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The Power Plays: Mike McCarthy On Leinster’s Defensive Evolution

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Since the 2015/2016 PRO12 final defeat to Connacht at Murrayfield, Leinster’s defence has evolved to one of the strongest rearguards in European rugby today.

Much of that work can be credited to the influence of Stuart Lancaster, who analysed that defeat and quickly realised that Leinster were getting killed on the edges. In that final, Connacht and Pat Lam clearly did their homework as they targetted those outside, wider channels with well-rehearsed plays.

Lancaster identified that Leinster were defending with the fullback and wingers in the backfield which made it difficult to get the required width and spacing necessary to stop Connacht’s expansive game.

Since Lancaster has been at the helm, Leinster defend with two wingers in the frontline. Although this puts more pressure on the fullback and allows more space for the opposition to kick in to, it enables the frontline to get extra width and better spacing.

Another consequence of having more players in the frontline is that Leinster number up well and are able to get off the line. In the 2016 final, they were merely accepting tackle after tackle but now that they have that width, they can come up hard off the line and execute a more efficient tackle.

There was a passage of play in the first half of Leinster’s win over Munster at the weekend which perfectly highlights the progress they have made in defence under Lancaster and it starts with a piece of play from James Ryan.

This passage of play occurs soon after Munster scored their first try through Tadhg Beirne and as you can see from the below clip, James Ryan executes a chop tackle on Beirne with help from Michael Bent. If you look closely, Ryan rolls away after the tackle is made but he does so at his own pace. He’s painting a picture to Ben Whitehouse that he is doing so but the relatively slow speed at which he does is a sign of his true intention – making it as difficult as possible for the Munster players to execute a clearout. This also gives an extra second or two for Leinster to go for the poach – it doesn’t come off this time but you can see what Ryan is trying to do.

Source: TG4

About 10 seconds later, there is another example of Leinster’s intelligence in defence.  James Lowe is quite clever as he goes for the dummy poach. It means that Keith Earls, who is coming into clear, goes into sprint mode as he realises Lowe is going to poach.

However, Lowe realises he’s not going to get the poach on this occasion but he pretends to do so which makes Earls fly into the ruck to try and beat him to the space. Lowe is trying to get Earls to come off his feet which he does but he gets away with it. I’ve seen it being done a few times, if a player can’t go for a poach, he will pretend to do so to get ruckers to come off their feet.

Source: TG4

From that ruck involving Lowe’s fake poach, we get to see a brief glimpse of Leinster’s defensive line. There’s good width, good spacing, it could be a little bit better but it’s a huge improvement on the final in 2016.

Leinster Rugby
Source: TG4

At the next ruck, I just want to highlight Jamison Gibson-Park’s physicality and execution in the chop tackle. At another point in the game, he secured a turnover when poaching the ball despite being cleared out by some of Munster’s biggest men. Below we see Gibson-Park perform a perfect chop tackle on Niall Scannell which gives Dan Leavy an opportunity to go for the poach.

Leinster Rugby
Source: TG4

At the next phase, we see Sean O’Brien firing out of defence to make a tackle (white arrow) – they are getting off the line and meeting the carrier instead of being soft and accepting, this allows Leinster to win those inches. At the same time, the rest of the backline are keeping their width and spacing (red line).

Leinster Rugby
Source: TG4

Two phases later, Munster end up in a similar position again and it’s now you realise how good Leinster’s communication is. Leinster have numbered up really well on both sides of the ruck and they still have good spacing – this comes down to good communication. They have seen what Munster’s threat is, they have painted a picture for Leinster and they have responded in kind with good numbers and good communication.

Leinster Rugby
Source: TG4

With Munster clearly having nowhere to go, they opt to kick the ball through Joey Carbery (white circle) as he received a pass from Alby Mathewson (green circle) and this is a result of Leinster’s good line, spacing and width (red line).

Leinster Rugby
Source: TG4

It’s a good kick from Carbery as they retain possession but Leinster scramble very well and reset their defensive line very quickly.

Leinster Rugby
Source: TG4

After that kick from Carbery, as I said, they’ve reorganised really quickly. One of the things Lancaster talks about in training is being ‘comfortable in chaos’. The way they train with Stuart is so fast that it’s quicker than the pace of a match. It’s not a linebreak but it’s a kick so things would be a bit disorganised but they have reset really quickly and got their spacings back again.

Leinster Rugby
Source: TG4

On the next phase, I wanted to highlight two very good moments from Leinster and Munster – a chop tackle from Robbie Henshaw and a clearout from Stephen Archer. Henshaw’s tackle gives an opportunity for Dan Leavy to nearly poach the ball. Sean O’Brien then comes in for sniff and Archer gets rid of the danger with a superb clearout, really physical.

Source: TG4

Finally, Leinster’s width, connections with one another and spacing forces Carbery to kick again. This time the Munster outhalf drills a superb ball into the corner but many teams have tried to exploit the space with little success in the past.

Source: TG4

When you have someone like Rob Kearney who is as experienced and as good as he is, in addition to wingers who know when to drop back despite being in the frontline, Leinster can utilise this system to their advantage.

The best time to learn in rugby is from setbacks and this is exactly what Leinster did after their PRO12 final defeat to Connacht at Murrayfield in 2016. The players and coaches have learned from that final which has turned them into the beasts which they are today.

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Author: Mike McCarthy

Mike McCarthy is a highly successful former Connacht, Leinster and Ireland forward - he won 19 caps for Ireland in a career which spanned 16 years.