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Analysis: Offloading Ospreys likely to push Munster all the way

Steve Tandy’s squad has undergone a regeneration in recent seasons but has emerged as an attacking force.

THREE YEARS SINCE their last Pro12 title, the Ospreys have undergone notable regeneration and a shift in style.

Importantly for Steve Tandy’s men, key leaders such as Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb and Justin Tipuric remain in the core of the team, having all started the 2012 final win over Leinster at the RDS.

Paul O'Connell and Alun Wyn Jones Two great leaders, Paul O'Connell and Alun Wyn Jones, will renew acquaintances tomorrow. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Biggar, Webb and Tipuric were youngsters in that 2012 vintage, leaning on the experience of the likes of Adam Jones, Richard Hibbard and Shane Williams, but they have now become the leaders of the latest crop of Ospreys contenders.

At 29, second row and captain Alun Wyn Jones is the oldest player in the Ospreys’ starting XV for tomorrow, one which has an average age of just over 24 and a half.

Tandy has overseen the development of a group of hard-working and predominantly Welsh players over the last three seasons, a contrast to the big-name ‘Galacticos’ era, and led them to fifth-place finishes in the last two seasons.

Back in the play-offs after a more consistent campaign this time around, Tandy is pleased with the progress but acknowledges that there is more growth to come.

Our group has changed a lot, the dynamics in and around it,” says Tandy. “We’ve got a lot of youth in the group who are desperate to get better every day they come into training.

“When you’ve got leaders like Alun Wyn, Tips [Tipuric], Bigs [Biggar], every single day they’re pushing standards in the group and the young guys see what it means to wear the Ospreys shirt.

“If we want to be challenging in Thomond Park, then we have to be at our very best.”

Let the boys play

Anyone who’s been fortunate enough to catch the Ospreys at their best this season will know exactly how entertaining they can be in attack.

Tyler Ardron The Ospreys have already beaten Munster twice this season. Source: Ashley Crowden/INPHO

However, it’s not just about the aesthetics with Tandy’s side. The head coach and his backroom staff have adapted their style of rugby to fit the players in the group, tailor-making the game plan to suit the profile of the squad.

“I think it’s something we have focused on in attack, whereas when we won the league in Leinster [in 2012] our set-piece was really dominant, the scrums and lineouts, mauls, those kind of things,” says Tandy.

The squad has evolved though, we’ve got more youth in the pack so it lends itself to the athletes we’ve got to play a bit more of an expansive game while still being smart around it.

“We’ve adapted the style of play and we’ve conditioned the boys slightly differently so we can actually play a more expansive game and at a higher speed.”

So what exactly does that mean for Munster tomorrow in Thomond Park? What are they going to have to counteract in this re-energised Ospreys outfit?

Offload

One of the most notable elements of the Ospreys’ approach is their willingness to offload out of contact. In Ireland, we’ve seen less and less of this particular skill in recent times, particularly with the national team and at Leinster.

The Welsh region certainly still make mistakes with their offloading game, but when they get it right it can be devastating for defences.

Matavesi Offload

Powerful inside centre Josh Matavesi, who overcame a groin concern to be named in the Ospreys’ XV, is particularly strong in this area of the game, although the skill is shared among the majority of the team.

The clip above is quite typical from Matavesi as he takes the tackle and then fights to keep his feet just long enough to unload to the supporting Tyler Ardron.

The Canadian lock gives us clues as to the Ospreys’ intention to offload too. He’s in close proximity to the contact zone, but rather than latch on to Matavesi or get into a strong rucking position at an early stage, he just holds off with his hands open for the offload.

It’s the key difference between teams who offload regularly and successfully and those who don’t. The actual expectation or anticipation of an offload is vital, the supporting player being in position is as important as the ball carrier’s ability to get their hands free.

With defences being so effective, it’s just such a dominant part of rugby at the moment,” says Tandy of the Ospreys’ offloading intent.

“If you can get an offload in, the defence hasn’t got time to reset. If you’re just taking the ball up, it’s easier for the defence to get reset, scan, gather linespeed and then shut down your attacks.

“You’ve got to go forward and if we can get go-forward ball we’ve got opportunities to offload.”

Munster will be extremely wary of that fact and will look to reduce possibilities by both turning their linespeed up to high levels and then tackling in pods, with secondary tacklers looking to prevent the offload.

The fatties

Scrum, jog, walk, hit a ruck, scrum, lift at the lineout, walk, scrum. The accepted way of rugby life for many a prop but anathema to the Ospreys’ way.

Having recognised and increased the skill levels of his forwards, Tandy has encouraged them to pass the ball more often than other coaches might. There are risks in doing so of course, but it’s also an important part of the Ospreys’ attacking game.

Forwards Skills

We see that clearly in the instance above as the Ospreys are able to transition rapidly from kick chase to attack following a Glasgow error, largely thanks to the handling ability and willingness to pass of Tipuric, Jones and prop Dimitri Arhip.

The ball is shifted into the space on the far side of the pitch without a second thought, with Arhip’s actions being particularly impressive. Many a prop in this situation would tuck the ball away and trundle into contact.

Tandy has instead prompted his forwards to think of themselves as more than simple carriers and ruck clearers, they too can contribute to flowing attacking play.

The involvements of Moldova international Arhip and hooker Scott Baldwin stand out again in the clip above, with the front row pairing catching and passing under pressure to create the space on the outside edge for the Ospreys.

Once the ball gets there, we see another fine example of Matavesi’s offloading ability, with centre partner Ben John benefiting to score.

For Munster, it’s simply a case of being aware that Ospreys’ forwards can and will pass the ball effectively. Momentary lapses of focus further out the defensive line could be catastrophic, and the Ospreys will greatly test Munster’s concentration.

Wily Webb

Scrum-half Webb has had a sensational season for the Welsh region, deservedly being named as the best player in the Guinness Pro12 during 2014/15 at least weekend’s awards ceremony in Dublin.

Now a firmly-established and effective international player, Webb will be difficult to keep quiet tomorrow in Limerick.

Late Arrival For Webb

So much of the Ospreys’ best play comes in and around Webb, as in the instance above.

The scrum-half is a confident, calm presence, yet extremely lively at the same time. It’s a combination that means Webb is dangerous with his own attacking bursts of acceleration, but also allows him to make strong decisions.

Here, he picks from the base and arcs away from the ruck before slipping a delayed pass to the arriving number eight Dan Baker. We then get a glimpse of the ineffective part of the Ospreys’ offloading game, as Baker fails to find support.

Webb Arcs

Munster will be well aware of these arcing runs that Webb so loves to make, but even still there will be consistent demands on their fringe defenders with the Ospreys arriving late to support their scrum-half.

Webb Arcs.2

While there are concerns further out the line, Webb must be managed here if the Welsh side aren’t to get easy front foot and even linebreaks in this pivotal area.

Webb has a streak of individual magic that can be virtually impossible to stop at times, as Glasgow learned recently.

It’s a little bit of set-piece genius from the Ospreys as they run a classic move to drag the Scots exactly where they want them to be. Webb is then launched into a gaping hole in the lineout to sublimely beat the last defender.

Webb Try .1

The initial key is that the Ospreys’ dummy jumping pod in a four-man lineout lures the Glasgow defensive pod back towards the 15-metre line, as highlighted above.

Tandy’s men also want the tail-gunner behind Glasgow’s lineout to follow that movement and that too works perfectly, as indicated below with the yellow circle.

Webb Try.2

Meanwhile, at the front of the lineout the Ospreys are hoping to lure Glasgow’s sole defender in that area onto prop Nicky Smith as he’s accepting the ball from Baldwin and beginning to transfer it inside to Webb.

Again, it works perfectly for the Welsh side and the space opens in front of Webb. It’s by no means a given that the Ospreys are going to score here, but a magical chip and gather from the scrum-half tops off a wonderful move.

Webb Try .3

Biggar the big shot

This has been the season in which Dan Biggar has finally won over those who had been unconvinced that he was not an out-half of international calibre.

While it’s still quite likely that the 25-year-old is not everyone’s favoured playmaker, he has improved in almost all areas of his game in 2014/15. His passing is strong, his kicking remains excellent, his defence is superb and his fielding of kicks is among the best in the competition.

The one area where Biggar has often been doubted is with ball in hand, but all the signs are of improvement there too.

Biggar Runs NO TRY

Biggar doesn’t actually score in the example above, but it demonstrates how well he is scanning the defence in front of him and then backing himself to make positive plays with ball in hand.

We get a more successful illustration in the video below, as Biggar helps to create and then finishes a score against Connacht last weekend.

Connacht’s defence plays its part in this try, but Biggar and centre John both take full advantage of the situation in a clinical manner that is becoming increasingly common for the Ospreys.

With the Connacht scrum having been turned over and the ball emerging scrappily, Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw opts to shoot up hard in defence and attempts to shut the Ospreys chance down swiftly.

Biggar Try.2

He gets up ahead of Bundee Aki inside him and the danger for the Ospreys is that Biggar then throws a pass that gets intercepted. Instead, the out-half shows his calmness to delay until he’s just in behind Henshaw, finding John running a superb line.

The centre thunders into big space and again we get an example of that Ospreys offload that is so prevalent when they’re over the gainline.

Unsung heroes

Aside from their big names, the Ospreys have been building a unit of diligent, hard-working players who are the real power behind their improvements this season.

While the likes of Webb and Biggar get the majority of the plaudits, it’s men like 6ft 5ins centre John who so often do the most important damage. The 24-year-old midfielder comes into this game in fine form and will be a handful for Denis Hurley and Andrew Smith.

John Try

His try against Connacht shows exactly the sort of line John loves to run: flat, hard, against the grain and taking advantage of any defenders who haven’t got their heads up to scan the attacking line.

Hurley and Smith can expect lots of similar lines a little wider out from the ruck from John tomorrow, but the example above also highlights another strength of the Ospreys’.

John Try .2

The reason Connacht have such difficulty in stopping John as he runs in between Denis Buckley and Tom McCartney is that that pair of defenders have spotted him arriving so late.

Their gaze has been attracted by the pod of forward runners slightly closer into the ruck, and they’re expecting one of that trio to be the next ball carrier. It’s not just in this type of situation that the Ospreys have a range of options, meaning Munster will have to constantly scan.

Another slightly unsung hero for the Ospreys is fullback Dan Evans, who has had a brilliant season for Tandy’s men, starting all 22 of their regular-season games and scoring five tries.

Evans Left Boot

Evans provides a vital left-footed kicking option for the Ospreys, as we see above, something Munster’s back three will be acutely mindful of covering in the backfield.

Evans’ attacking ability is highlighted in the build-up to the excellent try below, again against Connacht.

Connacht captain John Muldoon admitted to being disappointed with his tackle here, allowing Evans to offload as it did, but it’s sharp play from the Ospreys too.

The decoy line from James King in front of Evans is perfect, then the fullback beats Muldoon with some excellent footwork before finding Hanno Dirksen outside him. The wing is freed to offload and Webb is in the ideal position to accept the scoring pass.

Webb Try Conn.2

The fact that Webb is in the right place highlights another strength of the scrum-half’s game. Like any good nine, he anticipates the break before it happens, running a proactive line after he completes his pass to launch this phase of attack.

Tipuric the thorn

Justin Tipuric is one of our favourite players here in The42, particularly because he must be so annoying to play against. Not only is he an excellent passer, the openside is highly effective around the breakdown and is also a fine athlete.

While he hasn’t quite hit his very peak this season, he will still be bothersome for Munster tomorrow.

Wily Tipuric

Tipuric is a player who constantly pushes the boundaries of the laws, consistently demands scrutiny from referees and invariably frustrates the opposition.

In the incident above, he bounds to his feet post-tackle and immediately targets the ball, with Glasgow’s Leone Nakarawa having already moved past but not engaged with any defending players over it to form a ruck.

Tipuric, whose mind works at 100km/h, spots his opportunity and pounces for a clean turnover.

Tips In Side

Above, the openside flanker hammers in from the side of the breakdown to smash Niko Matawalu clear of the ball. It’s obviously completely illegal and it’s a notable miss from the referee, but it shows us how willing Tipuric is to test the laws in order to give his team an advantage.

Munster do a fair bit of the same themselves in fairness, but captain Peter O’Mahony would be well served by letting tomorrow night’s referee, Nigel Owens, know that they’ll be watching Tipuric like hawks.

If the Welsh international gets away with his intelligent play around the breakdown, Munster will be in trouble.

The threats to Munster are multiple and while Anthony Foley’s men deserve the favourites tag in their Limerick home, the Ospreys will turn up with the ability to win in Thomond Park.

It would be no surprise to see Munster slightly limit their own attacking risks and rely on a game plan built around keeping the Ospreys inside their own half and providing opportunities for their maul to score from close-range.

It may be that the Ospreys resurgence ends in defeat tomorrow, but Tandy has brought this young group in the right direction and the future looks bright.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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