Sunday 24 September 2017

Alan Quinlan: Five areas Munster need to nail to end drought

Rassie Erasmus' men have the weaponry to overcome in-form Scarlets, provided they tick all the relevant boxes

Munster's Simon Zebo. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster's Simon Zebo. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

It is hard to believe that when these two teams met in the final game of last season, the prize for Munster was to avoid humiliation.

They managed that, beating the Scarlets 31-15 at Thomond Park to be guaranteed Champions Cup rugby, putting a full stop on a season that, at one stage, threatened to fall apart.

Now the narrative is completely different. Whereas a year ago these two teams were gripped by fear - Munster of missing out on a place in Europe's premier competition, Scarlets on missing the Guinness PRO12 play-offs - this time they're both full of confidence.

A trophy is at stake, one that Munster haven't won in six years, the Scarlets since 2004 and many, including Sky Sports pundit Stuart Barnes, believe the Welsh side are favourites today.

"The final is a clash of countries, a clash of styles. On form Scarlets are the team to beat," Barnes wrote in his newspaper column last week.

And yet I only partially agree with Stuart. Stylistically, yes, the two teams differ and while I feel the Scarlets are particularly dangerous in attack, I also believe Munster have the quality, the game-plan and the mentality to beat them and end their own six-year silverware drought.

Here are the five key areas Munster need to perfect today to win.

1. Kicking game

When he gets it right, Conor Murray's box-kicks are better than anyone else in world rugby. How often have we seen him turn a defensive position into an attacking one?

He knows the optimum time required to keep the ball in the air, figuring that if he can perfect his 'hang time' then his wingers' chances of contesting the ball increase significantly.

Last week, Andrew Conway had huge success against the Ospreys in this department and time after time a position of pressure was converted into territorial and possession gains for Munster.

Yet get things wrong and danger lurks. Murray knows that if he kicks too long and the kick-chase is poor, then he will be gifting Scarlets time to catch the ball, counter attack, and profit from the unstructured nature of these phases of play.

In these instances, communication is key. If the kick-chasing team don't retain solidity in their defensive line then a good back three could cause them trouble.

And if there is one thing Scarlets possess, it is quality in this area. Liam Williams, Johnny McNicholl and Steff Evans are class acts whose first instinct is to attack.

Inside them Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams are excellent on kick retreat, where their work ethic and athleticism allows them to get back into position quickly and regain their attacking structure.

So many teams don't perfect this aspect of the game. The All Blacks, of course, are the exception to the rule. Masters of the counter-attack, they regularly take advantage of loose kicks, quickly re-aligning their backline shape once they regain possession, turning a seemingly mundane passage of play into a scoring opportunity.

Get your kicking game wrong against them and you're in trouble.

Get it wrong against the Scarlets and the potential for disaster is also there, and more than ever, this aspect of the game carries huge importance, as defences have become so well organised in dealing with their opponents off set-pieces and slow ball.

But once teams start lumping kicks at one another, defensive structures can break up, often because individuals switch off mentally.

The key thing, clearly, is getting the balance right. Leinster didn't kick enough against the Scarlets in last week's semi-final and ran out of patience, whereas Munster kicked too often, and too inaccurately, against Saracens in their Champions Cup semi-final.

When you do it right, as Munster regularly did under Ronan O'Gara, a kicking game can be very effective. It was rugby's answer to Giovanni Trapattoni's soccer game-plan, given how the opposition rarely score when they have to play from within their own half.

Throughout this season - the notable exception being the Saracens semi-final - Munster's kicking game has been excellent. Kick poorly tonight and they could pay for it. Execute well in this area, though, and risk could bring reward.

2. Set-pieces

How do you judge a good provincial player? The answer lies in whether you truly believe he would not look out of place in the Ireland set-up.

John Ryan, and also front-row colleagues Niall Scannell and Dave Kilcoyne, are now clearly capable of hacking it at international level.

Would I have said that a year ago? Not with a huge degree of confidence.

What's changed is their self-belief. They've matured as people, improving both technically and in their fitness levels over the last 12 months.

This year Munster have won 95pc of their scrums in the PRO12, although the Scarlets' stats in this area - 91pc - are also impressive. In Rob Evans and Samson Lee, they have two Welsh starters in their front-row.

Ken Owens, their Lions hooker, is a major loss. But, at the very least, I expect Munster to break even at scrum time, plus the evidence of a season examining their lineouts suggests they have mastered this part of the game, too.

Both teams have won 91pc of their own throws this season, impressive figures, all of which points to a stalemate developing at the set-piece this evening. Munster need to do more than break even, though. This is a battleground that has to be won.

3. The breakdown

At their best, when they produced their three stand-out performances of the season - at home against Leicester and Glasgow Warriors and away at Racing 92 - Munster played with a relentless aggression and energy that neither the Tigers, Warriors nor Racing could contain.

And then there have been times when they have looked ordinary - think Saracens in the Champions Cup semi-final and in the first quarter of last week's game against the Ospreys. It was no coincidence that they struggled at the breakdown on each occasion.

The fact is that unless Munster perform well in this area then they simply don't possess the creative edge to conjure up chances from slow ball.

That's why you continually hear coaches and pundits refer to the "hard yards", the two-metre gains from carries, the recycling of quick ball to ensure the next ball carrier can gain another couple of metres, all the while creating the space that Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Conway crave.

Rugby, at its core, is a physical sport. Much of the game comes down to one-on-one battles. So if Munster's back-row can impose themselves and generate quick ball - ensuring their body position is right going into rucks, getting good clean-outs on their own ball and removing any threats from the opposition's poachers - then they can become the team that is on the front foot.

All of which sounds easy. But the Scarlets back-row of John Barclay, Aaron Shingler and the hugely impressive James Davies will make it anything but straightforward.

4. The case for the defence

Under Jacques Nienabar's direction, Munster's defence has been superb all season.

Yet even though they have faced some very good teams - Leinster, Leicester, Saracens, Racing - this Scarlets attack could be their toughest test of the campaign.

As Leinster discovered last week, Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams' influence need to be curtailed, as their offloads and linebreaks are hugely effective.

Munster must shut down the offloading channels and the best way of doing this is by staying connected and providing supporting defenders on the inside and outside of the tackler.

What's more, a close eye has to be kept on scrum-half Gareth Davies, whose line-breaks off scrums, and the base of rucks, has the potential to be devastating.

5. Winning the psychological battle

I remember 2000 and 2002, the lingering doubts ahead of those Heineken Cup finals. I remember the difference then in 2006. The occasion didn't get to us then.

We simplified our thought processes, deliberately told one another to enjoy the occasion and the build-up, and to trust in the quality of our preparation. We were ready in 2006.

Munster need to be composed today. It helps that the final is in the Aviva, where they toiled against Saracens a month ago. Another plus is the fact they'll have the majority of the crowd backing them.

Axel will be in their thoughts. As a player, he never allowed himself get overly hyped by the occasion and always seemed to get the emotional temperature right.

Munster have to do that today. If they manage it, this team can honour their former coach in the perfect way.

Irish Independent

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