December 22, 2014
In October we started a 3 part series on the coaching situation in Leinster. The second part of the series was to analyse Leinsters game plan. Then the Treviso game happened and things have been tough ever since. Tough on the team, the coaches and the fans. We're not proud to say that what we've seen in these last few weeks has sucked a lot of the joy out of the game and severely diminished our enthusiasm for writing about it. But with a couple of wins under Leinsters belt our appetite is somewhat renewed....
Prior to the game in the Stoop Matt O'Connor hit back at the press over the constant questions about Leinster's form. He cited Leicester's try scoring record while he was with them and Leinster's try scoring record in the league. He said he wants to play with ball in hand, but because he is unable to get any consistency in selection he has to try and find what he called a "competitive advantage" over the opposition from week to week that varies based on the squad he has available. This sounds reasonable enough. You have to tailor your game to a degree based on who you have available and who you are playing. You'll find no argument from us there. But you would imagine there is some sort of a basic, common approach that is taken with variations to the theme based on the individual game.
From what we can make out there are 3 basic tenets that Leinster use from an attacking point of view. These things seem to be the cornerstone of how Matt wants us to play the game with ball in hand. This doesn't focus on the set piece or the extra elements tacked onto the basic tenets, but is more a simple overview of the foundations of Leinster's attacking game. There are obviously additional things that Leinster try and do. If we have the better line-out we might look to go to the line more often for example. If the opposition back three are suspect under the high ball we might put up more contestables, i.e. up and unders with chasers who are looking to regain possession. Identifying these kinds of things is exactly what Matt O'Connor means when he says they look for the competitive advantage. Where are Leinster stronger and how can they exploit that? Where are the opposition stronger and how can they nullify/minimise the threat posed? This is the kind of thing all coaches do, built around general tenets like those below.
Obviously these tenets are not hard-and-fast rules and players have some license to play what's in front of them. And while there is a defensive aspect to all of this as well, for now we'll focus on the attacking aspect. The basic tenets that we have identified are:
1. Kick To Control Territory
This season people have been lamenting our kicking game for being too long or our chase for being poor. However it looks to us that neither are actually the case. Whereas last season we kicked to regather (meaning we kicked shorter and had individuals chasing hard), this season we seem to be kicking long deliberately and then coming up as one defensive line so that we can control where the gain line is. Should the opposition kick back we can then decide whether we want to do the same again ourselves or put it through the hands depending on where the opposition kick falls. If they run it back then we have control over where the gain line is based on where the opposition runner hits our defensive line. The general jist being that we don't play rugby in our own half. Instead we control the territory and then only really look to play rugby inside the opposition half.
2. Tight & Direct Phase Play
Once we have possession of the ball within the opposition half a big part of our game is a fairly standard direct game using one out runners taking the ball into contact. We build up the phases and suck in defenders this way. However instead of having guys coming onto the ball at pace we have them relatively flat and receiving the ball standing still. This is a "safe" way of implementing your phase play because a guy standing still is easier to hit with the pass and will be less likely to drop it than he would be if moving at pace. By standing flat he won't get caught (too far) behind the gain line. We then rumble forward slow and steady hoping to gain territory and suck in defenders. We also don't offload in contact, instead we use support runners to clear out the ruck to set up for the next phase.
3. A Wide Attacking Game
When we go through the back line we seem to want to put width on the ball, and fast. Players receive the ball while drifting across field and move it on as quickly as possible to get the width on it. Once play has reached the wings if we don't have the space we take the ball into contact and come back the other way. The only thing we can assume Leinster want to do here is to try to create gaps, mismatches or overlaps by moving the ball across the width of the pitch quickly, and repeatedly if necessary. If the tight phase play has forced the opposition defence to be narrow by sucking in players then there may be space out wide. And if not then defences can be pulled one way and then the other until space or mismatches are created. Using the inside ball then against defenders who are drifting across can be effective if we have a runner hitting a weak shoulder, or an inside break can do the same thing. We've seen a lot of the former this season, but relatively little of the latter.
THAT'S THE GAME
So how have Leinster done at implementing this game, and how does it stack up against opposition sides? Well if we take each tenet individually we can identify the strengths and weaknesses in each and how well we are actually implementing them and are able to implement them.
1. Kick To Control Territory
Rugby is, in it's simplest form, a straight forward game. Yes I know that's a real Hook-ism, but it is fairly true. Controlling territory and possession is a massive part of every encounter and although that doesn't guarantee victory it will put a side in a position to get the win. If a side can control where the game is played with their kicking game and are capable of turning the ball over or forcing penalties they can halt opposition momentum and create their own. So Leinster kick long and bring up their defensive line to control where the game is played. And if the opposition choose to run it back, as Quins did in the Aviva a good deal, then it's advantage Leinster in the territory battle. If Leinster can squeeze a few penalties out of things from there then they can get points on the board.
However, should a team decide to kick the ball back then it makes this tactic a difficult one to implement. The defensive line will be ahead of the ball and will need to retreat to a degree before coming up again if Leinster choose to kick again, which they invariably do. Should the opposition be happy to just kick back to Leinster each time then we will end up with a really poor game of kick tennis. See the Ospreys game a few weeks ago for an example of that. Neither side gain any real advantage and as a spectacle it is dreadful to watch. What's worse though is that a kicking game like that can disrupt the defensive line unless it is incredibly well marshalled. Players pressing up, retreating, pressing up and retreating repeatedly inevitably opens gaps in the line. Against a side able to take advantage of that the Leinster end up on the back foot. Ospreys were very, very close to that a few weeks ago in the RDS and crossed the try line 3 times only to be called back for small things each time. And unless Leinster have other strings to their bow they'll struggle to get into try scoring positions, which is exactly what happened against the Ospreys.
Even if Leinster can utilise this tactic to good effect it still means relatively little unless they can (a) get the ball into their own hands and (b) make use of it when in the opposition half. This is where the other 2 tenets come into it.
2. Tight & Direct Phase Play
Let's assume Leinster make it into the opposition half and manage to turn over ball using their kicking game. They are now in a position to play some rugby. So how do they go about doing that? Initially Leinster seem to favour playing direct up the middle. This is where a lot of the "bosh" criticism comes from. Leinster will play one out static carriers from the ruck who will try to break the gain line, commit defenders and get Leinster on the front foot. Big ball carriers like Healy, O'Brien and Ruddock can often break the first tackle while others such as Jack McGrath, Cronin and Heaslip will make hard yards. All of these count in terms of setting the platform. Support players arrive in to clear out the ruck and provide clean ball. Even when one of our big carriers breaks the line the instinct/instruction appears to be around securing the breakdown and not providing runners for off-loads. This clean ball can be used to go direct again or go out to the backs on next phase.
However all of this requires Leinster to dominate the collisions. While Leinster can do this against the weaker sides this is harder and harder to do against bigger sides like Toulon and Clermont. Even Munster showed that if they have the appetite to take us on there we can be neutered. Other issues with this approach is that we often commit 3 men to our own rucks and try to clear out with force. This leads to two specific issues. First is that if the opposition decide not to contest the breakdown they have the numbers to deal with the next phase. Secondly if they put in one body and wait for the Leinster support to come in and drive that person out of the ruck area, often going beyond the ruck area, the ball can end up in open play allowing for an easy turnover. This is because if we have driven past the breakdown in a zealous clear out then there is no longer a ruck and the ball is playable. We've seen both of these issues repeatedly with this Leinster side and it makes life incredibly difficult on the half backs.
Another huge issue is how we resource the rucks. Even when the support arrives and gets in a good guard position it is often back three players like Fanning and/or Kirchner who are first in. They can sometimes end up facing locks and back rows and there is a huge mismatch here. We've lost plenty of ball as a result of our ruck resourcing as well.
Given Leinster's current injury profile the hard yards are the norm right now. We didn't have anyone other than Ruddock who could make the real gains and he's injured now too. But overall this approach has been reasonably effective while not really being a game changer. It can get us moving a bit, but simply isn't reliable enough to be winning us games.
3. A Wide Attacking Game
So now we're in a position where the outside backs have barely been involved. The kicking game has it's issues, but the direct game and ruck protection is also putting pressure on the half backs and therefore the outside backs by extension. When we do get quick, clean ball we really need to make sure we use it effectively. So what do we do? O'Connor seems to be very fond of putting width on it through the back line. So much so that we've seen almost no set back line moves at all from Leinster since he took charge. Our out-half tends to sit pretty deep (about 7-8m back from the gain line) with our second receiver doing similar. We choose a direction (generally the openside when we go to the backs first) and spin it that way through the hands reasonably fast. Against narrow defences this can reap rewards, as we saw against the Scarlets earlier in the season.
However when playing this way we tend to crab across field with ball in hand, releasing it before ever fixing a defender. So defences can just drift across and the Leinster winger could end up facing 2+ defenders when receiving the ball. In a bizarre attempt to address this issue Leinster seem to be throwing big loopy passes skipping out 1 or 2 players to get it to the winger quicker, but this is only magnifying the issue. For as long as defences are not being asked questions we will continue to make life easy on them and hard on ourselves. To give your winger a chance you absolutely must fix defenders to try and create some room for your outside men to run into. We just don't seem to have it in us to create space at the moment. At one point in Friday nights game against Connacht Kirchner received the ball off the back of a wrap around only to meet four, yes four, Connacht defenders metres out from the touchline. Quite how we expect our wide men to do any real damage when we put them in that kind of situation I don't know.
There are things that the Leinster midfield can also do to try and make an impact while playing this way. For starters they can target weak shoulders with an inside ball or an inside step. When the defence is drifting across like that their inside shoulder is a soft target due to their momentum taking them the other way. Unfortunately we've relied far too heavily on the inside pass and because there is so little variation in our line when there is a runner looking to come back inside absolutely everyone can see it. So much so we've given away 2 intercept tries to the move this season and have had to cut down on it's usage as a result. Gopperth showed in the Stoop how useful a good step can be though too. I'm not totally sure why we haven't utilised that more, although Fitzy seemed to get some change out of it himself in the last couple of weeks. Maybe it is because we have Mads at 12 a lot and people are alive to his stepping at this stage? Another option we should be looking at more is the little chip in behind the line. There have been a number of sides that have been using that to good effect lately and that disallowed Quins try in the Aviva came off the back of a lovely chip kick from Danny Care.
Of course what would be most desirable would be things like some more movement and options in the back line, runners straightening the line and some real back line set plays. We don't have to be playing champagne rugby, but we really need to be making life harder on defences that we currently are.
SO WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
Questions still remain over Leinster's form despite the two wins and O'Connors insistence that there is nothing wrong with winning ugly. However when we look at the style we are playing and our form when implementing it we can see a few things. For starters Leinster are having difficulty scoring tries at the moment. We've seen in the last few weeks multiple examples of where Leinster have been going backwards with ball in hand. Look at the opening 5 minutes of the second half of the Quins game in the Aviva and you'll see Leinster with ball in hand for 1 minute 10 seconds. Leinster failed to penetrate the Quins defence in any way in that time. The London club managed our attacking game with relative ease. We were forced to kick the ball away at the end of that passage of play because we were going nowhere. When Quins decided to run it back a couple of kicks later it took them 37 seconds to cross our try line. In both cases the attack started between the attackers 10m and 22m lines. Yet Quins played with some tempo and ambition which allowed them to get in behind our defensive line. Off-loads and a chip kick were key to getting across the line, two things we should be doing and simply aren't. Now the try was disallowed (dubiously) due to a knock-on, but the point stands. An average side playing with a bit of ambition were able to bottle us up effectively and also able to get in behind us effectively. It was only when Reddan came on and added a bit of ambition himself that Leinster got back into the game.
Leinster's basics, an element of major concern last season, do seem to have improved a bit. In terms of our kicking game we have been broadly accurate there, although we have seen some really badly executed kicks going out on the full, not making touch and going dead. Our handling has certainly improved and we're not seeing as many knock-ons this season. Our passing at times has been truly awful though. And again we saw that on Friday against Connacht. Passes above players heads, to their bootlaces or behind them completely. When you combine that with what is really a very conservative and one-dimensional game plan Leinster are always going to struggle to get motoring.
There are injured players to return, and these guys will obviously make a difference to how we perform. However the nuts and bolts of the game plan seem destined to remain. And while last season individuals managed to cover up deficiencies in the way we played, and may do again, Leinster could be playing a lot better than they are. And will be capable of far more when the likes of Healy and O'Brien come back. Matt O'Connor really needs to review how he wants this side to approach the game because while the way we are currently playing may get us past most sides in the league, it won't be good enough against truly good sides. With the squad they have Leinster should be a real worry for anyone and everyone, yet Chris Robshaw said it all a couple of weeks ago when he said that they knew the Irish side would run out of ideas after the fourth phase. If we didn't worry Quins that much then a full strength Ospreys, Glasgow or any side we are likely to face in the European Quarters are hardly going to be quaking in their boots either. And Munster away this weekend could be really tough.