Playing Connacht is never a straight forward proposition since they’ve evolved into the side that won the Pro12 in such style last season. To be successful, you’ve first got to stop Connacht’s attacking game before it has time to dictate the momentum of the contest i.e. if you don’t hurt them fast, they can run up scores on consecutive sequences and before you know what’s happened, you’re 14 points down. Last season, Munster could not stop them from getting that momentum. This season? Well, two wins from two tell a story.
On Saturday, Munster effectively shut down Connacht’s attack in a way that had palpable physical and psychological effects on their overall performance. In a way, it was quite Saracens’ like, and it reminded me of an excellent video I saw of Munster’s defensive guru, Jacques Nienaber after the defeat.
The key point of the video is this quote about Saracens’ excellent defence on the day;
“I thought they were excellent in terms of [their defence]. We can take one or two leaves out of their booklet and improve, definitely.”
Munster certainly seemed to have added something extra, at least on the evidence of this game.
First, let’s have a look at what the stats tell us. As per usual, the roots of a victory or a defeat can be found in the carrying numbers of the forwards.
Connacht’s combined forward carrying stats were as follows;
31 carries for only 57 metres
Munster’s numbers, on the other hand;
66 carries for 195 metres.
This paints a pretty clear picture of Connacht’s forwards losing the gain line and Munster consistently getting over it. Some of Munster’s numbers were inflated by some excellent breaks but even with these excluded, the numbers show a pretty clear pattern. No gain line, no win. Especially if you’re Connacht.
The Myth of Wide-Wide
If you aren’t getting over the gain line, you cannot play a wide-wide game with any reliability. The way you hear wide-wide discussed, you’d swear it was all about getting the ball wide as quickly as possible but that isn’t the way Connacht played the game when they were at their best. They first set a ruck platform over the gain line through the likes of Dillane, Muldowney, Aki, Henshaw or someone and when they got that platform, that’s when they struck wide. When you don’t get over the gain line, you can’t play wide-wide and expect to be successful.
So for Munster on Saturday, stopping Connacht’s forwards was a key part of the job. Obviously, says you, but the way they went about it was key from the start. Munster were right on the edge of offside when they were taking it to Connacht’s pack in the early exchanges. The first few minutes of a game are when teams let each other know what to expect for the rest of the 80 minutes. The message Munster delivered here was pretty stark.
Stopped around the fringes and beaten back. Connacht’s forwards were on the back foot immediately and coughed up a turnover. It’s a small moment in the grand scheme of things, but a big moment in the story of the forward battle.
That set the tone for Connacht’s carrying all game long. Their forwards just couldn’t make the kind of dynamic strikes on the gain line that their game plan required and that meant nothing but slow ball and set defensive lines.
In the above GIF, Connacht are in a threatening position but are not threatening in their actions. This is something Munster fans watching the first half against Saracens will remember quite starkly. Every tackle was a physical and psychological statement.
Munster would bring this enhanced physicality to all of their defensive work in this game.
It follows a philosophy that defence is attack in that it allows you to attack the opposition at all times, not just when you have the ball.
Stopping Connacht on the gain line is just the start. On Saturday, Munster speared into Connacht’s outside channels to funnel their smaller midfielders into the meat grinder of the Munster blitz.
Here’s an exaggerated version of how Saracens’ operate the same principle.
Munster have used this same movement to varying degrees this season but it was especially prevalent on Saturday.
Here’s an exaggerated sample;
This prevents Connacht from using their heavy first receiver option that’s been so critical to their success. Even when Connacht stepped back from the gain line to draw out the Munster blitz, Munster found a way around.
Here, you see Billy Holland busting a gut to cut off that outside ball option and force Connacht back inside.
Great read. And when you look at the number of players Connacht burned to support the ruck, you get a picture of Munster’s dominance here.
Connacht weren’t great by any means, let’s be clear. They’ve regressed badly this year for certain, but the way that Munster shut down their entire game was interesting to see. The slight tweak to Munster’s defensive system and the ruthless execution of the defensive plan impressed me and showed a lot of elements that may come into play as the season concludes.