back towards the touchline. This obviously honey-potted the defence touch-side.
But the move of the match was from Munster tighthead John Ryan, taking from Sweetnam.
Ryan had been party to demolishing Edinburgh at scrum time. Now it was no David Campese shuffle, but for the first time in an age I witnessed a Munster front five player, light on his feet, dancing forward and taking contact on his terms.
The net result was a gain of seven or so metres, sucking in multiple defenders and providing crisp, clean ruck ball for Murray.
This was very intelligent play from Sweetnam and wonderful feet from Ryan. O’Callaghan gets the plaudits for the bonus-point try but the aforementioned deserve still more.
In all that, Edinburgh looked somewhat of a nothing team. What are they, what are they trying to do and achieve? Simply going through soft phases is hardly going to over-extend opposition and this certainly was the case in Thomond Park last Saturday.
Connacht have a super opportunity to get back to winning ways this evening.
Fifty-five minutes earlier, off their first attacking lineout, Munster took down and fed their hooker Niall Scannell coming around the lineout. He hit Conor Murray who – first key Munster tactic – got CJ Stander into the game in midfield running at backs (sounds obvious but wait).
The next Munster tactic was to rewind to a waiting pod. Now, here’s the team’s development of Stander’s role. Yes, he may get through the heavy midfield traffic, but even for him not every time, so Munster have developed a method to recycle the Stander ball akin to rugby league; ie, much less than five seconds.
Stander tests tackles 100 per cent every time. He’ll either get through or suck in enough concerned defenders creating a mismatch laterally.
Should he not, then Munster have a developing plan and here is where I note Leinster have improved remarkably in recent weeks.
Clearly there is vast improvement, from international player availability through coaching, to the on-field activity led by either outhalf selected. But a part of Leinster’s game I’ve missed in recent times is their ability to restart from dead ball.
I don’t mean kick-off restarts but from a move that’s prematurely died. On 3:27, Leinster had an attacking lineout maul against the Ospreys that eventually died.
But scrumhalf Luke McGrath came flying around the corner with his backs coming at angles onto the ball. It led to a penalty. It’s a small example but very nice to see Leinster reigniting dead ball.
So when Stander took that ball into heavy traffic on 2:30, Munster were poised to rewind. They hit the pod with Billy Holland receiving. Again Munster brought a pre- rehearsed principle: the ‘tip on’. Holland immediately tipped on the ball to the player outside him, shifting the focus to the onrushing defenders.
Now for this to really add value, the recipient of the ‘tip on’ should be confusing the defence, where all it takes is slight indecision to expose a weak shoulder.
Unfortunately this time, the Munster receiver had committed to hitting the pod maul; it added no value and didn’t confuse the defence; the attack was stifled.
But the idea is very welcome. In fact, it’s an asset Stander could develop to propel him to yet another level. The entire world knows he is a destructive ball-carrier so if he added this ‘tip on’ to his game and utilised it at appropriate times he would accomplish two great things: firstly a team-mate may gain more value due to the defence sweating on Stander; and secondly, Stander would remain alive to re-engage in the movement.
Multiple touches on the ball from a player of Stander’s quality would be immense such as when he received a wonderful turnover ball from an Edinburgh lineout and immediately engaged in contact even though there were others outside him in better position to maximise the turnover.
Three very nice provincial wins.