MUCH HAS BEEN made of Munster’s historic ability to get out of tight spots during the build-up to Saturday’s crucial Champions Cup clash with Saracens, but equally as important will be the gameplan.
The ability of Peter O’Mahony, Paul O’Connell and co. to be at the required psychological pitch is not really in doubt; it goes without saying that Munster’s emotional intensity will need to be at memorable levels if they are to win in Allianz Park.
Saracens’ record on the synthetic surface at the North London stadium speaks for itself and Mark McCall’s men are justified favourites for this tie, but their form is certainly not at its zenith.
Opportunity knocks for Munster.
Mixing it up
Some of Munster’s biggest wins this season have been built on gameplans that featured a very narrow attacking focus – think Leinster home and away, as well as Saracens at Thomond Park.
Anthony Foley’s side are effective in their use of pick and jams in the tight, while Conor Murray – whose fitness is pivotal this weekend – has been the key playmaker in bringing the forwards into the game and carrying the ball himself around the fringes.
It’s been effective for Munster, but the impression is that Saracens’ powerful defence would deal with this type of attack more comfortably than a more varied approach. That said, there is certainly scope and need for a degree of Munster’s best narrow attack again, especially in the Saracens’ 22.
Further out the pitch, Foley and attack coach Brian Walsh have gradually pushed their side to be more multi-optioned than just hitting one-off carriers outside Murray, and a continuation of that against Saracens looks the most suitable policy.
Going through every mini-play Munster could use in this regard is unnecessary but we get an idea of the idea in action in the GIF above.
Instead of a simple carry by O’Mahony directly from Murray’s pass, the flanker sends a tip-on pass to Tommy O’Donnell on his right shoulder. There’s no linebreak or big gainline win, but it does mean a swift ruck for Munster as they enter contact on their own terms.
On the very next phase, hooker Duncan Casey runs a dummy switch inside out-half Ian Keatley, who then fires a screen pass behind CJ Stander and BJ Botha to allow JJ Hanrahan to make the bust.
These tip-on passes were a crucial wrinkle Munster added in that away game against Clermont, when their varied attacking approach asked real questions of the French side.
The point here is that the defence is forced to make decisions with more than one attacking option in front of them.
Whether it be through simple short passes, screen plays, loops off forward runners or dummy switches, more variety can help Munster to keep the Saracens defence working hard.
Munster’s kicking game is a central part of how they look to gain control, and it has been another foundational aspect of their best wins of the season. They kicked the ball from hand 36 times at home to Saracens, and kicking is likely to be prominent on Saturday again.
One of the things that has made Munster’s kicking successful much of the time has been the chase, which is so often as important as the actual kick itself. Winning in London will require mastery of this area again.
Saracens have a strong back three in David Strettle, Chris Ashton and Alex Goode, although Foley’s men might feel they can get at the latter in the air, with some of his fielding having been shaky this season.
The 3G pitch at Allianz Park ensures the aerial game is of even more importance than usual, with the firmness of the ground meaning that the ball bounces higher and can travel further in distance from the initial bounce than it would on real grass.
In more succinct terms, catching the ball on the full is preferable. With that in mind, look for Munster to once again base much of their kicking around Murray, should he pull through and be named in the starting XV.
Murray’s box-kicking, along with high, contestable bombs from Keatley at out-half would appear to be the order of the day, rather than lower sweeper-style kicks across the pitch.
Much like Ireland, Munster haven’t been purveyors of the offload this season, but they do possess players with the ability to carry out the skill. O’Connell threw a sublime offload against Clermont away, while Peter O’Mahony demonstrated his prowess in the art twice in last weekend’s win over Zebre.
Offloading in Italy against one of the weakest teams in the Pro12 is very different to playing the ball out of contact in Allianz Park, but again the question is around what Munster can do to truly unsettle the Saracens defence.
McCall’s side score many of their tries directly from opposition errors, so flinging offloads out of every tackle is clearly not a good idea.
However, if Munster can bide their time and wait for the right moment in what looks sure to be a close game, releasing the ball out of contact can ensure Saracens have less reaction time in defence, fewer precious seconds in which to rebuild the structures that give them such comfort.
Controlling the maul
Saracens scored three maul tries against Gloucester last weekend to underline their strength in this area, even if the suspension of George Kruis robs them of a potentially important set-piece figure.
Much is spoken of Saracens’ physical power, with the maul being one of the key areas in which the Premiership side demonstrate it.
Much of Saracens’ kicking strategy is based around getting their pack into positions like the above one, five metres out and ideally set to use their bulk, dynamism and technical mauling skills to power over the line.
Priority number one for Munster is pressurising that kicking game at source, denying Saracens the time and space to move the ball deep into the Munster half via the boots of their half-backs.
If and when Saracens do get within striking distance of the Munster tryline, swift and effective sacking looks to be the most viable tactic to counter the English side’s maul. Gloucester had real problems getting the Saracens jumper to ground last weekend, something Foley’s forwards will have learned from.
On the other side of the coin, Munster’s maul has not fired as consistently as they would have hoped this season, with notable issues in that area against Clermont at Thomond Park in December.
Clinical visits into the opposition 22 will be essential against a Saracens team likely to be focused on dominating territory, meaning Munster’s maul is under pressure to deliver.
Adding intelligence to intensity
Saracens are a high-quality side, of that there is no doubt, and it would be utterly foolish to underestimate their intelligence, physicality, motivation and ability to benefit from their familiarity with the Allianz Park pitch.
They have the power to play a narrow, pick and drive, one-off runner gameplan, but also the passing skills in their backline and back row to expand from that base and look to wider channels, as they so often do at home.
Still, their form is not where it was last season.
Only four Premiership defeats and a loss away to Munster means their record is far from poor, but the sense is that McCall’s men have not found their true pitch just yet.
It won’t take a miracle from Munster at Allianz Park to keep their European campaign alive, but it will take an intelligent gameplan matched to the desire O’Mahony and O’Connell will ensure is present.
Keeping Saracens guessing a little more than at Thomond Park, while still relying on the underlying qualities of that victory, can help them to four vital points.