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Sexton and Connors set the tone as Leinster's defence smothers Munster

Stuart Lancaster’s charges shut down Munster’s early attempts to get a foothold in the game.

“WHEN ALL ELSE is equal, defence is king.”

So said Stuart Lancaster on one of the several webinars he led during lockdown.

“In the lead-up to big games, if I’m coaching defence and attack, my mindset definitely works more towards defence and getting our foundations strong because I truly believe that if you’ve get an excellent defence, you’ve got a very good chance of winning,” said the Leinster senior coach.

“The serial winners typically have a very good defence.”

Lancaster and Leo Cullen’s Leinster are serial winners at present and they have designs on continuing to build their legacy in the coming weeks, months, and years, with another trophy up for grabs in the Guinness Pro14 final against Ulster this weekend.

conor-murray-is-tackled-by-caelan-doris-and-luke-mcgrath Leinster dominated Munster physically. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Defence is a key part of Leinster’s success and their record this season speaks for itself, with the eastern province having conceded the fewest points of any team in both the Pro14 and the Champions Cup so far.

Clearly all else isn’t equal between Leinster and Munster but Lancaster and Cullen’s players demonstrated their defensive pride in last weekend’s semi-final win as they stifled and smothered the southern province’s disappointing efforts to break them down.

Having conceded three tries to Munster two weekends before – albeit two of them with Devin Toner in the sin bin – Leinster looked highly motivated to shut their inter-provincial rivals out.

When Munster weren’t box-kicking the ball, which they did 15 times, they were very often being sent backwards by a Leinster defence that physically dominated Johann van Graan’s side.

Remarkably, Munster’s starting forwards made just 17 metres in their 33 carries, while World Cup-winning centre Damian de Allende only gained four metres on his five carries. 

A particularly excellent passage of defence from Leinster between the 16th and 23rd minutes was essential in this game as they repelled Munster’s early efforts to make an impact deep in their half.

Captain Johnny Sexton sets the tone on Munster’s very first visit into the Leinster 22 as he choke tackles Springbok midfielder de Allende.

DDA1

It’s a poor pass from Conor Murray off the maul, meaning de Allende has to jump and stretch overhead to gather the ball, denying him the ideal build-up into contact.

But we get a familiar sight as Sexton tackles up high, immediately targeting the ball and wrapping his arms in underneath de Allende’s torso as he looks to power forward.

1

Though Sexton is going backwards, he fights to wrap around the ball, which prevents de Allende from dropping down to the ground as he realises the danger he’s in.

Robbie Henshaw cleverly wraps himself around Sexton to provide his out-half with greater stability as he fights to keep de Allende off the ground.

2

We can see above that Sexton is communicating with referee Andrew Brace to appeal for the maul call as Chris Farrell latches onto de Allende, while Ronan Kelleher joins the contest, before Niall Scannell engages on his opposite number.

Brace correctly rules that a maul has been formed and Leinster have their turnover as Farrell takes it to ground. 

It’s a huge moment from the Leinster captain, who also pulled off a choke tackle turnover when the sides met two weekends previously.

There aren’t many out-halves who offer Sexton’s competitiveness in defence but the 35-year-old has long been delivering plays like this one, which saps energy from Munster on their first visit into the 22 and boosts his team-mates, who vocally celebrate the turnover.

Less than two minutes later, we see Leinster once again taking de Allende out of the game – this time through a Will Connors chop tackle.

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It’s another prime attacking opportunity for Munster and they put CJ Stander out in midfield from a six-man lineout, meaning Connors – who was the top tackler in this game with 14 – moves into Leinster’s backline defence.

Connors’ linespeed is excellent and we see another of his excellent low tackles as he drops in low around de Allende’s ankles to bring him to ground behind the gainline.

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Munster now have to move back downfield to resource the breakdown and Sexton does brilliantly to accentuate their troubles by counter-rucking the arriving Stander, using the number eight’s left leg as a lever to lift him up and drive him backwards.

22

This breakdown fight from Sexton further slows the Munster recycle and give his team-mates time to set up their defensive line.

Billy Holland has to sprint hard downfield and around the corner for Munster and is left isolated as he gets set up to carry on second phase.

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As we can see above, Murray delivers another poor pass to Holland’s back shoulder and the second row spills the greasy ball as he looks up at the onrushing, well-organised Leinster defence.

JJ Hanrahan scoops up the ball and has to kick it away under pressure, giving James Lowe a very straightforward catch in the backfield. 

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It’s another big win for the Leinster defence in the first quarter of the game.

Three minutes later, Munster get another shot in Leinster’s 22 and we see another element of the excellent defensive performance – the lineout, which is always a major part of defence.

Leinster had vital lineout steals from Scott Fardy, Toner, and Ryan Baird in this game and while they don’t quite finish off the steal here, it’s excellent lineout defence.

LO

In this instance, Fardy wins the ball in the air on the Munster throw but Devin Toner just can’t hold the bouncing ball to complete the turnover, meaning Stander regathers the ball.

It’s strong work from Fardy – as well as lifters Caelan Doris and Jack Conan – to read Holland’s movement to the front of the lineout and then get up in front of him, managing to get a hand onto the ball and make a legal steal.

Munster regather possession but then Connors makes another decisive intervention on the very next phase.

Strip

The openside flanker shows the variety of his defensive skills here as he targets the ball and strips it from Scannell’s grasp as Doris tackles the Munster hooker.

Unfortunately for Connors, his strip goes forward and referee Brace awards Munster a scrum.

The ensuing set-piece is a battle, as Leinster apply huge pressure and Scannell’s hook gets blocked in at the second rows’ feet, meaning the ball doesn’t get back to Stander at the base of the scrum.

Scrum

Munster look to get moving forward, hoping to win a penalty, but Leinster’s power comes to the fore as Andrew Porter and co. splinter through them. Stander is unable to get at the ball and it ends up spilling out off the foot of tighthead Stephen Archer.

Again, Hanrahan scoops up the loose ball and feeds Chris Farrell for a strong carry as he beats the tackle attempt of Connors.

But on second phase, Leinster get back in the ascendency…

Gainline

With Jack O’Donoghue the obvious ball carrier, Henshaw gets off the line at speed and drops in at the Munster openside’s knees just before Luke McGrath joins the tackle.

Scannell latches onto O’Donoghue but the gainline has already been lost.

Peter O’Mahony does better on the next phase as he breaks the tackles of Conan and Sexton…

POM

… with Stander giving him a bit of extra stability until Porter brings the Munster captain to deck.

There is gainline progress in this O’Mahony carry and Munster need to make it count, but again Leinster respond well.

With Hugo Keenan [yellow below] calling for bodies on that side of the ruck, Devin Toner [white] and Connors [red] make good ‘hold or fold’ decisions, working around the corner to Leinster’s right.

Fold

With Toner and Connors folding around, Garry Ringrose [blue] can shift further out from the ruck and he makes the low tackle on de Allende, again denying the Springbok centre a chance to build momentum.

Ringrose

Having folded around from the left, Connors is then in position to assist in the tackle before both Leinster men start working back to their feet.

Munster play infield to Stander for a one-out carry but he’s stopped by Fardy, before Archer and Scannell make further one-out carries that fail to breach the gainline due to strong tackles from Porter and then Conan.

Murray opts to bounce back to the left next to find Stander, Munster’s key ball-carrier in the pack but again Connors is waiting with a chop tackle. With Leinster focusing on chopping him all night, Stander made just five metres from his 11 carries in this game. 

Connors

Connors’ tackle opens the window for Fardy to have a jackal attempt and though he fails to secure the ball, he slows Munster’s possession.

Devoid of any plans to generate momentum should their one-out carrying game fail to give them momentum and with Leinster shutting down their basic phase play, Munster kick the ball away as Hanrahan grubber-kicks into space occupied by Leinster fullback Jordan Larmour.

As we detailed on Saturday, Leinster then kicked out of their 22 for Keenan to make a turnover hit on Murray, from where they struck superbly from the scrum, kicked to force a knock-on from Keith Earls, won a scrum penalty, then scored the only try of the game from their five-metre maul.

All of it stemmed from Leinster’s defensive effort in those opening 23 minutes.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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