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Analysis: Munster and the Chiefs do damage with open-play mauls

There were tries from the clever ploy in both the Pro12 and Super Rugby last weekend.

THE MAUL HAS predominantly been seen as an extension of the set-piece in rugby, an add-on to the lineout and something that only happens close to the touchlines.

Leighton Hodges awards Munster their second try Munster burst their way over for a clever mauling try from close-range. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The rise of the choke tackle in recent years has, however, resulted in more and more mauls forming during open play, as defensive teams hold ball carriers up off the ground and turn potential tackle situations into mauls.

Increasingly, we’re also now seeing attacking teams look to form mauls in open play. That is, the team in possession of the ball are deliberately forming mauls away from the lineout.

This is not a revolutionary new tactic, but the impression is that it is one returning to fashion, given that we’ve seen a number of strong examples in recent weeks. South African sides have used the maul in open play down through the years, and now we are again seeing certain teams becoming more systematic in their use of the open-play maul.

Munster mettle

Skip to 0:20 of the video below to get a fine example of Munster setting up an attacking maul from the base of a ruck during last weekend’s 42-20 win over Connacht in the Guinness Pro12.

Impressively, this moment comes after 12 phases of attack, Munster showing intelligence and organisational skills to set their maul up.

Source: PRO12 Rugby/YouTube

Lock Donncha O’Callaghan picks the ball from the base of the ruck, but rather go on a typical jamming carry to the left, he turns his back towards the Connacht defenders, immediately presenting the ball to teammate CJ Stander.

One of the keys here is that O’Callaghan doesn’t really attempt to make progress towards the tryline, sacrificing any potential gain for stability in the forming maul. That also means that Eoghan Masterson’s [7] chop tackle attempt is unsuccessful.

BJ Botha, bracing on O’Callaghan’s left, does superbly to ride John Muldoon’s [6] effort to bring the already-forming maul to deck.

With Masterson still bound on O’Callaghan and back on his feet now, the elements are there for a letter-of-the-law maul.

Maul The definition of a maul in the World Rugby lawbook. Source: World Rugby

With Munster’s Tommy O’Donnell, Keith Earls, Billy Holland, John Ryan, Duncan Casey and Denis Hurley all joining the maul, the momentum is irresistible and Anthony Foley’s side crash over the the score.

Of importance is the manner Munster transfer the ball to the tail of the maul, from O’Callaghan, through Holland and back to Casey. It ensures the pill is kept completely safe from any potential Connacht hands looking to hold it up over the tryline and ensures the scoring action is utterly smooth.

Foley is a keen believer in the power of the maul in rugby and Munster have long been strong in this area of the game. To bring the maul into open play so successfully in this instance will have been hugely encouraging.

It’s often those final two or three metres that attacking teams find the hardest to gain when hammering the defence close to the tryline and Munster demonstrated an intelligent, well-organised and difficult-to-defend manner of doing so.

Chiefs crash through

Also last weekend, we saw Super Rugby’s Chiefs score a try thanks to an open-play maul, as shown in the video below.

This score comes on phase two of an attack that stems from a lineout on the left side of the pitch, from where the Chiefs sent powerful centre Seta Tamanivalu crashing up in midfield.

Sonny Bill Williams and Michael Leitch arrive in to secure the breakdown and then play slows as the Chiefs prepare themselves for a pre-planned maul.

Matt Symons [4] performs the O’Callaghan role of picking the ball and turning his back to the opposition, with Sam Cane [7] and Michael Fitzgerald [5] binding onto him as he takes contact.

Cheetahs hooker Stephan Coetzee is the man charged with bringing the play swiftly to ground, but the stability afforded to Symons by his Chiefs teammates means Coetzee can’t make the instantaneous chop he’s looking for.

Is this initially a maul at all?

Maul?

Remember that a maul requires at least one defender to be on his feet, bound to the ball carrier, which is arguably the case in the image above.

But just a split second later, Coetzee is not on his feet, attempting as he is to complete a tackle.

Maul?

How long does the tackler have to complete the tackle? Paul O’Connell asked Joubert that same question during the Six Nations. In this instance, the South African referee doesn’t actually call a maul at any stage.

The fact that the Chiefs are clearly attempting to set up a maul suggests otherwise, but it could be argued that Symons’ teammates are simply binding on him before contact as forwards do at so many rucks before carrying the ball.

The counter point of that might be a suggestion that the Chiefs are forming a variation of the ‘Flying Wedge’ here.

PIC 3 Law 10.4 (p). Source: World Rugby

Whatever the case, Symons transfers the ball to Liam Messam and then the second contentious moment occurs.

In the split second that Coetzee finally brings Symons to the ground, the Chiefs are shifting away to the left with the ball in Messam’s hands. Ahead of Messam is Fitzgerald and it’s the Chiefs second row who engages with the arriving Cheetah Francois Uys [yellow boots].

GIF 1

Coetzee is on the ground and out of the game at this exact moment, so Uys is the only Cheetahs player who can be involved in a maul. Uys does come into contact with Fitzgerald, but Fitzgerald is not the ball carrier in this instance.

It could easily be argued that Fitzgerald is obstructing Uys from making a tackle on Messam in this instance. Knowing whether referee Joubert felt there was a maul formed at any point would provide more clarity, but the Cheetahs might feel hard done by here.

That said, the Chiefs carry out their pre-planned move swiftly and with some power to burst through, while Messam finishes well with Cheetahs fullback Clayton Blommetjies looking hesitant to attempt a saving tackle.

This incident does point to the difficulty for match referees in adjudicating this tactic. Is the ‘tackler’ allowed time to complete his tackle? Is the defender actually still on his feet? Is there obstruction ahead of the ball?

All of these questions and more must be answered in the space of a second or two. The fact that referees don’t have a huge array of pre-existing images like this one in their head also means their judgements are likely to be less decisive.

Chiefs pinged

Interestingly, the Chiefs attempted to use the very same play later in the game, although the lineout was on the right-hand side on this occasion.

Tamanivalu carries in midfield again [Heinrich Brussouw successfully turning the tackle into a "Maul!" according to Joubert], before the Chiefs slow play down and set themselves up.

This time it’s Fitzgerald who’s first man in, with Leitch and Hika Elliot [2] in close attendance. The Cheetahs’ Coetzee and Maks van Dyk [3] clearly engage, so there’s no doubt over whether or not this is a maul.

PIC 4

The counter drive of Coetzee and van Dyk shunts the Chiefs back to the right side of the ruck, as Joubert again calls ‘Maul!’

From there, the Chiefs are patient, but Uys is a little smarter this time in clearly stepping back away from contact as the Chiefs look to start moving forward on that right-hand side of the ruck.

That contributes to the separation between the Chiefs spearhead of Symons [4] and Ben Tameifuna [3], and the rearguard of Cane [7] and Leitch [8].

Open Play Maul.1

Joubert correctly blows up for the accidental offside, and he could also probably ping the Chiefs for obstruction ahead of the ball.

Still, we will follow this apparently growing trend of mauling in open play with some interest in the coming months. Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are among the other teams who have used it effectively this season, as we saw during the Six Nations.

The difficulty of refereeing these situations is obvious, so there are challenges for match officials as well as defenders in the open-play maul. Those demands extend to the attackers too, with so many elements for them to be accurate with.

Munster’s use of this tactic close to the tryline is of particular interest, given the already stated difficulty of making up those vital final metres.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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