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Analysis: Conor Murray's lineout and Munster's clever set-piece attack

We’ve broken down some of the province’s best efforts from scrum and lineout in recent weeks.

MUNSTER WOULD PROBABLY admit themselves that they have room for growth with their phase-play attack and ability in turnover situations, but there is an exciting edge to their set-piece strikes this season.

Johann van Graan’s players look like they are enjoying the opportunity to put their pre-rehearsed moves into action on the pitch and they are bringing an increasingly confident intent with each passing week.

There were more fine examples of Munster’s intelligent set-piece strikes against Connacht in last weekend’s five-try win in the Guinness Pro14, and it seems likely that if van Graan’s men are to have a successful fortnight in the Champions Cup against Racing 92 and Castres this will be an important area.

Scrum strike

While Munster had already built a 20-6 lead, the try below was a key moment in finishing Connacht off heading into the final quarter of Saturday’s game at Thomond Park.

Scoring on first phase with a move that has been practised repeatedly on the training ground is a joy for any team and this try will have given Munster great confidence.

Try

One of the first things to note here is how flat Rory Scannell receives the ball after he advances up beyond out-half Ian Keatley.

We can see Scannell circled in white below just before Conor Murray’s pass arrives to him.

Scannell Flat

Scannell’s flat positioning, combined with the width and speed of Murray’s pass, means that Connacht scrum-half Caolin Blade is always going to struggle to get across from the scrum and cover Scannell [blue above].

That’s key for Munster as they want to ensure Connacht out-half Jack Carty matches up against Scannell, rather than drifting on out to the next attacker.

And Munster are successful, with Carty being forced to sit down on Scannell, as we see below in blue.

Number Up

Outside Scannell, Munster are in motion.

Chris Farrell is running a hard line [yellow below] back against the grain in the hope of sitting Connacht inside centre Pita Ahki down. Of course, if Ahki slides off Farrell too early, Scannell can slip his centre partner a short pass to burst through the midfield.

Lines

Meanwhile, Keatley is arcing out the back of Farrell [white above] to give Scannell an option of the screen pass – which we know Munster take in this instance.

Blindside wing Andrew Conway is taking a very similar line to Keatley, arcing around the back door [red above] and his position to the out-half’s left is going to be key.

We can see below that Farrell is successful in sitting Ahki down [circled in white], running a strong line to the Connacht midfielder’s outside shoulder and essentially taking him out of the defensive equation.

Keats Space

That means Blade, Carty and Ahki are all tied down inside but the main issue for Connacht is that the next two players in the defensive line have continued to drift outwards, away from the scrum.

As indicated in blue above, Eoin Griffin and Niyi Adeolokun have drifted to their right and this leaves a huge separation in the defensive line as Keatley receives the ball from Scannell.

When Connacht reflect on this score, they are likely to feel that they needed to ‘shut the gate’ in this instance – turning back in and hammering up from the outside edge to close Munster down as soon as they took the ball this flat to the line.

In fairness to Tiernan O’Halloran, he appears to recognise the threat and begins to hammer up from the backfield early on Munster fullback Simon Zebo [as indicated by red below] in an effort to close down the wide passing option for Keatley.

TOH Read, Others NO

The blue lines above indicate what Griffin and Adeolokun might feel would have served them better – altering their drift to come back infield earlier and matching up on Keatley and Conway aggressively, putting them under pressure.

With Matt Healy working across from the left wing in the backfield, Connacht will feel they should have covered this Munster move comfortably, even with Blade taken out of the equation inside.

Griffin does react and turns back in to tackle Keatley [red below] but he can’t get a dominant tackle in and the Munster out-half is free to offload.

Niyi No Man's Land

Adeolokun’s drift out onto Zebo has continued [blue above] – meaning two Connacht players are stacked onto one Munster attacker – and Conway can dart onto the offload, draw in the sweeping Healy and hit Keith Earls for an easy run-in.

Connacht will certainly feel they should have done better defensively here, but the best set-piece strikes cause confusion and discomfort for defences, bringing about these scenarios.

Munster’s accuracy here – Murray’s pass, Farrell’s hard line, the pull back from Scannell, the timing of the arced runs by Keatley and Conway, the out-half’s offload and the finishing in behind the defence – is superb and leaves Connacht floundering.

Bag of tricks

Only minutes earlier in this game, we saw Munster run another inventive strike play off a scrum, this time from the left-hand side.

LHS

Munster make fine gains down the right-hand 15-metre channel from this scrum attack, as Murray loops off Keatley before hitting Conway wide.

It’s important to note the positioning of Zebo to Murray’s inside shoulder here, providing the option of a short inside pass if Keatley and Farrell manage to sit down Connacht’s midfield defence.

If we rewind back to September 2016 and Munster’s 20-16 win away to the Dragons, we actually see Munster use that variation on the move to stunning effect.

Same Play

In this instance, Tyler Bleyendaal and Cian Bohane are able to sit down the inside defenders and create that all-important separation in the defensive line.

Murray slips the ball back inside to Ronan O’Mahony to scorch through and he feeds Darren Sweetnam to finish, though the Bandon flyer drops the ball in the in-goal area and needs the quick-reacting Bohane to save his blushes by dotting down.

It’s always fascinating to see sides use ‘old’ moves over the course of years. While it may not be a new move from Munster against Connacht, it demonstrates that they are looking for ways to unsettle the defence and strike to score on first phase.

Lineout invention

Let’s go back another 10 minutes or so in Munster’s win over Connacht and we get an example of van Graan’s side throwing something interesting at the westerners from a lineout.

LH Lineout

It’s not an orthodox lineout set-up from Munster as Rhys Marshall gets set to throw the ball in.

Keith Earls is circled in white below, having joined the lineout at the very front, where he holds Connacht prop Peter McCabe.

LH Lineout Set Up

Openside Conor Oliver [blue] is in the ‘receiver’ position for Munster.

When a forward lines up here – rather than the scrum-half – it suggests that a team will maul the lineout, although we are seeing more and more sides looking to sell a dummy by positioning one of their pack here.

Darren O’Shea wins the lineout for Munster moving to the front and we see Oliver step in [blue below] to accept the transfer at the back of a forming maul.

Earls 9

Earls [white] has slotted into a more traditional scrum-half position now in behind the forming maul, but Munster’s intention is not to drive the ball.

Oliver breaks away to the openside but as that happens, we must note the runs of Conor Murray and Andrew Conway [white below] coming from initial positions deep behind the lineout to dart down the blindside channel.

Blind Show

Again, this is about sowing confusion for the Connacht defence, aiming to draw defenders across onto that blindside or ensuring that any players breaking from the maul are caught in two minds.

As Oliver breaks off to the right instead, he has Scannell on his outside shoulder running a hard ‘unders’ line [yellow] and that’s the option he takes here.

Earls Inside

Note Earls’ line inside Oliver [white] too, providing the option of a pass slipped to the inside.

Scannell wins the gainline in a one-on-one contest against Carty here and while it’s not a clean bust of the Connacht defence, this move shows that Munster are looking to ask fresh questions of the opposition off set-piece.

What makes Earls’ inside line here even more interesting is rewinding play back to the first half and seeing Munster run this exact same play, but from a right-hand-side lineout.

RHS Lineout 1

We can see below that Earls and Oliver are in the same positions as they will take up later in the game.

Earls, Oliver

Before the lineout has even formed, we can see below that Murray and Conway are deep behind it – ready to run those blindside channel lines.

Murray Conway

As the lineout plays out, we see that Blade and McCabe on the blindside are concerned about the threat of Murray and Conway, as indicated below.

Blindside Busy

In our first example above, Blade did go to the openside but here he is drawn across by the threat on the blindside.

We know that Oliver sends the pass inside to Earls in this first use of the strike play, but Munster could have benefited from a more convincing line on his outside here.

Inside Option, No Hard Out?

In this instance, Scannell doesn’t look as if he is expecting the pass from Oliver at all but running a convincing line here could have added to the decision-making difficulty for Connacht.

As it is, Jarrad Butler and Tom McCartney react and turn back in to deal with Oliver and Earls, but the Ireland international wing is running into space and gets his offload away to the supporting Marshall.

We can even see Murray running up ahead of the ball in anticipation of a linebreak, clearly bringing a positive mindset to his team’s set-piece strike.

The fact that Oliver passes inside to Earls here and then outside to Scannell later shows that Munster are trying to paint a certain picture to teams initially, before slightly altering it later on.

Constantly asking questions in this manner is a positive for Munster, while the inclusion of backs in the lineout is a growing trend in the global game.

Backs are the new forwards

As has been well documented, scrum-half Murray claimed the ball in a lineout before his try against Leinster on St. Stephen’s Day, but it’s worth going back over that lineout play for more evidence of Munster’s set-piece ambition.

Murray LO

Let’s look at the initial lineout set-up.

The image below allows us to count up the numbers and we can see that Munster have an overload, with nine players in their lineout against Leinster’s seven.

Line Up

Jean Kleyn [4] is in the receiver position for Munster, suggesting a maul, while Dan Leavy is the defensive ‘receiver’, standing just off the lineout at the very tail.

Munster create their overload by adding three backs to the mix.

Inside centre Rory Scannell is circled in white below, while Murray is in yellow and wing Alex Wootton is in green.

Three Baks

Leinster simply do not expect Munster to throw to the front, particularly given that Scannell and Murray are beside each other – neither can jump and neither can lift, right?

But Munster spring the surprise as Murray pulls off a well-rehearsed leap, lifted smoothly at the front by Scannell and Dave Kilcoyne at the rear.

The subterfuge is not finished there, however.

As Murray is coming back to ground after his catch, we can see below that Peter O’Mahony has his back turned to Leinster and his hands wide open – seemingly ready to accept the ball.

POM Dummy Set

Tommy O’Donnell is moving towards O’Mahony and binds onto the Munster captain. What Munster are selling here is the notion that Murray will transfer the ball to O’Mahony and they will drive their maul from there.

The dummy drags Leinster’s Michael Bent and, briefly, Devin Toner, towards O’Mahony, but Munster’s real target is at the front, with CJ Stander turning to accept the transfer from Murray.

As Stander gets the ball with his back to Leinster’s James Tracy, Kleyn comes forward and binds onto the number eight – instantly creating a two-on-one for Munster.

Maul

When we think of ‘numbers-up’ situations in rugby, we so often think of overlaps out wide, but this is a prime example of Munster intelligently giving themselves superior numbers against the defence – even if only for a second.

With Kleyn binding onto Stander and Tracy engaging with the pair, what we have here is a maul. As per World Rugby’s lawbook, a maul “consists of a ball-carrier and at least one player from each team, bound together and on their feet.”

Toner, reacting to get back around from the lineout, appears to come in from the side of that maul in his desperation to prevent a try.

Toner In Side, Should Try

However, play continues when Munster might perhaps have scored directly from the lineout strike.

And after one carry to the right following Toner’s intervention, Murray is in position to show off his close-range finishing ability, picking out opposite number Jamison Gibson-Park and driving his way over – Sam Arnold running an intelligent line to his outside to add a little more distraction.

Finish

It’s fitting that Murray gets over for the score after his lineout take, although this lineout move had many moving parts and all contributed to the final product.

Whether we see more Munster backs in the lineout in the coming weeks remains to be seen, but the signs of sharp thinking and strong execution around their set-piece strikes are certainly encouraging.

- Originally published at 19.11. This article was updated at 22.15 to correct ‘Johan’ to ‘Johann’ in the second paragraph.

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Murray Kinsella

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