ONE OF MUNSTER’S usual strengths turned to a weakness on Saturday evening in Thomond Park as Paul O’Connell’s pack failed to get their maul firing.
O’Connell and his pack couldn’t find a way to break down the Clermont resistance. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Whatever about Munster’s blunt attack in phase play, something we will discuss elsewhere this week, there were several scoring opportunities when Munster earned promising field position inside the green zone.
The failings of Munster in this area of the pitch were neatly summed up when Damien Chouly picked off the final line-out of the game to deny the Irish province an opportunity to level the game with the last kick.
However, there were several other incidents of Munster profligacy in the same zone that were equally as important to the outcome of the game. Head coach Anthony Foley must ensure that these errors are cut out if Munster are to redeem themselves at Stade Marcel Michelin on Sunday.
8:47 – Picked off
Clermont’s explosive start to the game stunned Munster, and it proved to be apt that the French side’s first-minute try came from a maul.
With Fritz Lee having helped ASM to such a positive opening thrust, Munster needed to respond in kind as soon as possible.
A typical hanging box kick from Conor Murray allowed Felix Jones to pressure Clermont wing Napolioni Nalaga into losing the ball into touch in the ninth minute, providing Munster with an excellent situation inside the green zone from which to attack.
Munster have been sharp in this area of the field for the majority of the season before Saturday’s fixture in Limerick. They don’t often spend long periods of time inside the opposition 22, but they are normally quite ruthless when they visit.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case against Clermont, as demonstrated in the example above, Sébastien Vahaamahina getting up ahead of Peter O’Mahony at the tail of the line-out.
Unusually, there is very little movement from Munster before the throw; it’s a straight-forward play at the tail and Clermont read it well. Jono Gibbes’ pack did this all evening, clear signs of having their analysis nailed down.
The opposition are clearly involved in Munster’s failing, but O’Connell will have taken the blame for this incident and others on his shoulders as the line-out caller.
35:58 – Clear chance missed
While Munster enjoyed a favourable share of possession for the remainder of the half, they barely set foot inside the Clermont 22 again until just before the interval. Again, they were wasteful with their opportunity.
By now trailing 16-6, these so-called ‘championship minutes’ would have been the ideal time for Munster to score, sending Clermont into the break with a nagging doubt, even if Frank Azéma’s side would still have held the lead.
This is the situation O’Connell and his pack would have been pining for all week, a line-out platform within 10 metres of the Clermont tryline; the perfect place from which to send their usually powerful and intelligent maul into action.
As we see above, the play comes to a shuddering, inaccurate halt as the ball spills forward in the transfer from Dave Foley to Tommy O’Donnell. Conditions were slippery on Saturday evening, but even still this error would have hugely frustrated Munster.
O’Connell’s reaction underlines that, as the second row immediately indicates to referee Wayne Barnes that he believes Clermont had closed the one-metre gap before the throw even came in.
Indeed, O’Connell indicates as much before Duncan Casey fires his dart, with locking partner Foley also making the same point behind him. The appeals fall on deaf ears as Clermont do appear to step into the space.
Whatever about Clermont’s infringement here, it’s still Munster’s duty to be accurate with the mauling play. Having secured a clean win in the air, they are in good shape to organise themselves and shunt forward.
O’Connell and Foley themselves have stepped into the gap numerous times before, denying the opposition space to set themselves up. Again, it’s smart play from a well-prepared Gibbes’ pack, but Munster’s frustration should be directed at themselves.
53:34 – Problem persists
There was a similar incident on Munster’s very next visit into the Clermont 22, which came 13 minutes into the second half. Again, the home side knocked-on, and again O’Connell was unhappy with Clermont’s involvement.
The underlying issue is that Munster failed from another potential scoring situation.
Unlike the previous example we looked at, Clermont get a man into the air to compete here, Vahaamahina disrupting superbly. It’s sharp movement from Munster this time to create some space for O’Connell at the tail, but the Clermont lock still gets up with an isloated lift from Clément Ric behind him.
As the throw comes from Casey, Barnes indicates that Munster are “beyond the 15[-metre line],” which means the line-out has actually ended even before O’Connell claims the ball. From Barnes’ view, that entitles Vahaamahina to take up the position around to the side of O’Connell that the Munster lock is so aggrieved by.
Vahaamahina gets a strong right arm in as O’Connell looks to transfer the ball to James Cronin, again highlighting Clermont’s mindset of doing their utmost to prevent Munster’s maul getting set.
Whether scrapping in the air like this, or closing the gap as we saw before, Gibbes sent his pack out intent on ensuring Munster did not get a solid mauling platform. Again, it’s worth stressing that Clermont’s involvements were crucial in the Munster failings.
There is, however, still an obvious chance for Foley’s side to hold onto the ball here. The inaccuracy will frustrate them throughout this week’s training.
77:23 – History repeats itself
There was almost a carbon copy of the above in the 78th minute, as Munster desperately went in search of those equalising seven points.
The field position is basically identical, and again Munster use a dummy play at the front of the line-out, although Foley’s movement fails to draw in the clever Chouly this time.
Instead, the Clermont back row gets a strong lift from Jamie Cudmore and Alexandre Lapandry, forcing his right hand in as O’Mahony attempts to claim the ball.
That excellent work from Clermont results in Munster spilling the ball, although Barnes does not believe it to be a knock-on this time. Again, O’Connell is unhappy with Clermont’s defensive tactics but his side do at least retain possession.
No score comes from the subsequent attacking phases, and it’s another promising mauling scenario gone wrong for Munster.
Click Here: newcastle knights jersey79:55 – Chouly reads O’Connell
After everything that had gone wrong for Munster throughout the course of the fixture, they were left with their best mauling opportunity of all with the last play of the game.
Even after being battered by Clermont’s aggressive defence, failing to create more than three linebreaks and numerous handling errors, O’Connell and his pack would have backed themselves to score here and clinch a draw with the conversion.
The maul is probably the area of the game in which Munster would have hoped their final chance came, even after the previous failings.
Clermont’s actions again stress their attitude to these dangerous defensive positions. Many sides would stay on the ground here, getting themselves more ideally set up to defend the maul, rather than risk going into the air, not stealing the ball and then being less prepared to stop the drive.
“I saw that Paul O’Connell had called the two last line-outs to himself,” said Chouly post-match, “so I told the guys to lift me and it worked. Just during the game he adjusted his call and I saw it. It was psychology as well.”
Munster attempt something similar to the previous two incidents we’ve highlighted here, with a dummy movement from Foley in front of Chouly.
We can see above that Clermont have no interest whatsoever in Foley. Cudmore [the lifter at the front] is staring directly at O’Connell, waiting to see where the 35-year-old goes.
As Chouly admitted afterwards, there was only ever one man his side were going to mark up on. Rarely is O’Connell out-thought in this manner at the line-out, but Clermont managed to read his intentions superbly all evening.
Even when they didn’t, Gibbes’ pack were intent on causing as much disruption to Munster’s attempts to set their maul as possible. It’s one of the key work-ons for the southern province this week ahead of the return leg in Auvergne.
O’Connell and his pack will be stinging from their failure to deliver at maul time. Cutting out the inaccuracies on the transfer, opening more space for the lift with their movement and limiting Clermont’s ability to play havoc will be essential on Sunday.
Every visit into the green zone will need to see some return in terms of points if Foley’s men are to pull off a surprise victory at Stade Marcel Michelin.
Munster have ‘returned to traditional values’ this season, but Clermont didn’t seem to careClermont’s Chouly backed himself to beat Paul O’Connell at final line-out