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This Much We Know, by Eamo


  • This Much We Know, by Eamo

    From Eamo's blog,

    The Stats:
    Currently 6th in the RaboDirect PRO 12, with eight wins and five losses after thirteen matches, with the third best defence after Glasgow and the Ospreys in terms of points conceded and the fifth best attack behind Ulster, Glasgow, Leinster and the Ospreys in terms of points scored. In terms of tries scored, Munster lies sixth behind Ulster, Glasgow, Leinster, the Scarlets and Edinburgh and in terms of tries conceded Munster has the second best record, behind just the Ospreys.

    In the Heineken Cup Munster has qualified as the eighth quarter finalist, earning the right to visit English Champions Harlequins at the Stoop on Sunday April 7th. Of all the sides in the qualifying pools, Munster was the joint seventh highest try score with Biarritz, behind Saracens, Harlequins, Clermont, Toulouse, Toulon and Montpelier.

    The Commentary:

    Just before the 6Nations seems like a good point to take stock on the first “quarter” of Rob Penney’s Munster “revolution” (assuming the Head Coach sees out his two year contract and no more). So, as briefly as possible, Hoarse Roar from the Sidelines sets out an analysis of where the team is and suggests what it might need to do next.

    The New Way of Playing – a close reading of Rob Penney’s comments show nothing but respect for what is perceived to be “the Munster Way”, which I would suggest can best be described as a forward dominated game. Penney though is rightly unapologetic about wanting to leaven this approach with some variety, not in the least because with a developing but not yet dominant pack of forwards and talents like Murray, Zebo, Earls and O’Dea it would be criminal for any coach to look for just ten man rugby. Given the increasing sophistication of defensive systems and video analysis innovating the point of attack is necessary and appropriate. What would be nice is for the second half of the season not to be littered with articles from the press questioning Penney’s “new way” and criticising side-to-side rugby when it doesn’t yield tries or wins. It might not deliver such a pithy headline, but have these journalists ever heard of strategy? Is the ball being flung wide to create space in the middle? Is it possible that there is something more cerebral being demanded of the Munster players on the pitch than is going on with the analysis undertaken by journalists?

    One third of our forward play is good – over the last five years Munster has run onto the field with a majestic lineout. Boosted (both literally and metaphorically) by the lifts of John Hayes, Paul O’Connell’s obsessive analysis and Jerry Flannery’s fast flat darts. What marked Munster’s lineout apart from the rest was its tempo when attacking and its unerring ability to pick-off opponents’ ball . So far this season it has been the front row’s scrummaging that has been the leading light in forward play. With the exception of a horrid trip to Swansea (again) Munster has scrummaged well and Kilcoyne, Sherry, Archer and Varley have all made surges in open field action. (Paul McCartney, Scrum Coach, take a bow.) The high level of work that has gone into this area of play must continue, whilst the squad addresses the lineout and tackle area.

    Two Targets are not enough – when losing to Saracens in Vicarage Road last December, a key area of advantage for the hosts was the presence of a lineout jumper in its backrow. Three targets as opposed to two made it much easier for Saracens to win their own ball and to attack Munster’s. With Donnacha Ryan establishing himself as one of the leading locks and enforcers in European Rugby (his battle against Maestri of France in the 6Nations will be worth the price of a ticket alone), and Donncha O’Callaghan, Holland, Foley and Nagle all showing well alongside him, the attention turns to who in the backrow can offer the third option. The balance of the backrow is discussed further below, but we might just have to accept that it will take O’Mahony, (the most likely candidate currently) a while to master this new skill. Given his rapid development over the last eighteen months, there is no reason to believe O’Mahony won’t become a reliable option, but what Munster does in the interim is a pressing concern, especially with April 7th in mind. With Mike Sherry clearly the better of Munster’s two hookers off the sidelines, a third target must be found to extract the most from his improving accuracy. Our maul off the lineout is increasing its efficacy – good.

    Breakdown cover included – even with the disruption of injuries our backrow options have proven plentiful so far this season. Finding the right blend though, is less obvious. Currently James Coughlan is the standout man to lock out the base of the scrum, his ability to generate go forward ball, savage tackling and combative work in the tackle area mean he is essential to the side especially whilst the flankers either side of him find their way. No one in Munster accepts as an excuse that the side is in transition,but with Niall Ronan rarely available so far this season, O’Donnell (25 years and 57 caps), Peter O’Mahony (23 years and 43 caps), Butler (22 years and 12 caps) Dave O’Callaghan (23 years and 10 caps), Dougall (23 years and 9 caps) and Stander (22 years and 3 caps) have all run out in various combinations across the backrow this season. The last two Heineken Cup backrows were O’Donnell, O’Mahony and Coughlan, prompting me to surmise above that Peter might be the lineout target of the future. Certainly this trio is blessed with pace, handling and aggression, but at 6’5’’ Dave O’Callaghan brings something different again to the party and it might be that as and when James Coughlan is not available O’Mahony shifts to No.8 to accommodate the taller O’Callaghan. Quite where this leaves Dougall, Butler and Stander is a problem for a blog of its own. In short whilst I do not think we need a locked down starting backrow, it would be good to see combinations given a regular run (injury permitting) to allow the units around them to get a better steer what our backrow can bring to the side. As the season has gone on I think our work at the breakdown has improved but again this is an area that would benefit from a settled backrow combination, (I think we might have had up to thirteen different starting combinations in nineteen games so far). What hopefully will come with time and Anthony Foley’s coaching is the priceless ability to force the opposition or indeed the Referee into giving up a penalty when it is most needed. Lest we forget, this is an element of forward play hugely facilitated by a dominant pack, but also by cute backrow play, something we must be capable of in tight games.

    A steady pair emerges – to this observer at least it would seem that the biggest shift in the team so far this year has been the gradual recognition that Murray and Keatley is the best starting half-back combination. I doubt that Ronan O’Gara would accept this, but no one can go on for ever (Brad Thorn being the exception to the rule?) and now it appears to be Keatley’s time. Whether Keatley can hold of JJ Hanrahan going forward and Duncan Williams can stay ahead of Cathal Sheridan, only time will tell. Murray, who looks increasingly assured directing traffic at scrum half, is rightly without peer within the province. Would I like him to develop a quicker pass? Of course, but his nose for the snipe towards the line is terrific and the value this should bring to those outside him in terms of fixing defences should be immeasurable going forward, if exploited properly.

    More direct and more direction – with a wealth of talent wide and deep of the centres and Simon Mannix providing instruction as backs coach, by now I was hoping for a greater sense of direction, purpose and creativity from Downey, Laulala, Earls and Hanrahan in the Munster midfield. I suspect though that of all the positions within the more varied attack being adopted this year, Centre is the hardest position to play. There have been moments (Downey’s greater appetite to crash up the middle against Racing in Thomond and some of his offloading right at the start of the season, Laulala’s turn against Cardiff in Cardiff and Earl’s quick feet against Racing in Thomond) but the best is yet to come from our midfield. The judgement of knowing when to hit an opponent’s shoulder and when to pass will come and during the 6Nations would be a good time to see the improved judgement emerge.

    It’s alright out back – Simon Zebo has been stellar when International rest periods have allowed his selection and alongside Gilroy, McSharry and Henshaw he makes up a terrific good news story for Irish rugby as D’Arcy and O’Driscoll “mature” towards the end of their careers and Bowe and Kearney recover from injury. With O’Dea improving at a rate of knots and Howlett’s hunger burning bright, for the first time in years it feels as if Munster’s wing play is its greatest strength (all forwards please take note). With Jones and Hurley steady at Fullback the temptation must be to play Zebo at 15, allowing him to pick lines across the midfield as well as out wide. However, with credit going here to Mannix and Penney, even stationed on the wing the Cork Flyer has license to roam and this freedom is equally enjoyed by O’Dea and Howlett. Perhaps the answer for the midfield lies in hitting the straight line and then looking to feed wingers who more often than not look for the inside line.

    The coach – whilst he is still finding our way, Rob Penney’s sincere positivity and honesty is refreshing. No one can pretend the manner of the defeats in Cork to the Scarlets and Cardiff was acceptable and in fairness the coach did not back away from this fact. Equally he has been quick to praise (Dave Kilcoyne’s Lions advocacy a great example) and importantly keen to maintain a sense of perspective for a squad that is still building its own identity within the Munster tradition. Whilst I might not agree with every decision taken there is a tangible sense of purpose, a mission if you like about what Penney is trying to achieve. If he can keep carrying the squad and the supporters with him, we might yet surprise people this season.

    The sound of the crowd – there is no denying that this season the Red Army has got its mojo back. Inhibited by the scale and dreadful weather of the Stade de France, the travelling support in Murrayfield and Vicarage Road (in spite of the tannoy system) was magnificent. In Thomond Park for the Saracens and Racing matches as the games wore on the umbilical cord between the squad and the supporters grew strong and tight again, having stretched in recent years. Post Racing it became clear how much this means to our emerging team. Whoever gets into the Stoop we know will not let the side down.

    Highlight of the season so far – Zebo’s first try against Racing, Sherry’s soft hands to Kilcoyne, Killer’s charge deep into Racing’s underbelly and then the execution.

    Lowlight of the season so far – hearing a BBC Wales Scrum V analyst say “we now know what it takes to beat Munster in Munster” after the second loss in a matter of weeks to two Welsh sides in Cork. There is no shame in losing to a better side, but failure to execute basic skills cost us both matches, unforgivable.

    Special mentions – the gracelessness of Saracens at Vicarage Road, in stark contrast to the welcome of their supporters. Your actions define you and Saracens frankly is a naff organisation. My wife – her enduring tolerance of my absence whilst I attend games and indeed my tapping at a keyboard whilst she’s trying to sleep have not gone unnoticed. Thank you.

    Wales v Ireland preview to follow later this week.
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