Munster's Springboks-esque game plan a dispiriting sight for province's fans

The tactical approach from Johann van Graan’s side felt far too familiar as they came up short again.

TWO WEEKENDS AGO against Leinster, there were some hints of the progress in Munster’s attacking game that Stephen Larkham has been hoping to drive.

Excellent finishes from Keith Earls and Andrew Conway, whose second score was teed up by clever work from Chris Farrell passing out the back to JJ Hanrahan, were the highlights as the southern province suggested that things were moving in the right direction.

Munster’s inability to strike attacking blows had been a key contributor in previous semi-finals defeats, with that inability to stretch and prod at teams’ defences limiting their tactical approach.

johann-van-graan Munster boss Johann van Graan before yesterday's game. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

But last night back at the Aviva Stadium in their Guinness Pro14 semi-final defeat to Leinster, we simply saw none of the hoped-for endeavour from Johann van Graan’s side as they opted for an extremely conservative game plan based around box-kicking from Conor Murray, attempting to win penalties, and trying to control territory.

Such a limited game plan has to be executed perfectly to work but Munster didn’t do so, with the box-kicking sometimes inaccurate, shots at goal missed, their forwards losing the scrum battle, and Leinster’s dominant defence highlighting the lack of dynamic ball-carriers in Munster’s forward pack.

Once again, Leinster were not at their best but they still won by 10 points and will certainly feel they could have put the game beyond doubt far earlier but for their sloppiness in the second half.

There remains a gulf in quality between the two provinces and the most dispiriting thing for Munster supporters is that this all felt so familiar – a limited game plan coming up short in a big semi-final.

Knock-out rugby always mean tightening things up but Munster went to extremes here, meaning their starting wings, Earls and Conway, barely touched the ball. While Leinster had intermittent flourishes of class, Munster threw very little of the sort at Leinster.

We should mention injuries here, of course. Dave Kilcoyne and RG Snyman would certainly have added physicality [Jean Kleyn may have been on the bench as neither he nor Snyman call lineouts], while Joey Carbery would have offered creativity and guile at out-half.

But Leinster were missing probable starters like tighthead Tadhg Furlong, second row James Ryan, right wing Dave Kearney, and openside flanker Dan Leavy, so had injury absences of their own.

the-munster-team-leave-the-field-dejected A dejected Munster squad leaves the pitch. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Without several key players, Munster opted for the restrictive game plan we saw last night. Murray box-kicked poorly several times but he was obviously adhering to the tactics that Munster had decided upon – if they didn’t make it over the gainline early in their possession, they would box-kick and attempt to apply pressure in that manner.

We saw Munster’s scrum looking to keep the ball in the set-piece at times as they clearly attempted to win penalties, rather than using it as a platform to strike with an inventive backline play, and that backfired twice as Leinster unsettled them and left Munster playing off a poor platform.

Even when Munster did earn a straightforward penalty shot in the second half as Johnny Sexton failed to roll away when Damian de Allende finally got over the gainline, having been expertly negated by Leinster up until that point, JJ Hanrahan was wide with his effort from in front of the posts when there was a chance to drag Leinster back to 10-6.

We must note that Munster did have some successes under their 15 total box kicks in this game, with their only three points coming after CJ Stander followed one up to win the breakdown turnover penalty, but too often Leinster had time to defuse the bombs and counter back at van Graan’s side.

It was hard not to think of South African rugby watching Munster’s tactics but the big difference between Rassie Erasmus’ Springboks and most teams is that they have a forward pack stacked with savage ball-carriers and a bench loaded with six more of them.

The World Cup underlined that a kick-heavy approach can be very effective but it requires the right personnel, major levels of accuracy, and the total alignment from all involved that the Boks have repeatedly underlined as the key to their success in Japan.

Munster didn’t really have any of those things last night.

Van Graan made a late tweak to his bench, bringing in Gavin Coombes after Mike Haley had been curiously named at 23 despite the fullback cover in Munster’s team, and it was hard not to see it as a tactical change in going to the 6/2 split. Coombes got just two minutes of game time, while the backline reshuffle after Conway’s injury was not helpful.

peter-omahony-breaks-away-from-jack-conan Munster captain Peter O'Mahony made two carries. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

As for the rest of Munster’s forwards, they had major struggles against Leinster’s oppressive defence. Stander was chopped out of the game by Will Connors and co. all night, making just four metres from his eight carries.

Captain Peter O’Mahony carried just twice in a quiet performance and the usually dynamic Jack O’Donoghue posted just one carry. As for the tight five, loosehead prop Jeremy Loughman and second row Billy Holland didn’t carry a single time.

Tadhg Beirne, one of Munster’s best players on the night, is not a heavy-duty ball carrier in the tight channels but he was asked to put his hand up in this department and was repeatedly hammered by Leinster’s tacklers, recording zero metres gained in his five carries.

Niall Scannell ran for one metre on his three carries, while Stephen Archer was the other main designated carrier in Munster’s pack as he made just three metres on his five carries. 

A total of 10 metres from 27 carries by the Munster forwards who started and came off the bench makes for grim reading.

Munster simply did not have a ball-carrying threat in their pack outside of the well-managed Stander so they constantly lost the gainline and then reverted straight to their box-kicking tactics, often very early in their possessions.

Playing off slow ball is obviously far from ideal but Munster had no other plans for attempting to generate momentum aside from the basic one-out carries or going to the box kick.

While their execution in that department was poor, the lack of energy in key moments suggested that Munster’s players potentially didn’t totally believe their approach could win them the game. Or perhaps the five-day turnaround from the Connacht game was just too much in a physical sense.

The southern province will have frustrations about missed penalties and errors here and there, but it’s obvious that they still have much work to do in making up the gap to Leinster – who remain one of the very best teams in the sport.

The most dispiriting thing for Munster fans is that this just feels far too familiar.

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