DEFENDING against Leinster is one of the toughest things to do in this game right now.
Not only do they have overwhelming forward power and forward ruck support, but they also have the best tactical fly half in the game, one of the outstanding outside centres playing right now and a superb mix of power and pace in the back three. Leinster’s style of play is perfectly suited to take advantage of their strengths and impose those strengths on the opposition.
Essentially, Leinster use the massive ball-carrying (and ball retaining) ability of their pack to batter the opposition defence on consecutive phases before releasing the ball to the likes of Ringrose, Larmour, Lowe, Henshaw or Kearney running off Sexton.
The first phase structure has three heavy ball carriers close to the ruck with Sexton behind it and it’s their most secure. After a wide ruck from the likes of Henshaw/Lowe, Leinster move the ball back across the pitch through heavy “phalanxes” with a release option standing as a screen — usually, that’s Sexton close in and Ringrose further out.
Sexton will usually stand a little more to the outside of the screen to give him a look at hitting the second phalanx off a pullback or hitting Ringrose for a wider option.
Their second phase structure they use on big openside plays is one where Sexton stands away from the ruck with heavy runners outside of him. Sexton stands more isolated — away from the screen - but can hit a wider pod of forwards to extend Leinster’s ruck structure or attack the line himself.
When Leinster move closer to the try line or gain good centre-field ruck position they switch up their structure but when you’re defending against them in the middle of the field you’ll mostly see them switching between these two styles.
Munster’s job against Leinster on Saturday was two-fold — stop their phalanx system from creating gaps in the defence by slowing the recycle of the ball on each phase without losing multiple defenders to the ruck and stop Leinster before the gain line, man on man. In this regard, Munster were successful for the most part. They limited Leinster to three midfield linebreaks and only conceded tries off close range lineouts. No easy feat against a team like Leinster.
The Southern Province’s game against Connacht this weekend will demand a similar defensive performance if they are to win as they did last weekend.
Connacht might not be at the level they were at when they won the PRO12 three years ago but they are certainly in a much better place than they were last year under Keane. Andy Friend — the clue is in the name — has created a better buzz, a better feel and a better style of play for Connacht and it’s showing so far this season.
Attacking wise, they are showing the kind of threat that made them one of the premier sides in Europe a few years back and a lot of that has to do with the work of Jack Carty at 10. He’s been absolutely outstanding for Connacht and a key part in directing their wider ruck game.
It’s different from Leinster in one way, but the principle is the same. Munster will have to stop Connacht in the tackle behind the gain line - slowing them while they do - and then attacking the breakdown to force Connacht to compress their attack and play a forward orientated carrying game that they won’t want to play and that they lost comprehensively at home to Leinster back in October.
Connacht will have no fear though. They should have beaten Leinster in the RDS, beat Ulster handily in the Sportground and will come into this game against Munster full of the kind of confidence they should have in their form. Connacht have won four of their last five games and surged into third place in Conference A as a result.
Long story short, it will not be easy for Munster this weekend. Given the players rested in the first Interpro away to Ulster, I think Munster will have a stronger deck to work with for this one against in-conference rivals. Connacht are only three points behind Munster, while Munster sit only two points behind the Conference leaders Glasgow.
You don’t have to be a mathematician to work out the benefits of a Munster win.