There was an element of nostalgia to Munster getting themselves out of jail on Saturday afternoon. Maybe it had something to do with their opposition being an unlikeable team who have bullied their way to European success, but seeing the home side win a game that they had no right whatsoever to win against a big-spending club through heart and soul (not to mention a moment of inspiration from Andrew Conway) was satisfying beyond words, and a throwback to their halcyon days.
Battening Down The Hatches
Toulon have developed a fear factor in recent years, with high-profile, World Cup-winning signings throughout their team sheet striking fear into their opponents and in some cases, winning them the game before a ball is even kicked. From Bakkies Botha through to Ma’a Nonu, they have never been short of star quality and going up against players with that reputation can be daunting, to say the least. Munster showed no signs of that type of inertia, and their intensity and line speed in defence was more than a match for the bruising Toulon pack:
Although they hung on by their fingernails at times, Munster’s defence in the wider channels was as impressive as it was in-close. They spent the opening minutes of the game scrambling across to bundle Semi Radradra and Josua Tuisova into touch, but for nearly the entire the 80 minutes, Munster repeatedly shut down Toulon’s threatening wide movements when it seemed like a line break or try was inevitable:
They physicality from Rory Scannell and Sam Arnold was vital in this regard; they were going up against Ma’a Nonu and Mathieu Bastareaud, two of the most physical midfielders in the world, and they fronted up manfully. The Munster midfield didn’t appear to be fazed by the status of the players opposite them, and it was a game that made you wonder why Scannell isn’t starting for Ireland.
The Value Of Video Analysis
As stellar as their tackling was, Munster’s defensive lineout was an equally significant part of an astonishing defensive performance that saw them limit Toulon to one try. It would be easy to give Peter O’Mahony full credit for this because of his prowess in this area (and there is certainly no question that he is a world class lineout forward), but in reality, Munster’s disruption of the Toulon throw owes a lot to the hours that Johann van Graan and his assistant coaches and video analysts spent poring over footage of their opposition, figuring out their every little tic in order to develop a crucial advantage out of touch.
In both of the below examples, O’Mahony displays great athleticism to get up in the air quicker than the Toulon jumpers, but his reading of Guilhem Guirado’s throws is just as important:
Losing a five-metre lineout is one of the most energy-sapping things that can happen to a team, and when you consider how strong Toulon’s maul was, Munster could have been in serious trouble if the French side had retained possession in either of the above instances. Like everything else that Munster did on the day, their defensive lineout came up with the goods when they were under intense pressure.
Another aspect of the game where doing their homework paid dividends for Munster was their kicking. As mentioned previously, Chris Ashton isn’t a reassuring presence in the backfield, and Radradra and Tuisova don’t cope well when the ball is put in behind them. Munster exploited this by generating go-forward ball and then scraping the ball along the ground:
It was the use of this tactic that led to Conor Murray’s try, and in general, it sent the Toulon back three into panic mode. Many teams would be tempted to over-use this ploy or attempt it from static ruck ball, but Munster had the patience and intelligence to wait until they were on the front foot before springing it. This meant that Radradra and Tuisova were up in the defensive line when the ball was kicked, which ensured that they were scurrying backwards when Munster put boot to ball, as opposed to waiting comfortably in the backfield.
Overcoming All Obstacles
Munster had to absorb a huge amount of pressure over the course of this game, especially because of the way in which momentum swung back and forth. The one phase of play where Toulon had an edge for the majority of the contest was the breakdown, and for large periods, Munster struggled to prevent them from forcing penalties on the deck:
Munster recognised this at half-time, and put extra numbers into the ruck so that their possession wasn’t interfered with. This enabled them to string multi-phase attacks together early in the second half, with minimal interference from Toulon:
Champion sides have to be able to adapt and overcome, and Munster have shown that they can do exactly that. There are better teams than Toulon in this tournament (and the visitors should arguably have lost on Saturday when you take into account the penalty try that should have been awarded for Simon Zebo slapping the ball out of play in the first minute), but if Munster can continue to react to what is happening in front of them swiftly, they might go right to the final.