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21st Jan 2019

Analysis: Why Munster have the best defence in Europe this season

Jack O'Toole

‘Are you questioning my teammates? Are you questioning my teammates?’ Peter O’Mahony asked Reggie Corrigan during a post-match interview last season.

Munster had lost 23-17 to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium and the flanker did not take kindly to Corrgian’s line of questioning.

“Essentially he’s calling myself and my team-mates out, saying we’re not trying hard enough, questioning are we working hard enough and do we want it enough.

“I’m a very proud man, a very proud Munster man, a very proud Irish man and that’s a question of the core of everything.

“Everything we do in Munster rugby and Irish rugby is based around work-rate and your want to win and how relentless you can be and for someone to question that I’d take huge offence to.”

A week later and former Munster, Ireland and British & Irish Lions flanker David Wallace leapt to his defence and insisted that intensity and workrate formed the foundations of the club in a column he wrote for the Irish Independent.

“I think Peter subsequently said that Munster pride themselves on their work-rate and that’s how they want to win matches. They aim to outwork teams and back their fitness.

“That will always be part of the psyche. Growing up as a Munster fan, you could always see that coming across from the players on the pitch.

“And as a former Munster player, that is what we were always brought up on. So, Peter was dead right to get that point across.”

Different coaches will have different defensive systems, but attitude, intensity and workrate are a must and those three attributes are a big part of why Munster have had the best defence in Europe the last two seasons, coupled with the fantastic work done by Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber, Johan van Graan and J.P Ferreira.

Munster conceded just eight tries during last season’s Champions Cup Pool stages, two less than Racing, the second best defence, while this season they have conceded just nine tries, one less than Leinster, the second best defence this season.

Exeter had scored 17 tries in five games before Saturday’s visit to Thomond Park and lead the Premiership with 50 tries in 12 games for an average of 3.94 tries per game. They scored just once in Limerick as Munster battled their way to a hard-fought 9-7 win.

It wasn’t the most glamorous game but it served as a good example of how Munster are able to squeeze teams and how they are really hard to break down.

Getting set

Firstly, from the outset Dave Kilcoyne establishes his position as the A defender and from there Munster get off the line, make the right read, slide well and centre Chris Farrell buries the ball carrier.

Munster consistently get this right and when teams go wide on them they tend not to panic and their identification of where the ball is going and their execution in the tackle is generally spot on.

Again below we can see the Munster backs do a good job of sliding and showing Exeter the sideline before reloading, making a quick tackle and then breaking through to the second wave of attack on the next phase and shutting down the ball carrier back towards the opposite sideline.

They make excellent reads, strong tackles and slide well together as a unit and if you notice Rory Scannell’s tackle in the clip above, there’s consistent attempts to get back to their feet and make a play at the ball.

Scannell gets blown over in this instance but this a team wide trait. You expect turnover specialists like Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne to make plays at the ball but throughout the game every one from tighthead prop John Ryan to outside centre Chris Farrell are trying to get back to their feet and win a turnover.

It’s a pivotal part of their defence because as you can see below teams like Exeter can run them all over the pitch and when a team has nearly twice the amount of ball as you do, and make nearly three times as many metres, you need to turn the ball over to survive.

Luckily for Munster they won that battle at the weekend and when an opportunity presents itself they ruthlessly take advantage as we can see with Tadhg Beirne here.

Munster have a lot of attacking weapons but have scored less tries and less points than they did at the end of last year’s Pool stages.

With Joey Carbery at fly-half they look more dangerous than they have during previous years, and with Andrew Conway and Keith Earls on the wings, and Chris Farrell in the centres, they have no shortage of strike weapons, and while they do look a better team this season the crux of their success is still inextricably tied to their defensive prowess.

The additions of Beirne and Carbery, and a full off-season under van Graan could finally be the difference between Munster making the step from contenders to champions.

And while you can question if they’re as as talented as other teams in Europe, if they can go away from home and win a knockout game and if they have the depth to cope with injury like some other squads, you can’t question their defence…. or their workarate. It’s been rock solid again this season.

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