Lateral problem persists for a Munster side in need of directness

Murray Kinsella

Munster’s heineken cup campaign is back on track after the 26-10 win against Gloucester on Saturday night at Thomond Park, and there were several positives in the display.

The contrast in aggression and focus from the defeat to Edinburgh was stark, while individual performances from the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Donncha O’Callaghan and Johne Murphy were also encouraging.

However, despite the two tries through Murphy and Damien Varley there remains a sense that Munster were once again inefficient in possession. A 60% share of the ball is by no means domination, and that figure has no real meaning. Instead, it is what Munster are (and aren’t) doing with that possession that really matters.

It is worth mentioning that the intention here is not to rain on Munster’s first Heineken Cup victory of the season. They will be happy with the four points, but they will also be intent on learning and improving on this showing. Becoming more effective when they have the ball is one clear objective.

Much has been made of Rob Penney’s desire to use a game plan that heavily involves moving the ball into wide channels. The players have clearly bought into that and are attempting to implement it during games. However, it has been patently obvious that Munster have been missing directness as a balance to that intent to stretch teams by going wide.

Penney’s side started the game superbly, and with a promising straightness to their attack. They found themselves 9-0 up after 12 minutes thanks to a series of effective attacking passages which featured forwards and backs running straight, taking out defenders and putting Gloucester into compromised defensive positions.

The example below is typical of what Munster tried to do. James Downey carries straight up off first phase lineout ball and gets his team swiftly over the gain-line. That directness was a feature of the opening minutes from the home team, with forwards working hard to get around the corner and offer themselves up to carry the ball.

Gloucester came back into the game thanks to Charlie Sharples’ try, and they deserve credit for their stubborn performance. 21-year-old scrum-half Dan Robson was particularly excellent and showed his potential for the Premiership outfit.

Overall, it was a decent half of rugby for Munster, but it was after the break where the problems of lateral running really stood out. As Penney’s men went in search of tries, they became more focused on moving the ball wide but that also led to an increase in running towards the touchline.

The screen grab below shows exactly the issue. Munster repeatedly look to send the ball ‘out the back door’, behind decoy runners to one of the backs. The pass is towards the touchline, but too often the receiver is continuing that line too. There needs to be more of a focus on either using the decoy runners or having the receiver of the ‘back door’ pass straighten his run before moving the ball on again.

In the example above, Keatley has passed behind Varley and O’Connell (the decoy runners) to Lualala (the receiver). If you note the numbers in defence and attack, it’s a 5-on-3 situation. If Lualala could have straightened his line, he would have held the defender directly in front of him and Munster would have been in a superb position to score.

Instead, Lualala continued to move towards the sideline before passing and that meant Gloucester could simply drift across in defence and tackle Keith Earls on the touchline. Just two phases later there was a similar ‘crabbing’ across the pitch from Johne Murphy. Munster weren’t numbers up on this occasion, but the principle of straightening the attack still applies.

Theses are just two examples of a habit that has been repeated by Munster very often, and not just in this particular game.

Penney would be the first one to admit that Munster still have some way to go if they are to master the style of play they wish to use, and it has to be stressed that this is all part of the process. However, the lateral running has been a repeated feature in several Munster performances in recent times and they could do with straightening up their attack.

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