With the Champions Cup temporarily suspended, Munster’s attention will now shift to the rescheduled game with Leinster in what promises to be an epic Pro14 encounter.
Shifting focus back to last Saturday night against Connacht at the Sportsground and Munster overcame the most testing of conditions to produce a multi-dimensional performance packed with character and tactical nous that secured an excellent victory.
There was a lot to learn from the match as amongst the wind, the rain, the grit and forty lineouts, sprinklings of the performance indicated towards exciting fresh ideas from the coaching ticket.
The forwards displayed their array of ever-improving skills with frequent tip-ons and passes from the base of the ruck that became a real theme of the second half. The centre partnership of Damian De Allende and try-scorer Chris Farrell continued to prosper and looks destined to become a true driving-force in this side going forward. While Keith Earls tried to make a difference cutting inside sharply off his wing to carve holes through the centre to decent effect on a couple of occasions.
The single most noticeable feature of this contest however, was how ferociously Munster targeted the Connacht attack at source by constantly contesting for the ball at virtually every breakdown. In total the men in red made an incredible nine turnovers with Tadhg Beirne, Gavin Coombes and CJ Stander in particular putting in outstanding shifts.
Munster have gone from winning just three turnovers against Cardiff and four against the Dragons in the early stages of the season to pinching the ball back an average of almost 8 times a game in the past month. The increased emphasis has largely come from aiming to halt the deadly attacks of Connacht and Clermont at source, but what cannot be overlooked is the impact of the sensational Tadhg Beirne returning from injury in early December.
The second row won five turnovers on Saturday – a number nobody in the PRO14 has beaten since the beginning of 2020. His unrelenting work-rate and ability to sniff any half opportunity to poach the ball is an extraordinary weapon and one that will continue to serve Munster in good stead through 2021.
With 23-year old powerhouse Gavin Coombes breaking into the starting fifteen this season and linking up with Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander in the backrow, it perhaps left the concern that the extra beef in the pack would come at the price of a lack of athleticism at the breakdown. Fortunately, Beirne’s presence in the side leaves minimal need for such worries as the former Scarlet makes himself an ever-present at ruck time, sniffing out half opportunities to pinch possession back on a weekly basis. For a man of such stature, Beirne is still able to apply himself every bit as effectively as the very best openside flankers in the world in this department and when accompanied in his craft by the ever-evolving CJ Stander, this Munster team become a nightmare to retain the football against.
In the passage of play above, Beirne operates every bit as intelligently and efficiently as the great sevens like David Pocock or Richie McCaw. In almost all of his seven turnovers against Connacht, Beirne first positioned himself as the first or second pillar away from the ruck ready to tackle any traffic that may have come down his channel. He is equipped to help out his teammates defending on the front line in this area, but what is key is that he is always anticipating where to be in the eventuality that the attack bypasses the channel of the first defender. In this particular snippet, Beirne’s trademark line of movement is evident as once the ball is shifted and the Munster defence reacts by shuffling across, the 6’5 lock shadows the main line of defence by the contact area, making himself free to latch onto slowly secured opposition phase play. A couple of seconds later the referee puts his whistle to his mouth and it’s another momentum-swinging penalty to Munster. Invaluable.
In the second half of the season don’t be surprised to see teams forcing their ball-carriers directly at Beirne more and more often to leave him on the floor where he is unable to affect the quality of possession. It would certainly aid opponent’s causes, but Munster have so much more up their sleeve to cause issues as the collective endeavours of the forwards in recent weeks have been every bit as inspired.
Some of Munster’s supporters’ most cherished memories of the past decade came under the guidance of World Cup winners Rassie Erasmus and right hand man Jacques Nienaber whose success circulated around an aggressive defensive system that saw Munster surrender the breakdown contest to spread numbers across the field and instead try and force errors in the tackle. What we are now seeing four years on is almost the very opposite of the Nienaber approach and the beauty of it is that it can be every single bit as devastating in its own way once executed correctly.
Though Tadhg Beirne is a unique player that put on a breakdown masterclass at the weekend, this approach to contesting Connacht’s rucks so fiercely was clearly a tactical instruction and the competitive mindset was shared by the rest of the forwards too. The away side showed no let-up at any stage and this spirit was encapsulated by CJ Stander’s turnover on the hour mark where he was the first red shirt to two consecutive breakdowns before winning a key penalty in the contest.
Committing such numbers to rucks can be a high-risk / high-reward approach to take, coming at the cost of reduced numbers to defend across the park – but Munster are intelligent and as we saw in Clermont, the emotional swing of an important penalty whilst under the cosh can change the entire complexion of a game. Stander was immense but Gavin Coombes and James Cronin bullied the Connacht forwards in similar style to continuously win Munster back the ball and leave supporters hopeful for likewise dominant displays when the Champions Cup resumes in the future.
Aside from last week’s defeat that saw Munster’s youthful second string take a losing bonus-point from Ulster in Belfast, Johann Van Graan’s side are undefeated this season and with a blend of international-class quality, provincial leaders and an abundance of young talent driving the effort, this is a capable and confident group that have it in them to secure silverware in the next year or two. The question is how long it will take to perfect the new strategies of Graham Rowntree and Stephen Larkham and find an identity that allows invention and industry to tie together as a perfect package.