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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 24 October, 2018
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Analysis: Munster must be clever in managing Nakarawa's octopus-like offload

The Fijian is one of the best players in the world but Munster need to turn his strength against him.

IT’S ONLY WHEN you land into Fiji that you begin to truly understand how the breathtakingly beautiful Pacific Islands nation creates offloading magicians.

Many of us have grown up playing touch rugby as part of our training regime or just for fun, and most of us in these parts of the world are familiar with the ball being turned over after every five touches.

In Fiji, they have their own version. A turnover every single time a player is touched by an opponent. All on a shortened pitch, oftentimes marked out on the sand of a beach. This game is played seemingly everywhere across the country’s many islands.

Naturally, only having one touch before a turnover means players’ footwork is of intense importance, but it also means they have to keep the ball alive at all costs. Cue an outrageous demonstration of pre-contact passing.

Leone Nakarawa tackled by Billy Holland and Darren Sweetnam

While it’s key to get the ball away before the touch, there is obviously a major crossover into the offload in full contact rugby, with players pre-conditioned to keep the ball alive.

The offload becomes instinct, and Leone Nakarawa is just one of the Fijian conjurors who display the trait. The Racing 92 man will be one of the key players standing in Munster’s way as they look for a Champions Cup victory in Paris tomorrow [KO 3.15pm, Sky Sports].

“I believe if one or two of their players were from other nationalities, they could possibly even be World Player of the Year,” is how Munster head coach Johann van Graan puts it when talking about Racing, clearly referring to Nakarawa.

Better known as a lock, the 29-year-old Fijian has been in Racing’s number eight shirt on several occasions this season and will continue there at the U Arena tomorrow.

Nakarawa is a superb athlete, with his dynamic power, size and footwork making him difficult to stop, but those Fijian qualities of appreciating space and then possessing the skill level to pass or offload into it make him a truly world-class player.

Anyone who has seen Nakarawa play knows all about his offload. The long octopus-like arms extend up, with the ball often gripped in one hand as if it’s a loaf of bread, the towering Fijian almost teasing the opposition before he releases the offload.

What can Munster do to stop him?

It was far from being a game for offloads on that wet night in October, but Munster limited Nakarawa to just a single successful offload – below – when the sides met at Thomond Park earlier this season.

Nakarawa

Just a minute after the above offload, Munster ensured that Nakarawa couldn’t get another offload effort away.

We see that instance below, with Rory Scannell, Billy Holland and Stephen Archer combining to ground the Racing man and prevent the offload.

Prevent

Clearly, there is a big difference in the two situations here, with Nakarawa running onto quick, front-foot possession in the first example and slower ball in the second.

Naturally, a key job for Munster tomorrow is denying Racing the kind of possession they have in our first example. Allow any player to run onto that, never mind Nakarawa, and the damage will be severe.

But Munster have to be ruthlessly clinical in instances like the second when they have opportunities to team up on Nakarawa.

As we see in this case, Scannell drives in low on the Racing giant, aiming to trap his legs.

1

Next up, Holland wraps Nakarawa’s upper body in an effort to seal off the ball.

2

And finally, Archer – knowing that Nakarawa will try to offload even from this position – arrives in higher again to swing his arms up over the tackle to target the ball in Nakarawa’s big right paw.

It takes three men, but Munster do the job and send Nakarawa backwards in a momentum-boosting tackle.

In the example below, we see something similar as Tommy O’Donnell and CJ Stander combine to halt Nakarawa.

Loose

This time, O’Donnell is the lower tackler of the two, while Stander goes in high and targets Nakarawa’s arms.

CJS

Stander’s attempt is successful as Nakarawa drops the ball backwards. Racing manage to retain possession, but this is a blueprint for Munster.

Note how hard the defenders who start inside the tackle work here – the second man in to wrap high on Nakarawa comes from inside the tackle, while Archer is also coming from the inside when he joins our earlier example as third man.

Let’s underline again that the poor weather – and an intense lineout battle that we will cover in a separate piece tomorrow morning – contributed to Racing having poor quality possession in the first meeting between the teams.

That meant Nakarawa had little or no space to play with and wasn’t running into one-on-one situations, but Munster’s tactics of sending multiple players into the tackle and targeting his arms were vital to their victory in the October fixture.

Tomorrow is a totally different challenge, with the perfect conditions of the indoor U Arena far more suited to offloading. The game will look totally different to October’s and Nakarawa is set to have a great deal more space.

That will place an even bigger premium on Munster’s decision-making around Nakarawa.

“Probably the most difficult thing is how do you stop their offloads,” says van Graan. “They’ve got a lot of height. Do you compress? Because if you compress and they get it away, they’ve got speed on the outside. Do you keep your width? Then they will punish you on the inside.”

Munster’s decision-making around ‘compressing’ – i.e. committing more defenders into the tackle in an effort to prevent the offload – will need to be razor sharp tomorrow, but if they can nail it there may even be glimpses of opportunity for them.

Intercept

Nakarawa’s sheer desire to always keep the ball alive is obvious and while he is perhaps the best in the world in this department, he does throw the odd loose offload out of the tackle.

We get an example above, with O’Donnell alert and aware that Nakarawa is likely to offload even after receiving scrappy possession.

These instances are rare, with Nakarawa possessing fine decision-making skills, but Munster will be viewing his offloading game as both a threat and a potential opportunity.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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