The change in treatment of poachers at the breakdown since then has forced coaches to re-examine this area carefully
On a mission to clean out the clutter built up on the Sky box the other day we happened across something with a Do Not Touch warning attached.
No pause for thought because pressing play is allowed. So we were off, Ireland versus New Zealand in the Aviva, November 2018. The summit.
It’s less than two years since that mountain was scaled by Joe Schmidt’s side. We didn’t know then the abyss was on the other side of Christmas. Nor could we have figured on the occasion looking so different by autumn 2020.
Two things stood out. First there was the crowd. Standard television direction of any big match involves a clatter of cutaways to the stands. Every one of them seemed like a golden moment.
The place was heaving with folks delighted to be ringside. It looked better; it sounded better; it felt better. Watching that game again reminded you how a team at the peak of their powers can shape the mood of roughly 50,000 people with all sorts going on in their lives.
The other thing was the way rugby was played back then. So it was impossible not to howl at Rory Best for two gross entries to the side of rucks in the space of as many minutes in the opening quarter.
He didn’t just break the side door down, he kept going, running around the back. Referee Wayne Barnes wasn’t complaining. Neither were the All Blacks. That reactionary method of cleaning people out was part and parcel of the continuity game then.
Ireland had that perfect mix of accuracy and aggression. New Zealand were not far off. It helped that both sides could bank heavily on retaining the ball at the breakdown.
Their figures were virtually the same: Ireland kept 97 per cent of the ball they brought in; New Zealand 96.7 per cent. There was a lot of breakdown ball: 258 rucks split almost evenly between them.
The change in treatment of poachers at the breakdown since then has forced coaches to re-examine this area carefully.
If your team were rattled before this change in law emphasis was introduced then you have a dose of the yips now at the very mention of running through a few phases. Munster are firmly in this category.
Just over six months before that win over New Zealand, Munster were in Bordeaux to take on Racing 92 in the semi-final of the Heineken Champions Cup. It was a fabulously sunny day, one that suited Racing more than Munster. The French had come to play.
We remember struggling after that contest to join the dots between the solidity of the Munster set-piece and the emptiness of their playbook to get them over the gain line on their first strike.
True, they had nobody in the same league as Teddy Thomas, who, with a try assist to complement his own two touchdowns, might have reached his own personal peak that afternoon. Neither had Munster any ideas.
Back then we wondered why they were not prepared to play a couple of phases to try and make the kick more appealing, if indeed they still wanted to kick having gone through that routine.
Remember, this was a time when referees were not looking on poachers as trespassers, burglars, men up to no good. With a pack as solid as Munster’s – six of them started last weekend against Leinster - they knew their way around. Running through a few phases was not an Everest-like climb.
It is now. At least it is for a team who have so little faith in themselves. Some of the missiles launched in Munster’s direction since the Leinster game seems to miss this salient point: retaining the ball at the breakdown is now a fraught business.
Before lockdown it wasn’t. Then the world changed shape. So post lockdown it is. Suggesting Munster pull an all-court game out of their back pockets tells us more about the people making the point than the team getting the sharp end of that point in the neck.
The alarming thing is Munster can’t find a balance between throwing the passes Ulster were throwing in Edinburgh, to get back into the game, and presenting their opponents with a few shapes to cause them problems.
Detailed planning for your first two phases isn’t demanding the advent of time travel. It is professional rugby’s equivalent of the postman putting the right letter through the right door.
It is reasonable in the circumstances to ask all concerned on the Munster coaching staff why they are stuck behind the eight ball. Do they not think the backline as currently assembled has enough quality?
It may not be in Leinster’s league but it can look a whole lot better than we’re seeing currently.
Does Stephen Larkham really have no ideas to get the team through a few phases safely – without having to sweat buckets over retaining the ball at the breakdown – to maybe put the other team in an awkward spot?
Or does Johann van Graan tell Larkham he can work his magic in the 28 metres between the halfway line and the 22, because they’ll either be kicking or picking and jamming in what’s left of the pitch?
Even if they copied and pasted what Schmidt was doing two years ago it would put them in a better position.
Yes, he was doing it when it was comparatively easy to hold onto the ball, especially if the players were crystal clear on the detail required at the breakdown.
But Munster, driven by fear of Leinster turning them over out wide, have gone off the deep end. A few bubbles on the surface would be a start.