Cian Tracey: 'Munster's subtle tweaks making big difference'
Larkham’s impact becoming clearer as Munster prepare for Saracens test
There have been several snapshots of the renewed confidence and vigour with which Munster are currently playing, but few examples summed it up better than the way they secured a draw against Racing 92 a fortnight ago.
With the clock having just ticked past the 74th minute, the pressure was on to deliver and as Munster pounded away at the Racing line, a bit of creativity deep in the 'red zone' unlocked the door.
Setting up with a pod of three forwards to the right of the ruck, it looked as though the pack were going to keep it tight and bash their way over the line.
It's a fair assumption to make given how forward-oriented Munster have been over the years, yet they are definitely moving towards a more rounded game-plan under Stephen Larkham.
Having options at both sides of the ruck, as well as players who are comfortable enough to step in as first receiver, has been one of the biggest aspects that Larkham has focused on in his first few months with the club.
The value of having dual play-makers is seen in image 1 as JJ Hanrahan positions himself behind the three-man pod (blue circle).
Rory Scannell might not be necessarily 'active' in the play, but his presence and animation to the left of the ruck is enough to grab the attention of Racing's fringe defence.
This camera angle doesn't quite show the full picture, but Keith Earls has held his width on the left wing outside Scannell with Andrew Conway doing the same on the opposite flank.
The Racing defence hammers off the line expecting the forwards to truck it up, only for Alby Mathewson to fire a bullet pass to Hanrahan, which creates the scenario as seen in image (2).
Granted, the out-half is playing with the freedom of a penalty advantage, but with his side trailing by seven points with six minutes left, this was, nevertheless, a high-pressure situation for Hanrahan.
The Racing defence has been caught too narrow and Hanrahan floats a sensational two-man skip pass for Conway, who, crucially, does not have to break his stride to score in the corner.
It was a stunning try and one that reinforced the notion that Larkham is allowing his players to play more heads-up rugby. The evidence so far suggests that they are buying into that too.
That draw against Racing at home does, however, lessen the margin for error from here on in and with Thomond Park set for another pulsating Heineken Champions Cup contest on Saturday, it is fitting that familiar foes Saracens will provide the opposition.
Munster have come unstuck against the defending champions at the semi-final stage of two of the last three years. That they failed to fire a realistic shot in either of them still rankles with some supporters.
As much as these are still very early days in this new-look Munster set-up, this weekend's clash is another test of how far along they are in their development.
When Larkham first arrived in Limerick, last season's one-sided 32-16 defeat to Saracens was one of the first important reference points he looked to focus on.
"I guess what we are really trying to work on here is not changing the whole system, because the system actually worked pretty well last year," the attack coach maintained.
"It's making sure that we are a little bit refined in certain areas. We know when we come up against the big teams in the competitions, our systems need to be a little bit better.
"If I look at our Saracens semi-final last year, we got out-kicked, our escorts weren't good enough. They came through, put a lot of pressure on our catches.
"Likewise when we kicked to them, they caught the balls quite easily because they did a pretty good job. Things like that, we just need to make sure they are in place."
After losing three consecutive European semi-finals, Munster knew they needed to add more strings to their bow because their game-plan simply wasn't good enough to take that next step and get back to a Champions Cup final. Larkham has come in and done that.
Munster are now looking to hold on to the ball for more phases, which in turn is pushing players out of their comfort zone.
Offloading has never been a hallmark of CJ Stander's game, yet the Ireland No 8 threw two of them against Racing. That in itself says a lot about the shift in mindset.
Players like Hanrahan and Mike Haley look reborn under Larkham's tutelage, and, most excitingly of all, their most potent attacking weapon Joey Carbery will be added to the mix over the coming weeks.
Munster know that Saracens will look to overpower them, but as they proved against Racing, those subtle nuances to their attacking shape can make a big difference against the best teams in Europe.
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