Saturday 24 August 2019

Munster's defence a solid foundation for future success

South African duo have created a mean machine, writes Ruaidhri O’Connor

Munster defence coach Jacques Nienaber Picture: Sportsfile
Munster defence coach Jacques Nienaber Picture: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Amid the grief, the resilience and the healing, a new Munster has emerged in recent weeks and nowhere has the sense of togetherness and purpose manifested itself more than in the province's defensive efforts.

The players have spoken about a bond that has been borne of the tragic loss of Anthony Foley, but emotion can only take them so far at this level and they are being pointed in the right direction by Rassie Erasmus.

When he was appointed to the role of director of rugby, Erasmus was happy to work with a team of indigenous coaches as long as he could employ one man of his own: defence coach Jacques Nienaber.

The former Springbok defence coach served under Erasmus at the Cheetahs. The two know each other well and their close relationship is bearing fruit.

While Munster fans are beginning to dream big again, there is a real sense that the next six weeks will give a true measure of where the team stand.

Tomorrow, they will face a stung Leicester Tigers side at Welford Road, before Leinster visit Thomond Park on St Stephen's Day and they complete an at-times harrowing 2016 away to Connacht on New Year's Eve.

After that, they face Racing 92 and Glasgow Warriors away before finishing their pool with the return of Ronan O'Gara and his men to Thomond Park.

So far, they have enjoyed two rampant wins in Europe but they have yet to play away from home in the Champions Cup. They are in an excellent position in a very tough pool but they have a way to go yet.

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The stand-out statistic behind their wins over Glasgow and Leicester is their 92pc tackle success rate, but there is far more to their defensive effort than an ability to make their hits.

They have conceded an average of four points per game in their last four outings and have conceded the lowest number of points of any team in the Guinness Pro12 so far. Their tackle success rate in the league is an impressive 89pc.

"Defence is blood and guts, attack is confidence," the former Springbok said earlier this season and that effort has reaped huge rewards.

Last Saturday, their defensive efforts extended to a maul effort that frustrated the Tigers and a determination to deprive their opponents of ways into the game.

At key moments, the Munster trust in the system, work off the field and belief in each other came to the fore.

Three minutes into the second half, Leicester finally got some field position and a chance to launch an attack to get themselves into the game but when Ben Youngs looked to snipe, as he has done so successfully for England all autumn, Munster had done their research.

Nobody drifted as the scrum-half arced his way into the waiting arms of three defenders who held him up and forced the turnover.

They got another chance when Rory Scannell kicked the ball out on the full, but Jaco Taute smashed Owen Williams in the tackle and the Welshman knocked on. Within minutes, Taute was scoring his side's second try and the game was over.

Later, with the bonus still there for the taking, both CJ Stander and Peter O'Mahony brilliantly stripped opponents of possession - a move that has been a key part of Andy Farrell's work with Ireland. The second of those led to the all-important fourth try.


Before a ball had been kicked this season, Nienaber said he would not be imposing a system he had used previously on the team, rather he would work to their strengths.

He has recognised the merits of an effective choke-tackle and has also been helped by the size and ferocity of Jaco Taute. It is little wonder Munster are keen to keep their back-line enforcer.

"I'm all-inclusive, a defence system for me is an evolving organ. I can't take the Boks' system and put it on Munster because the players are different, skills-sets are different," he said.

"The key for me is to find out the skill-set of players defensively, what are the special attributes that they have and try incorporate that to the system and vision I've got in my head and try and excel at it and make it as successful as possible."

Certainly, the team have responded and are feeding off the belief that comes from their defence.

"We won a lot of those moments," Tyler Bleyendaal said of last week's game. "We stopped momentum with our defence which was a big part of winning. Holding them to zero is a testament to our defence and also to the pressure we put on with our attack."

Munster know that the task at hand is more difficult this week and that things are going to be tougher from here on in.

Yet, they're building on a solid base and their defensive structure can take them far.

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