AS A PLAYER, Gregor Townsend was renowned and appreciated for his attacking skill and flair, but his Glasgow Warriors team are very much built on a solid defensive foundation.
Matt Taylor is the club’s defensive coach, having joined the Scottish side in 2012 when Townsend took over from Sean Lineen. Helping the Reds to a Super Rugby title in 2011 lends Taylor’s CV an impressive slant, and his good work has continued in Glasgow.
Author of the revered ‘Toonie Flip’ pass to Gavin Hastings against France in 1995, and manufacturer of countless Scotland linebreaks, Townsend’s initial forays into coaching involved much continuation of his preferences as a player.
That has altered in recent years, as the Warriors’ head coach has realised that the basis of his role is “making sure you do the things that produce wins.” He rejects the notion that his view has become more pragmatic, but admits to slight changes in philosophy.
I’m not sure if it’s pragmatic, just a lot more detail on what I believe leads to winning games,” says Townsend. “You have to have an understanding that if you if you’re going to have quick ball, you’ve got to be good on both sides of the ball.
“Maybe more organization and more focus on fundamentals than anything, rather than maybe an unrealistic idea as a player.”
That emphasis on being ‘good on both sides of the ball’ saw him bring Taylor on board to improve what had already been a strong defence at Glasgow under Lineen. The Warriors come into the Pro12 final with the best defensive record in the league this season, in terms of both tries conceded [22 to Leinster's 30] and points against [175 to Leinster's 202].
‘We want to hit guys hard’
As enjoyable a side as Glasgow are to watch in attack, their real edge is in defence and centre/back row Richie Vernon points out that his teammates are at their best when they assault the breakdown and maintain high line speed.
“It’s a trademark of our defence that we want to hit guys hard,” says Vernon, articulating the combative edge that Glasgow bring to the contact zone, looking to force the turnovers that allow their sometimes stunning counter-attack to come to the fore.
The clip above gives us an example of the Glasgow defence making the initial tackle, competing at the breakdown even when there is no guarantee of a steal, and then rushing forward with high line speed on the next phase.
“They’re very comfortable in defence to go through 14, 15, 16 phases if needs be and defend,” says Leinster No. 8 Jamie Heaslip. “When they get one opportunity to get in there on the ball, they’re always combative around that tackle/ruck situation.
I suppose that makes it easier for them in terms of defence. If they’re able to really go at the ball and slow it down to three-, four-, five-second rucks, it’s quite easy to defend then because your line is all set.
“They take that line speed very well, the initial couple of metres, and then are quite comfortable to hover and make you make a decision and react to it. Defensively, they pose a lot of threats, because they’re quite hard to break down.”
Competition at the breakdown
Leinster’s pack looks well suited to the challenge that Glasgow will pose on the deck, with Mike McCarthy, Shane Jennings, Rhys Ruddock and several others having made their attacking clear-outs effectively for the majority of the season.
Leinster’s period of trophy success under Michael Chieka and Joe Schmidt was based around frighteningly efficient rucking when in possession of the ball, and Matt O’Connor will be keen to see more of that against Glasgow.
As we see in the GIF above, the likes of Gordon Reid will compete for the ball at the breakdown if given space to do so, meaning Leinster’s supporting players will need to be swift onto the scene and arrive with an intent focus on smashing defenders away from the ball.
The Warriors are content to make a scrap of the breakdown if they feel the attacking side has not committed numbers to clearing past the ball, and as Heaslip alluded to, that allows their defensive line to ready itself to generate line speed on the next phase.
We see above that Zebre enjoy big gains down the left-hand side, but Glasgow make a dogfight of the subsequent ruck, thereby allowing their line to reorganise and depriving the Italians of the chance to attack in a highly favorable situation.
As Rob Kearney agreed this week, there are “huge similarities” between Townsend’s Warriors and what Leinster have done in recent seasons, with the two side’s defences being one area that shares commonalities.
Both attempt to exert pressure with their line speed on the initial steps, and both have the players to compete aggressively for turnovers. Learning which defence comes out on top tomorrow will be intriguing.
How to break down the best defence in the league?
One of strangest aspects of Munster’s play in the last two seasons has been the apparent unwillingness to use James Downey in the role he is best suited to; taking flat, short passes close to the gainline and running directly.
Oddly, the last month or so of their season saw Rob Penney’s side finally unleash the 33-year-old on those direct lines, particularly in the two games against Glasgow [the 22-5 defeat in Thomond Park in April and the 16-15 semi-final loss this month].
Munster enjoyed a good return from this tactic, especially off line-out possession, when the Warriors obviously have to come from further back to make their tackles, and with less defenders.
Leinster clearly don’t have a centre in the mould of Downey, but they may look to carry at the Glasgow midfield in a direct manner off first phase set-piece ball. Brian O’Driscoll has been used to ‘hit up’ in this fashion by both Ireland and Leinster this season and may be asked to perform a similar role again.
Alternatively, Jamie Heaslip [or Sean O'Brien in the second half] could be used as the target man in the middle, although that would involve shortening their line-outs and allowing the Warriors an extra body in the defensive line.
It’s very basic play, but Leinster have been quite direct in their attack so far this season, meaning it wouldn’t be a great surprise to see them do so again.
Munster, as is their wont, also attempted to skirt the Glasgow defence by putting the ball into wide channels, getting around that outside edge and making gains along the touchlines.
The GIF above shows one such example, with Glasgow maintaining their line speed even when particularly numbers down in defence. Ian Keatley ends up floating a pass over the head of Alex Dunbar in the 13 channel, and Felix Jones makes yardage up the left.
There are clear risks in attempting such a pass, with the Warriors possessing enough strong decision-makers to pick off intercepts, as below. If Leinster are going to attempt to skirt the Warriors’ line, they will need to be at their most accurate.
Using the boot
Leinster have not been afraid to kick the ball for territory this season under O’Connor, and that seems unlikely to change in the final tomorrow. “We have to play field position pretty well,” said Rob Kearney earlier this week, indicating that more of the same is to follow.
While Glasgow do drop their wings back to cover kicks at times, they also like to push their wide men into the frontline defence to add to the general line speed. That can leave openings to kick into, as JJ Hanrahan shows above and below.
Leinster fans would probably despair to see their team be overly reliant on using the boot tomorrow evening, but the kicking tactics do not necessarily have to be based around going deep into Glasgow territory.
Munster attempted to mix their kicking strategy, going short over the top of Glasgow’s rush, as well as diagonally behind it with cross-field kicks. Neither tactic was particularly successful, but Leinster do have fine kick retrievers in the likes of Zane Kirchner, Fergus McFadden and Rob Kearney.
Varying the attack
Realistically, Leinster will need balance and variation in their attacking tactics to break down the Glasgow defence. O’Connor’s side will certainly look for an improved attacking performance over that which they offered against Ulster in the semi-finals.
Even if Leinster do manage to make initial busts of the Glasgow defence, they will have to be ruthless in finishing the chances against the work-rate and doggedness of the Warriors’ scramble.
Townsend puts a premium on the defensive effort, whatever about his side’s attacking prowess.
“We’ve got lots of players with ability and maybe people see the sleight of hand or the great step as being a key skill, whereas we see the ability to put the tackle in and then repeat effort.”