The Tom Savage rugby column
'THE clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy's will to be imposed on him.' Sun Tzu
When faced with great odds, people often turn to old wisdom.
Sun Tzu’s a good choice. He’s familiar, and a lot of his stuff is vague enough to be applied to any contest. That’s why I tossed his quote up there at the top. Truth be told, Sun Tzu might be the man to ask about trebuchets and siege warfare in feudal China but he comes up a little short when it comes to scrummaging, lineouts, restarts or the game of rugby in general. Like George Hook.
So instead, we turn to the modern Sun Tzu - video analysis. And when we do, what do we learn about Saracens?
That they are very, very, very good. But you already knew that. You don’t end up double champions of England and Europe by accident. You certainly don’t go through the group stages unbeaten while in the same group as Toulon too easy either. Why is that?
Well, they’ve got more Lions than a safari park. More internationals than the UN security council. They’re excellently coached. They play cynical, rough edge rugby. They’re like Munster in 2008 if they’d won the Euromillions.
But as good as they are - like every other great side - they are not unbeatable.
Hammer the hammer:
The route for Munster’s victory is simple in concept, difficult in execution. Beat Saracens up. Full stop. No qualifiers.
Kick seven shades of brown stuff out of them. That’s the key. Easy to write but a bit more difficult to achieve. But Ireland did it to England. And it’s that template that Munster must follow here. Hammer the hammer, so to speak.
Stop Saracens from getting front foot ball by smashing Vunipola 1 and 2, bait the overrated Itoje into carrying more ball as a result, smash him, and then smash everything that moves thereafter. Then squeeze their scrum (more doable than you’d think), use O’Mahony and Holland to keep them throwing to two and then, finally, bring your own game into it.
Kick your goals, punish Goode’s tendency to run kicks down blind alleys and hit the gainline as flat as you dare and you might have a chance. Saracens employ a defensive pattern that’s similar to Munster’s. As we’ve seen this season, there are certain types of play that cause our pattern trouble and the same is true of this Saracens defence.
In a lot of ways, Munster must look to the few defensive troubles of this season to see where Sarries weakness may lie. Saracens play a bastardised version of Jacques Nienaber’s overlapping cover system that he employed at the Stormers. I think they call it the Wolf Pack or some other cringe nonsense, but the principle is the same. They use overlapping cover to insure shooters with a hard defensive line.
What that means in practice is that you have a guy shooting out of the line to dictate the terms of the tackle that comes after. So you see some of Sarries players with high missed tackle counts, but it rarely matters. Munster use the same system, more or less.
The game against Scarlets in Thomond Park, for example, where Munster were undone by two excellent, late to the gain line chip kicks over the blitz will be instructive. As will Ospreys 20-minute blitzkrieg that was as flat as a sheet of paper on the Munster defensive line in the Liberty Stadium.
As will Cardiff’s use of kick returns to stymie Munster in Musgrave Park. Indeed, Ulster’s use of Ruan Pienaar to hit passes to Munster’s C defender in an effort to “get around the corner” of Munster’s initial blitz might also be incredibly useful.
Anything Munster do in defence, Saracens do too. So in that regard, Munster are uniquely placed to exploit it, should they get the ball to make it count.
Easier said than done:
This is the biggest challenge Munster will face this season bar none. Saracens are better than the Clermont and Toulon teams that Munster faced in recent semi-finals of the last five years. While they are not unbeatable, and have systemic weaknesses the same as anyone else, it will be a task like no other. Can they do it? Time will tell.