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Analysis: Conan's Lowe-assisted try shows Leinster at their basic best

The eastern province’s basic skills were superior to Munster’s in the Pro14 semi-final.

“I THINK THEIR basics are something that makes them stand out.

“It’s a simple game plan they play with but it’s incredibly hard to get the ball off them.

Jack Conan celebrates scoring with team mates Leinster have set the standard this season. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I’d imagine their stats for knock-ons and turnovers is very, very low. They just do basic rugby very, very well and execute excellently. I think their basics are the difference between them and the next few teams.”

So says Peter O’Mahony when asked what it is about Leinster that is helping them to set the standard in European rugby at present.

While Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have their team playing rugby that is superior to most other sides, there is no rocket science involved.

O’Mahony’s assessment is accurate and the try Leinster scored through Jack Conan in the first-half of Saturday’s win over Munster in the Guinness Pro14 semi-finals is a fine example of what he is talking about.

The hit

The score starts with a huge hit from 21-year-old James Ryan, who has been a tyrant in contact all season long.

Before we look at the tackle itself, it’s just worth taking note of the incident below, where Munster lock Jean Kleyn pushes Ryan’s head into the ground after the Leinster man has made a tackle and attempted to counter-ruck.

Tangle

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There’s nothing major here, just the kind of niggle we should expect between the two locks who generally fill their team’s ‘enforcer’ roles, but the tangle is worth keeping in mind as we look at Ryan’s hit less than two minutes later.

Munster are in possession inside their own half and Ryan glances up from the defensive line.

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It’s unclear if Ryan really clocks the fact that it’s Kleyn opposite him, and this kind of ruck position always allows the defence to bring their best linespeed, but the Leinster man certainly doesn’t hold back.

He hammers up from the defensive line with aggression and smashes Kleyn just after he receives the ball from Conor Murray.

Hit

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As ever, Ryan’s tackle displays his excellent technique.

He leads with his left shoulder, driving into Kleyn first around his midriff but also wrapping down onto his legs as he hammers him to the ground.

“A hit like that lifts the whole spirit of the team,” says Ryan’s team-mate, Jordan Larmour. “Things like that really lift your energy and once you see that you’re thinking ‘I’m going to make the next one.’ A hit like that rubs off on everyone.”

The turnover

Indeed, the effect is instantaneous here, as Ryan’s team-mates pile in behind him to earn a turnover.

Turnover

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Rhys Ruddock is the first player onto the scene after Ryan’s hit and with Munster supporting players John Ryan and CJ Stander needing to shift backwards to hit the breakdown, he is able to get into a strong position over Kleyn.

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As we can see above, Ruddock makes a decision to first latch onto Kleyn’s jersey, giving himself stability if one of the Munster rucking players drives into him.

Ruddock doesn’t have a clear sighting of the ball for a traditional jackal turnover effort and instead makes a decision to shift himself forward and beyond the ball.

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We can see in the shot above that Ruddock needs his hands to support himself here, and one could argue that he is off his feet, but the Leinster man swiftly changes tack and grips onto John Ryan to clear him to the ground.

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Ruddock is perhaps a little lucky that referee Stuart Berry is on the other side of the ruck, and possibly misses his hands on the ground, but his reaction to drive forward and take John Ryan out of the equation has opened up space behind him.

Even before Ruddock fells John Ryan, we can see that James Ryan has worked back up to his feet over the ball post-tackle.

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He almost instantly returns to the ground though, mainly due to Sean Cronin colliding with him from behind.

Berry also seems to read Stander opting against actively engaging with the Leinster lock as contributing to Ryan going to ground.

As highlighted below, Stander instead looks to reach over him and go for the ball.

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Cronin has thumped into the contest to the left of James Ryan, and he too is off balance.

The hooker makes an effort to stay on his feet as he stumbles, however, and Berry seems happy that he has not deliberately dived off his feet.

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Many will point out with some justification that Leinster are guilty of going off their feet at this ruck, and Munster argue the same here, but it is worth noting the sheer number of rucks in rugby where players end up off their feet.

Driving into or towards opposition players at ruck time inevitably takes rucking players off their feet and Berry seems content that Leinster aren’t deliberately doing so here.

Kleyn has squeezed the ball back between his legs by now, hoping to buy Munster time to clear over him, but Ruddock, Ryan and Cronin have ensured it’s on Leinster’s side.

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It’s a messy situation as Jordi Murphy falls on the ball in the shot above.

Murphy’s actions here could potentially have been penalised under Law 15.16 (d), which states that players must not “fall over the ball as it is coming out of a ruck.”

That said, one could also argue that Stander is not entitled to attempt to play the ball with his hands in this situation either.

Glance at Law 15.11 and we can see that “no player may handle the ball unless they were able to get their hands on the ball before the ruck formed and stay on their feet.”

Is there a even a ruck here? The law book tells us that a ruck has formed when “at least one player from each team are in contact, on their feet and over the ball which is on the ground.”

Given that Leinster’s players are not on their feet, is it a ruck? We are entering a rabbit hole here but Berry provides no feedback during the entire incident and simply says “good counter-ruck” as Murphy is getting back to his feet after securing the ball. Leinster play to the whistle, which never comes.

Murphy’s task is made all the easier by a thumping clearout from the arriving Conan on Stander.

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Murphy works back up to his feet and, with Tadhg Furlong latching onto him, drives into Billy Holland’s tackle in the first phase of Leinster’s attack, launched by Ryan’s superb hit on Kleyn.

The key carry

Leinster out-half Ross Byrne carries on the next phase after Luke McGrath finds him with a deep pass, with James Ryan, Ruddock and Jack McGrath combining to clear Kleyn away at the ruck.

Tighthead prop Furlong is next onto the ball and he offloads out of the tackle to Joey Carbery on his right shoulder.

Furlong

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As we can see above, Keith Earls reads Furlong’s intentions and shuts Carbery down immediately, with Furlong and Cronin hitting the ruck, before Murphy and Larmour arrive to guard over the ball.

Even still, it shows Furlong’s comfort on the ball and his skill level.

Luke McGrath swings the ball back to the left, where Ruddock is stopped by a good hit from Kleyn, Jack McGrath and Conan resourcing the breakdown.

Byrne has to carry again on the next phase under pressure from Munster’s linespeed, but then comes the key surge on what Leinster call a ‘Tiger’ play – a carry off the scrum-half.

Jordi

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Murphy’s form in recent times has been excellent and this kind of impactful carry has been a prominent feature of his game.

Importantly, he surges onto the ball at pace, rather than taking McGrath’s pass at a standstill.

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It’s obvious how Murphy is quite isolated above, meaning he will need to buy his team time to support him.

The skill he demonstrates next allows him to both make a positive impression over the gainline and buy that time for the support to get to him.

Murphy, like many of the Leinster forwards, possesses fine footwork and he shows that here as he steps off his right foot at a late stage, with JJ Hanrahan already beginning to commit towards a tackle.

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Murphy targets the sliver of space to Hanrahan’s outside shoulder and uses another key tool to aid his carry – the fend.

The Leinster flanker shifts the ball into his left arm and fires out his right to fend Hanrahan, ensuring he can’t get a shoulder into the tackle.

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As Rory Scannell then bites in from the outside, Murphy cleverly ducks low and pumps his legs through the tackle.

Because it’s a positive carry for Leinster, Munster’s players folding around from the inside of the ruck have to go backwards before they can make it to the far side to defend.

Below, we can see that means Murray and Jack O’Donoghue are very tight to the breakdown.

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Neither of them actually look to compete for the ball, nor does Scannell, but the delay in getting around the corner and spreading out in the defensive line has a telling effect on the next phase.

The power

With Byrne shoving Scannell away from the tackle, scrum-half McGrath is able to whip the ball away rapidly.

It’s instantly obvious how Leinster, typically, have managed to keep their width in attack, while Munster’s defence is narrow because of Murphy’s carry and the delayed fold.

Lowe

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Recognising that Munster are struggling to get the required width in their defence, Isa Nacewa makes an intelligent decision to pass the ball to James Lowe nice and early.

The pass is accurate and means Lowe can almost instantly get up towards top speed as he bursts outside Sammy Arnold.

Simon Zebo closes up from Munster’s backfield, but Lowe’s pure power is clear as he thunders over the Munster fullback – who might have been disappointed with his tackle technique.

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As we can see above, Zebo approaches the tackle attempt with his head on the ‘wrong’ side, across Lowe’s body.

It means he loses sight of Lowe before there is even contact and it makes it very difficult for Zebo to get any impact into the collision.

Lowe channels his power down through Zebo’s left shoulder, the Leinster wing using his two arms as if they were bullbars on a vehicle, his whole body bracing into the collision to bump Zebo into the ground.

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Arnold stretches out to scrag Lowe but the Leinster wing has characteristically freed his left hand for an offload and he finds Nacewa.

Again, it’s a basic detail but Leinster’s support play off the ball tends to be excellent and Nacewa surges into the 22 as Murray dives in to tackle him from behind.

The ruck

The paradoxical thing about linebreaks and offloads and tackle busts is that they can often leave the attacking team open to being turned over.

That’s the case here but Nacewa shows off more basic skill to fight on the ground and buy his team-mates time to arrive to the breakdown.

Ruck

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Nacewa first hits the ground in the position below, on his left side.

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At the top of the image, we can see Andrew Conway closing in and Scannell is just off-screen to the right, also a turnover threat.

Recognising that he has little in the way of immediate support, Nacewa takes action.

He rolls himself to his right, over the ball, closing it off from the two Munster players.

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Nacewa’s work on the ground buys just enough time for McGrath [red below] and Lowe [white] to get there and clear Scannell – who approches the brekdown from the side – away.

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That does still leave Conway on his feet and while he is not entitled to clamp over the ball, Leinster still want him well out of the way.

Furlong arrives as the third player to the ruck for an emphatic clearout on Conway.

The Leinster tighthead wraps around Conway with his right arm as he drives his left shoulder into the Munster man’s chest.

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Conway is in a relatively unstable position and immediately flies backwards when Furlong makes impact, with the Leinster man ending up off his feet.

Some will argue it the other way, but in terms of how the game is currently refereed, Furlong’s actions are not obviously worth a penalty.

It’s worth remembering that there are bodies underneath Furlong here and if he had simply continued running forward, he would have trampled on them.

It could be argued that Furlong makes no effort to stay on his feet but it’s worth stressing again that players come off their feet at the majority of rucks as they look to generate force in clearing players out.

It’s also worth noting that none of the Munster players reacts or appeals here. The match officials seem to read it as an impactful and aggressive clearout and play continues.

The movement

With Luke McGrath in the ruck, Carbery acts as the scrum-half and scoops the ball up before offloading to Ruddock on his right.

The flanker makes a grinding carry with James Ryan latching on, but we’re as interested in tracking Lowe’s movement as he comes from the left-hand side.

Lowe Move

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As Ruddock gets on the ball, Lowe is to the left of the previous ruck, having just helped to clear away Scannell.

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As Ruddock carries into the tackle of Billy Holland, Lowe is tracking infield, working to get to the far side of the subsequent ruck.

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Lowe is so often active in this manner, eager for his next involvement in the game and keen to add options to Leinster’s attack.

“I’m just trying to watch him and learn from the things he does,” says 20-year-old Larmour. “He likes to come off his wing and get involved early.”

Lowe’s basic movement in this instance means that after James Ryan deals with tackler Holland after Ruddock’s carry, Devin Toner acting as guard, Leinster strike to score on the next phase.

The pass

Jack McGrath isn’t best known for his passing game, but his skills shine through here.

Indeed, the short tip-on passes and inside passes from Leinster’s forwards have been important to their success this season – another basic skill they have been nailing.

McGrath’s excellent pass in this instance was far from an isolated example from Leinster’s forwards against Munster but it was particularly successful.

Inside

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“It’s something that last year, when Stu [Lancaster] came in, it was bringing that unpredictability into our play, making it hard for teams to play against us,” says McGrath of these passing skills.

“We’re all much more comfortable with the ball in hand and the way we’re training now. James is a smart player and runs great lines and he got there, good chat out of him. It’s the way we want to play and it was nice to be involved in something like that.”

It’s worth noting that a defensive slip from Munster plays into Leinster’s hands here.

As the third defender out from the ruck, or the ’30′ as Munster term it, Rhys Marshall is lined up on McGrath, as indicated by white below.

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Marshall has McGrath well covered but Arnold inside him – the second defender out from the ruck, or the ’20′ – is also attracted to McGrath, as indicated by red above.

Arnold’s first role here is to cover the inside pass space and dealing with Lowe must be his first concern, but he is lured out on McGrath and that leaves clear space for Lowe to burst through, beating the despairing James Cronin.

Lowe gives McGrath an “inside, inside” call but the pass still requires good skill from McGrath to catch and release in the space of a second, all while eyeballing Arnold’s outside shoulder.

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McGrath angles his running line slightly in towards the ruck and that, combined with his eye contact, convinces Arnold he is a ball-carrying threat, luring the Munster centre into the tackle.

With Marshall and Arnold now both essentially marking the same attacking player, McGrath slips Lowe into the hole and through the defence with a lovely pass.

“Who’d have thought it, Jack throwing the tip-ons!” says Leinster assistant coach John Fogarty. “It was a pleasure to watch.

“We’ve used the space we have indoors [in the gym at their UCD training base] to improve the boys’ skills in close quarters and Stuart on the field pushes so much of that – that we have to be the type of attacking team that is unpredictable.”

The finishing touch

“That little out-the-back-door slip to Jack was a touch of class,” says Larmour of Lowe’s assist for Conan to score.

Even before the offload, Lowe demonstrates his class.

Offload

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Immediately upon accepting the pass from McGrath, Lowe tucks the ball into his right arm, therefore freeing his left for a possible fend on Cronin that is not required in the end.

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Zebo is closing up from the backfield as Lowe bursts past Cronin and this time the Leinster wide man opts to use his footwork to beat the Munster fullback.

Lowe feints to Zebo’s left but hammers back off his right foot to the fullback’s right side instead, a rapid-fire sidestep.

While he’s in the process of stepping back off his right foot, Lowe also transfers the ball to his left hand, freeing his right to fend Zebo forcefully.

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As he goes to ground under the footwork and fend, Zebo instinctively lifts his right leg and trips Lowe, who would probably score the try himself otherwise.

It means that Lowe is stumbling towards the tryline and as he falls he gets a shout from Conan to his right, the number eight having run a fine support line from his initial position on the right shoulder of Jack McGrath – highlighted below.

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Again, it’s a basic element of the game but Leinster are always working hard to get players through the line in support.

Even as he falls, Lowe manages to get another transfer of the ball in, shifting it back to his right hand in order to offload to Conan.

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Lowe releases the ball out the back of the hand with accuracy, giving Conan the easiest of finishes after his work off the ball.

A touch of class to finish a try founded on basic skills – tackling, footwork, rucking, passing, support play, off-the-ball work rate and communication.

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Murray Kinsella

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