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Leinster learn from England in pursuit of multi-threat attacking kicking game

Robbie Henshaw and Johnny Sexton delivered two superb touches against Munster on Saturday.

IT WAS TYPICAL of Leinster to score just before half-time on Saturday night, moving into the lead for the first time in the game at a crucial point.

But the manner in which they finished their try wasn’t quite typical.

We know that Leinster can use attacking kicks to great effect but it’s usually Johnny Sexton or Ross Byrne who deliver them. 

Keen as they are to become a more complete side, Leinster have been working on encouraging the rest of their backs to work hard on their attacking kicking games and we’ve seen some good efforts from Garry Ringrose in recent seasons.

Robbie Henshaw has always been able to hoof a ball over long distances but his delicate grubber-kick assist for Ringrose to send Leinster into a 17-13 lead just before the break on Saturday was an unexpected delight.

Having started at a lineout on the left, Leinster are battering away at the Munster tryline when referee Andrew Brace signals a penalty advantage…

Brace

Henshaw reacts instantly. We can see below that he turns to Ringrose on his outside to communicate that he’s going to nudge the ball in behind…

Chat

… before turning his head back in towards the ball to call for the delivery from Luke McGrath…

RH

The little bit of shape around Henshaw here is important to the success of the kick.

Firstly, number eight Jack Conan acts as a decoy ahead of McGrath’s pass. Conan’s presence means interior defenders Tommy O’Donnell [red below] and Jeremy Loughman [blue] have to be wary of a short pass from McGrath.

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Because they have to respect Conan’s presence, Loughman and O’Donnell are therefore delayed in reacting as the ball instead goes to Henshaw for the kick.

O’Donnell reacts to the kick and attempts to get back to it but – having been delayed by Conan – he is just beaten there by Ringrose.

Meanwhile, Johnny Sexton’s positioning in behind Henshaw is also crucial.

As McGrath’s pass travels through the air to Henshaw, we can see below that Sexton [yellow] is already in motion from left to right in behind Henshaw.

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Sexton’s movement makes it look like Leinster are running a standard ‘blocker’ or ‘screen’ play where Henshaw will potentially pass the ball behind the hard-running Ringrose [white above] to Sexton. 

Sexton’s movement is particularly important in distracting Chris Farrell and Keith Earls [both red above] in the Munster defence, as they rush up hoping to shut down this kind of play – or perhaps a short pass from Henshaw to Ringrose – and are therefore not in a position to turn and react to a kick.

And so it is that Henshaw catches Munster completely by surprise by dropping the ball onto his right foot and clipping a perfectly-weighted kick into the in-goal area.

Try

[Click here if you cannot view the clip above]

This might look straightforward from Henshaw but it’s nothing of the kind.

This kind of short grubber kick from close-range is prominent in rugby league on the use-it-or-lose-it last phase of possession but it’s a very difficult skill that can easily go wrong – either being blocked by defenders or rolling over the deadball line after a heavy nudge.

“Coaches can always be a little split,” admitted Leo Cullen afterwards. “It’s great when you put a kick in behind and Garry scores, but sometimes you wonder if you should keep it in the forwards. But we had the penalty advantage so it was definitely worth going after and really good execution from the two lads.”

As an aside, Munster wouldn’t ever have a ‘sweeper’ positioned behind the defence when they’re defending their own tryline as they are here. Instead, the hope would be that an interior defender close to the ruck or someone from the outside would be able to react in the usually unlikely event that the opposition produce a perfect short kick in behind.

For Leinster to have this developing attacking kicking threat from Henshaw is a huge advantage and Sexton revealed post-match that kicking is something the inside centre and Ringrose have been working hard on in recent months.

“In terms of our kicking side of the game, it’s something that we sort of highlighted that we could be better at because obviously we like to play with the ball in hand but to be a top-quality team, you need to have all the tricks,” said Sexton.

“You look at some of the best teams in the world at the moment, you look at England for example, they’ve got their 10 and 12 [George Ford and Owen Farrell]. If Henry Slade plays, they’ve a kicker there, Elliot Daly at 15.

“So they’ve got kickers across the backline and Robbie and Garry have worked exceptionally hard on their kicking over lockdown, Garry with his weaker left foot trying to bring that into his game and Robbie’s the same.

“They’re both great footballers and they both have the ability, so they just had an emphasis there, and you saw a few lovely kicks from both of them tonight.”

Henshaw had one other kick in the game, chipping ahead down the right to very nearly create a try-scoring situation, while Ringrose had a similar kick in the second half and also smashed the ball downfield from the base of a ruck late in the game.

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Sexton had five kicks in play, with one clever diagonal kick pass [with penalty advantage playing] very nearly setting Dave Kearney up for a first-half try, only for the bouncing ball to beat the right wing to the touchline.

Among the other four Sexton kicks was an outstanding chip that could have resulted in a Leinster try. It came in the opening minutes of the second half after a scything McGrath break off a scrum inside his own half. 

When McGrath is grounded inside the Munster half, fullback Shane Daly and left wing Keith Earls [white below] opt to counter-ruck with Damian de Allende…

CR

Dave Kearney and Ringrose do an excellent job of preventing the turnover, however, and Caelan Doris picks to carry forward for another few metres, leaving Daly and Earls [white below] on the ground behind play.

Ground

Sexton’s head is always on a swivel assessing the defence and he has noted how bare Munster’s backfield is now as a result of Daly and Earls committing into the counter-ruck.

Below, we can see Sexton communicating out to Henshaw and Jordan Larmour his intention for the next phase.

JS

The shot above also shows us just how empty Munster’s backfield is as Leinster recycle the ball after Doris’ carry.

Just before McGrath passes to Sexton, we can see below that Earls and Daly [white] are still working back from the previous ruck.

Right wing Andrew Conway [red] has dropped back off the frontline of the defence out on that side, worried about the backfield but also wary of the threat out on his wing.

In the split second below, we can see Sexton glancing out to his left [as highlighted in yellow] to check on Conway’s positioning, assessing the situation even as he is expecting the pass from McGrath.

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That pass duly arrives and there is subtle genius in Sexton’s execution of the kick.

As Sexton receives the ball and begins the process of dropping it onto his right foot, his body angle and language suggest he is going to go for a cross-field kick out to his left [yellow below], where James Lowe is holding width just out of shot.

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Indeed, Conway [red above] has taken two steps back to his right in response to that danger.

But Sexton is disguising his intention by giving Conway the eyes here, instead using the outside of his right boot to chip down the middle of the the pitch.

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[Click here if you cannot view the clip above]

We can see above how quickly Henshaw and Larmour are onto the chase, underlining the value of Sexton having earlier communicated the space he had identified.

Larmour takes off at high speed in pursuit of the kick but Conway [red below] and Farrell [pink] have both reacted well, turning to work back even before the ball has left Sexton’s boot.

Turn

Their decisive reactions prove key as Conway gets to the ball first and then Farrell dots it down in Munster’s in-goal area after Larmour’s tackle causes Conway to spill it back over the tryline.

Sexton’s excellent kick helps deliver Leinster a five-metre scrum platform, a prime try-scoring chance, but they uncharacteristically come up empty-handed as Scott Fardy and Conan are penalised for going off their feet at an ensuing breakdown.

Sexton

[Click here if you cannot view the clip above]

Even if they didn’t get the scoreboard reward in this instance, it was a classy touch from Sexton and a sign of Leinster moving in the right direction with their kicking game.

“The stats say that the team that kicks the most wins and it’s more like the team that kicks the best wins,” said Sexton.

“It’s something that England have got the best of over us [Ireland] in the last few years and it’s something that we really need to up, me included, with those.

“There were a couple of nice kicks from a few of us in the backs tonight and we’ll go forward from there.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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