Taking and giving a five or 10-metre pass is a fundamental part of the game yet the skills required to deliver under pressure are often overlooked, writes Donal Lenihan.
When Joe Schmidt arrived at Leinster, one of the first things he did was focus on the quality of their passing game.
With exceptional talents like Eoin Reddan, Johnny Sexton, Luke Fitzgerald, Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll, Shane Horgan, Isa Nacewa, Fergus McFadden, Rob and Dave Kearney at his disposal, Schmidt’s mission was to make them the best passing side in Europe.
Few would dispute that he achieved that and more.
Taking and giving a five or 10-metre pass is a fundamental part of the game yet the skills required to deliver under pressure are often overlooked.
Reaching a certain level, players are expected to be fluent in the fundamentals. That is not always the case.
Schmidt knew he could transform a very talented group in a team that had already delivered a Heineken Cup under Michael Cheika’s watch into an even better attacking machine.
When Leinster reached their peak under Schmidt in the 2012 Heineken Cup final against Ulster at Twickenham, their passing was exceptional. They blew Ulster away, scoring five tries in a 42-14 demolition.
The thing that resonated most with me after Munster’s narrow defeat to Leinster last Saturday was the glaring skill deficiency in this aspect of their game. Modern rugby is all about creating space and exploiting it.
Munster’s continuity game was of sufficient quality to create that space and the subsequent attacking opportunity but an inability to execute 10-metre passes under pressure meant they couldn’t exploit potential try-scoring opportunities.
What made the issue even more pronounced was how comfortable several of the Leinster front five appeared in possession.
At one stage Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan were involved in a sequence of passing and off-loading that any centre would have been proud of.
Remember the outstanding pass Furlong executed, in traffic, against England to set up
that magnificent try for CJ Stander?
In similar positions on the field, with the same attacking shape in place, Munster were unable to deliver those skills under pressure.
Jean Kleyn was guilty of two woeful passes out the back to a second line of attack with one leading to a turnover and eventually points on the board for Leinster.
The question Johann van Graan has to ask himself is: ‘Do I have players of sufficient quality to play that game?’ I think that, by and large, he does. Munster’s back three of Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, and Simon Zebo have enjoyed an excellent season.
Earls and Conway were both electric in possession again at the RDS. The challenge is to get them on the ball as often as possible but without a full court passing game that isn’t happening.
Zebo will be a big loss for all kinds of reasons — he makes things happen. His direct replacement, Mike Haley from Sale, is highly rated but the jury is still out.
Behind the first choice back three Darren Sweetnam, Alex Wootton, Calvin Nash, and Stephen Fitzgerald have all made progress this season while Ronan O’Mahony was missed during this long-term injury absence.
In midfield, van Graan certainly has talent to work with. After a slow start Chris Farrell made significant progress and looked the real deal when afforded an opportunity by Schmidt at international level.
His injury, along with that of another international in Springbok Jaco Taute last September robbed Munster of options in midfield.
Rory Scannell and Sam Arnold did an exceptional job as a pair in the second half of the season but looked worn out over the last few weeks.
Too much was asked of them due to a lack of depth in the squad yet Arnold showed enough to suggest that he has a real future and could even make the trip to Australia with Ireland.
If Schmidt deemed it necessary to go back to basics in terms of passing drills with the multi-capped, proven international, stars he had at his disposal, then van Graan and Felix Jones should feel no shame in doing the same with the talent they have at their disposal.
The glaring issue that needs addressing is consistency at half back, particularly at out-half. Conor Murray has proven the best on the world stage in his position once again this season but Munster need more options in the back up department in his absence.
It was a minor miracle, given the number of top quality games he played this season, that Murray remained injury-free after the Six Nations.
Had they been required to play against Toulon or Racing 92 in the knockout phase of Europe minus Murray, then the odds on winning those two games would have changed dramatically.
Just look at the options open to Racing at half back when a series of injuries hit them over a condensed three-week period. Maxime Machenaud was seen as a cruel loss for the final yet had Racing sneaked a win at the death, which was a live possibility, then Machenaud’s replacement at scrum-half Teddy Iribaren would have been man of the match.
They were able to absorb the loss of Dan Carter and Pat Lambie within hours of each other and still spring a seasoned French international in Remi Tales off the bench when Lambie was forced off after only three minutes.
That said, had Carter been available with 20 minutes to go (as he was in the earlier knockout games against Clermont Auvergne and Munster) then Racing may well have better handled their drop goal opportunity at the death in the final.
The bottom line is that injury is part and parcel of the game meaning that if you want to go all the way at the business end of the season, you must have serious depth at out-half.
Look at Leinster. If Sexton had to cry off on the eve of the game Ross Byrne would have deputised manfully, as he has done all season.
Behind him, Leo Cullen had Ireland’s back-up No. 10 in Joey Carbery while in a real emergency Isa Nacewa is more than capable of doing a decent job in the pivotal role.
On paper, Munster have options but Tyler Bleyendaal’s unfortunate injury profile since he arrived has narrowed them significantly.
He was Rassie Erasmus’s first choice No. 10 throughout last season but when it came to the clutch games against Saracens in the Champions Cup semi-final and Scarlets in the Guinness PRO12 final, his form deserted him.
His early-season injury meant that Erasmus reverted to Ian Keatley who, at one stage at the end of last season was contemplating a move abroad.
Keatley enjoyed his most consistent season in a Munster shirt and was excellent in the narrow win over Toulon in the quarter-final.
However, his old failing of an inability to recover from early mistakes in big games resurfaced against Racing and his confidence visibly drained as the game unfolded.
That just can’t happen at that stage of the big tournaments.
Keatley suffered most from the fallout of that game in Bordeaux with JJ Hanrahan offered the chance to take command of the jersey in the subsequent outings against Ulster, Edinburgh, and Leinster.
An injury in the opening 10 minutes clearly hampered Hanrahan who, understandably, wanted to try and play on before being forced off at half-time.
So van Graan finishes his first six months in the job still in the dark as to who his first choice out-half is. He has never seen Bleyendaal, who had more surgery recently, play for Munster.
The debate as to whether Byrne or Carbery might transfer to Munster is still going on behind closed doors with nobody sure of the outcome.
It’s been a turbulent and challenging period for van Graan but he deserves credit for slotting in mid season, a task that was never going to be easy.
Earls admitted as much recently when confirming that the onus was on the senior players along with Jerry Flannery and Jones to keep the show on the road during the handover from Erasmus to his fellow South African.
Van Graan now has a full pre-season to put his stamp on Munster but faces a number of challenges to stop the rot when it comes to getting over the line at the business end of major competitions.
Something has to change.
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