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Analysis: Munster's worrying malaise affecting all aspects of their play

Anthony Foley’s men are in a hugely concerning position with two Pro12 games left.

PUTTING YOUR FINGER on the major underlying tactical or technical defect in Munster’s game this season is not a straightforward task.

The truth is that there is not one overriding theme that links Munster’s defeats and underperformances together, rather that they are consistently finding a way to shoot themselves in the foot.

Munster's players watch replay's of Connacht's Niyi Adeolokun second try on the TMO

Against Connacht last weekend, Anthony Foley’s side had major issues in shifting the ball wide in attack, repeatedly turning possession over when it was moved into the 15-metre channels.

The scrum was a problem for Munster at the Sportsground too, leading to James Cronin’s costly yellow card coming towards half time. What of their indiscipline, as Foley’s men gave up 15 penalties and a further yellow card to Billy Holland?

At other points in the season, it’s been lineout failings or defensive malfunctions. Place-kicking has been the cause of defeat at other times, while we could point to the kick-chasing game as costly in other instances. The list goes on.

And yet, most frustratingly for the entire province, all of these aspects of their game have looked excellent in short glimpses at other times. Even within the Connacht encounter, there were moments of attacking class from Munster, intelligent snippets of breakdown work, or a steely defensive line that occasionally sent Pat Lam’s men backwards.

That’s what is angering and saddening supporters of the province; the belief that Munster are capable of better. With the squad suffering from a crippling lack of confidence, almost every part of their game has been suffering intermittently.

The concerning thing is that those intermittent failings have increasingly become the norm when the pressure is applied on Munster in big games.

Tommy O'Donnell dejected at the end of the game

The cold, hard facts are that Foley’s men have won just seven of their most recent 18 games, having started the season with seven wins in eight. The decline has left Munster scrapping desperately for Champions Cup qualification.

Missing out on that target in the final two rounds of the Guinness Pro12 would be incredibly costly for the province and set them back at least another year in their hoped-for recovery under a new director of rugby.

Blind alleys

While Munster did score two tries against Connacht, their attacking efforts were a source of frustration. Time and time again, the visitors lost possession close to the touchlines as their intent to stretch Connacht failed.

Into Touch

As early as the third minute, with what is essentially Munster’s first attack of the game, they come up short on the outside edge.

Johnny Holland fires the ball deep to Rory Scannell behind Mike Sherry, before the inside centre throws a nice skip pass to Keith Earls. Suddenly, a hint of space and time on the ball beckons.

Connacht are drifting hard, with Shane O’Leary sprinting to get to Earls, who attempts to draw in Niyi Adeolokun and release Jack O’Donoghue. The Connacht right wing does superbly, however, to keep his body open and out towards the touchline, not biting in on Earls.

Decision

The Munster wing must recognise that and simply carry the ball himself, given that O’Donoghue has not offered a switch line to move the ball back infield.

It’s uncharacteristic of Earls to throw this kind of pressurising pass to a teammate, particularly in this area of the pitch.

That said, we must go back to how the ball got to Earls in assessing this attacking failing. Munster are always going to need depth in this instance if they want to get the ball outside the edge of Connacht’s frontline defence, but they allow the westerners to drift too easily here.

Holland

Holland begins the phase deep off the gainline, giving himself time to pass the ball, but also allowing Connacht to immediately read where it’s going. Sherry and Donnacha Ryan either side of Holland are essentially rendered meaningless as Connacht can drift straight off, even before Holland has passed.

The ball arrives to Scannell as he runs a diagonal line towards the touchline, essentially leading the defence where it ends up.

Scannell

If Scannell can add in even the hint of a straightening step here before he passes, it’s going to force Sean O’Brien and O’Leary into an uncomfortable position.

By adding in that straightening step, Scannell can make O’Brien worry about his inside shoulder, perhaps just hesitating or even planting his feet. That in turn exposes O’Leary, who will have to make a decision about slowing his drift as he suddenly feels alone.

If that occurs, it’s a clear 3-on-2 for Munster in this shot above, with O’Donoghue then making it a 4-on-3 as Adeolokun comes up to join the stressed line.

These are small details for Munster – a slightly later pass from Holland closer to the gainline and a straightening step from Scannell – but they can make a big difference.

It is indeed a game of fine margins, and coaches picking up on these details and correcting them can be the difference between getting tackled into touch and making big yardage up the five-metre channel against a stretched defence.

Into Tocuh

Damagingly for Munster, they were still having a poor outcome as they moved the ball wide heading into the final quarter.

The incident above followed several other examples where the southern province were choke tackled, knocked the ball on or gave up turnover penalties to the jackal in these 15-metre channels.

At no point did the focus or execution appear to change for Munster, as might be expected when a particular tactic clearly isn’t working. Instead, Foley’s men continued to make errors on the outside edge and relieve Connacht of defensive pressure.

Symptom of the malaise

Conceding 15 penalties to Connacht’s eight last weekend was also costly for Munster, particularly given that they lost those two players to the sin bin leading into half time.

Whatever about the nature of Cronin’s sin binning at scrum time, some of the other penalties Munster gave up were truly hard to fathom.

Stander

CJ Stander is an Ireland international who understands the ruck well, but in the instance above he concedes the penalty despite two warnings of “Leave it!” from referee Ben Whitehouse.

Indeed, Stander’s own teammates – Sherry and Ryan – end up shouting at him to get his hands off the ball.

Why is a Test-class player like Stander making this kind of indisciplined decision for Munster?

Saili

Above, it’s All Blacks-capped centre Francis Saili giving up the penalty with a sloppy high tackle. The Kiwi makes an excellent read – an example of those glimpses we get from Munster – to rush up on Peter Robb, but wastes it by failing to be disciplined enough with his tackle.

Instead of piling massive pressure on Connacht to retreat to a ruck Munster can barge through, the western province get a relieving penalty kick as they look to retain their 25-14 lead.

The point here is not really about discipline or playing to the wide channels, but rather posing the question of why players we know are capable of making good decisions and executing – in all aspects of the game – are not doing so.

From discipline, to finding the outside edge, clearing out rucks, calling, throwing and receiving lineouts, passing, tackling, communicating, and so on – Munster are slipping away from their ability levels far too often.

Belief

Watching live at the Sportsground on Saturday, the contrast in body language between the two teams was stark.

Munster raced into a 14-6 lead inside the opening 25 minutes, but Connacht simply stuck to the structures they know so well and believed that they could fight back into the game. The impression was that Lam’s men understood that they had the ability to recover and the game plan to do so.

Even as they still held a 14-13 lead after Niyi Adeolokun’s first try, Munster appeared to be far less convinced of their stranglehold on the game. They had suffered the blow of losing Cronin to the sin bin, but there was no sense of steadiness in response.

Analysing body language is often an act of folly, but the truth is that this reaction has become something of a habit for Munster.

Francis Saili dejected after Connacht scored there third try

The sense is that they react to borderline calls going against them, or injury setbacks, by feeling sorry for themselves, rather than resetting and refocusing on the job at hand.

Such a habit would also seem to be a reflection of Foley’s post-match reaction to defeats. His criticism of referees has foundation some of the time, but when it’s a weekly occurrence it sends out the wrong message. Someone else is to blame.

Foley does have some cause to feel that circumstances are working against him.

Losing captain Peter O’Mahony – a standard setter – for the entire season was a huge blow. Tyler Bleyendaal’s injury travails have deprived Foley of the man who would have been first-choice out-half, with the subsequent collapse of Ian Keatley’s confidence then proving even more costly.

These are difficult things for any coach to deal with, but the reality is that such misfortunes are part of the game.

Every coaching staff must invest their energy into providing their players with clarity of direction in how they want to play the game, the skill level required to do so, structure and game plans that are built to intelligently beat the opposition, and those all-important little details, rather than dwelling on misfortune and creating a negative atmosphere.

The evidence of recent months suggests that Munster’s pivotal home clash with Edinburgh in two weekends’ time is going to be another tough slog for Foley’s men.

They will once again need to dig deep into the well of emotional strength the province has drawn on many times before as they look to salvage Champions Cup qualification from a hugely disappointing season.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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