stuck in the middle

'Munster are The Inbetweeners now... What are they trying to do?'

Andy Dunne believes Munster’s current squad is capable of winning a European Cup, but says coaching issues are holding them back.

ON AN ESPECIALLY meaty episode of The42 Rugby Weekly this week, Andy Dunne and Murray Kinsella sat down in studio with Gavan Casey to discuss where Leinster can improve upon their performance in a stunning victory over Andy’s beloved Toulouse, and why they’re each leaning in opposite directions ahead of what will be the most eagerly anticipated European decider ever.

Jordi Murphy also joined Sean Farrell to discuss life up north with Ulster, but before all of that, Murray, Andy and Gavan sunk their teeth into Munster’s comprehensive Heineken Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Saracens.

Among the areas discussed were the whispers of Munster adding a marquee signing or two this summer and whether or not the addition of big ball carriers would even make a difference to the southern province in their current guise, which Andy believes to be far too ambiguous for Johann van Grann’s men to hang with Europe’s true contenders.

You can listen to the podcast in full in the SoundCloud link above, on iTunes, or on your regular podcast provider, but if you’ve forgotten your headphones or you can’t quite get away with popping them on in the office, here’s a taster of the lads’ Munster chat (which also features Andy’s hatred of the box-kick’s influence on Irish rugby):

Andy Dunne: “Tongue-in-cheek, we’re talking about Game of Thrones and Murray being the Three-Eyed Raven, you talk about box sets, Munster are The Inbetweeners now. They are. Because they don’t have a definitive style.

“They’re literally in between two ends of the spectrum. They don’t know whether they’re a territory team — they didn’t play territory against Sarries. They didn’t penetrate the line, they didn’t try offloads, they didn’t look to attack space.

“What they did was vanilla kind of rugby — three-phase power plays done in front of the best defence in Europe who just scanned the field, watched them do it and closed them down. At no stage were they [Saracens] under threat as a defence.

“I think there’s a problem with Munster around that. Find out what works for that group and commit to it and do it.

“I think they should go with a strong territory game, and that includes with Joey Carbery at 10. I think they should go back to choking teams, squeezing them.

I never won against Munster — ever! I had 12, 13 matches playing for three different clubs [against them], and I always felt under pressure. I always made dumb decisions deep in my own half because I was squeezed. And you do something stupid to try and break out, because someone’s figuratively — or literally — got their foot on your neck.

Gavan Casey: “Alan Quinlan?”

AD: “Quinny again, yeah!”

“They’ve actually a better squad now than they’ve had in the last three or four seasons, but it’s very non-committal, safe rugby.”

Johann van Graan dejected while Peter O'Mahony is interviewed after the game Dan Sheridan / INPHO Johann van Graan stands dejected as Peter O'Mahony is interviewed post-Sarries. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Murray Kinsella: “I think their squad is stronger, certainly, but let’s also factor in the fact that Carbery and [Keith] Earls were missing.

And against a team as good as Saracens, to put it bluntly, you have to have all your best players on the pitch. They’re essentially a Test team. Every single player in their squad is capable of playing Test rugby. I think they’d do a pretty good job in the Six Nations as well. So if you’re going to beat them, you need everyone fit.

“They did miss those two players — they’re your two most creative, attacking backs, and you need them fit.

“I think for Munster again it’s looking at, ‘How can we actually improve?’ We can talk about loads of issues within the game, but they’ll probably look at their squad and say, ‘Is there scope for more from the outside?’

“To look at it with a critical eye, in their pack, is there enough ball-carrying dynamism? Because you look at Sarries’ pack, it was ridiculous — every single one of them, essentially, can break the gain line. Munster don’t quite have that.

[Dave] Kilcoyne can be really destructive, the other front rows probably not anywhere near that level as carriers. The second rows: [Jean] Kleyn is really hard-working without being quite that dynamic, and Beirne is really skillful but again maybe struggles on the gain line. CJ Stander, obviously huge workrate, but the other back rows — apart from Arno Botha off the bench — aren’t predominantly ball-carriers. So they may look at that.

“And then there is a bit of chat that they’re looking at a marqueee signing in the backline — Jaco Taute is obviously leaving so there goes one of the NIQ spots.

I think the IRFU will be willing to help Munster improve if there’s a bit of money there. It’ll be interesting to see if anything happens there, potentially even in midfield to bring in a bit more dynamism there.

“But right now, they’re not at Sarries’ or Leinster’s level, and that’s been made clear once again.”

Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne dejected James Crombie / INPHO Owen Farrell consoles Munster's players. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

AD: “But if you’re to add one or two ball-carriers and still play that middle-ground style, it’s not going to make a difference. The fact that they don’t have a lot of ball-carriers lends itself further to the fact that they could play a territory game.

“They’ve a really, really strong scrum — John Ryan and Kleyn in behind him haven’t gone backwards once all year. They’ve a super-tight, really well-run scrum that could really squeeze teams and creak teams.

The All Blacks beat Ireland 60-0 in the third Test in 2012 and they didn’t play a single phase of rugby in their own half for the first 29 minutes. You go back and watch that video, they just launch the ball into the Irish 22. What happened was Ireland cracked, and when they cracked, New Zealand had brilliant broken-field players. Now, Munster have Joey Carbery, they’ve Conor Murray, they’ve Chris Farrell, they’ve Keith Earls, they’ve a brilliant back three. If they choke teams, play territory, it’s not negative — it’s really smart. Eventually when the [opposition] team cracks or shows a little chink, then it’s about what have you got to break them down.

“But they’re not doing that. Then they’re going, ‘Let’s go get some new ball-carriers.’ It’s not going to solve the issue. It’s a coaching issue, and they have to get clarity.”

MK: “But I think that [territory] is their gameplan. They box-kick out of their own half more than any other team in order to gain territory. They hound after kicks generally. I think in this game [v Sarries], that was also the plan but I think Saracens did the same to them so well that they didn’t have a chance; they were pinned back in their half and they had to defend so much.

“I think they probably were trying to play that territory game, but because of the poor aerial contest they just gave up.”

AD: “But I don’t think it works, the territory game playing off nine — these high box kicks. It’s not really a territory game. That’s a kicking game that surrenders possession with a kick-chase trying to win it back.

It just drives me mental, by the way, in Irish rugby, in Leinster rugby — watching Luke McGrath doing it five, six times, although Luke had a very good game. Like, it’s just become this fad. Like, why do we have to keep box-kicking 10 metres up into the air when you could hit your 10 and drill it 50 metres? No one’s been able to give me a good argument in the last year on it. It’s like a trend or a fad — it’s going to be completely eliminated in about a year’s time because it’s pretty worthless at this stage… And we just keep on using it.

MK: “I think the Irish teams have done it particularly well…”

AD: “We did it great for about a year, and then everyone’s onto it. Like, it’s over now.

“If you look at Murray, who obviously is a very good box-kicker — once it’s not overused, it can be reused occasionally with effect. You’ve Carbery who can kick off both feet, and you’ve [Rory] Scannell who’s a left-footer. The amount of options that gives you as a backline to kick territory effectively…

“If you go back to that All Blacks Test in 2012 and watch that first 20-odd minutes, they didn’t just do box kicks from their own 22. They did a whole range of kicks. At no stage were they under pressure in their own half, and then eventually a team starts to creak and do stupid things.

That is a safe, smart tactic that they [Munster] are underutilising given the resources they’ve got. I don’t buy into, ‘Go and find two or three marquee ball-carrying guys’ and then play this middle-ground rubbish which is going to negate the ball carriers that come in.

MK: “Do you think that squad is good enough to win a Champions Cup?”

AD: “I actually think they could, yes, but they would have to be at literally 95%-plus, with everybody fit, with a bit of luck. But I do think they could win.

I think they’re selling themselves short by saying, ‘No, look, our limit is Sarries.’ It’s not! Your limit against Sarries is playing a kind of middle-ground brand of rugby that doesn’t ask any questions, doesn’t commit to a territory style or an offload style, that’s not penetrative. If you fix one, two or all three of those things, that’s a really strong Munster side.

“It’s a huge change — it takes massive leadership for a head coach to commit to a certain style. And then it takes the buy-in of the senior players.

What I found really interesting is that they flirted with the idea, they sent Jerry Flannery and Felix [Jones] down to New Zealand to go learn and see what they’re doing. And all the soundbites coming back from that was the two boys going, ‘My God, do we complicate stuff’, or ‘My God, the simplicity of how they do it down there.’

“Up in the northern hemisphere, there are too many coaches who want to control everything and have massive input in all phases of play. In New Zealand, they’re the total opposite and they’re the best in the world, yet nobody’s copying them.

So, the two boys came back from New Zealand and probably got three weeks to try and half-implement something, and then something goes wrong in a Pro14 game — someone spills an offload, everyone tightens up and it’s all thrown in the bin.

“Eight months later, when you haven’t worked and worked and worked, and been prepared to lose away to Zebre while trying to play a certain style, you end up in third gear; even though your effort is in fifth gear, your play is in third gear when it comes down to it against Sarries.

I’ve often gone back to the Argentina side who hockeyed us in Cardiff during the last World Cup. They committed to a style and were awful at it for about two years until they got better at it. And they hockeyed us. That’s the long and short of it. They lost 78-12 to South Africa in Durban playing that way, but nobody threw it all in the bin.

“I think Munster need to commit to a style. In that way, their current squad — optimised — could win a European Cup.

“But the mistake would be, now, to throw the baby out with the bathwater and get rid of three or four good players and bring in three marquee guys who are going to have to fit into this cloudy gameplan.”

Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

GC: “There is talk of bringing in reinforcements in midfield, and bringing in a marquee guy. We know, probably, it’s going to be at 12 because you’re not dropping Chris Farrell. We also know Rory Scannell is a super player, by the way. But, if you’re going to drop one or the other, at the moment it would be Scannell. And he probably is underutilised in that he’s an incredibly good footballer but they just don’t deploy that in any way, shape or form. So then he [hypothetically] falls by the wayside and you bring in some brute?

MK: “Rory Scannell can pass off both sides really well. I’ve written in pieces about him being that second playmaker, but he’s not really used that way.”

AD & GC: “No.”

MK: “He actually carries more than he passes.”

AD: “That’s because they’re in the middle ground.”

They’re The Inbetweeners. You look at Connacht, you know exactly what they’re trying to do. You look at Ulster now, they’re brave and you know exactly what they’re trying to do. You know exactly what Leinster are trying to do. Unfortunately, you look at Ireland and you know exactly what they’re trying to do; it’s not working but you know what they’re trying to do — they’re committed to something. Munster are nebulous. They’re in the middle. What are they trying to do? They don’t know.

Gavan Casey and Murray Kinsella are joined by Andy Dunne to get stuck into last weekend’s Champions Cup semi-finals.:

The42 Rugby Weekly / SoundCloud

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