Forty years ago Muhammad Ali took on George Foreman in Zaire in what has become known as the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. Foreman had been bludgeoning opponents into submission for a number of years and had most recently decimated Ali’s rival Ken Norton. Many feared for Ali’s health heading into the bout and few saw him finishing the fight on his feet, let alone winning. However, on that evening Ali unveiled his famous ‘rope-a-dope’ technique to upset the odds. He showed that craft, experience and the right game plan could overcome seemingly invincible power. The build up to this weekend’s Heineken Cup semi-final has reminded this writer of the “Rumble in the Jungle”. Munster face a similar task to that faced by Ali.
Toulon flexed their muscle in disposing of Leinster at the quarter-final stage. Leinster tried to stand toe-to-toe with the mighty French side and were knocked out. This was a brave but foolhardy strategy. Although they kept the game close for the first half, Leinster were always going to be out gunned by the star-studded line up. So will Munster suffer a knockout or can they create their own ‘rope-a-dope’ moment, and if so, how?
1. The Breakdown
This is undoubtedly the most crucial aspect of the game. Munster were outstanding at the breakdown against Toulouse, winning all of their attacking rucks and regularly generating quick ball. However, they are unlikely to have as much of the ball at the Velodrome. Instead Munster’s breakdown work will most likely be defensive. In this case, they will need to be extremely smart about when and how they compete at the breakdown. During the Six Nations, Joe Schmidt showed how effectively Peter O’Mahony can be used to turn over possession. The deliberate tactic of reducing O’Mahony’s number of tackles allowed him to focus instead on being the first man in on the ball when a tackle is made. O’Mahony’s injury is a huge blow to Munster. CJ Stander has so far failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him on his arrival. But his man of match appearance from the bench against Toulouse offered hope that he can fill the void left by O’Mahony this weekend. Whether he can fill the O’Mahony role at the breakdown will be crucial.
What is perhaps even more important for Munster in this game is choosing when to compete at the breakdown. Toulon have a number of incredibly powerful ball-carriers in their squad that require a two-man tackle. Munster simply cannot afford to regularly commit men to the breakdown. It must be a case of all-or-nothing for the men in red. When the opportunity for a turnover is there, they must seize it but equally they must be quick to recognise when Toulon are going to retain possession and re-deploy their troops from the breakdown to the defensive line.
Leinster were guilty of competing ineffectively and the numbers they committed to rucks left the likes of Danie Russouw and Mathieu Bastareaud opportunities to take on a single man in open space. In a one-on-one encounter the powerful Toulon ball carriers will come out on top more often than not. This defensive naivety contributed to Leinster’s 27 missed tackles. If Munster have a similar missed tackle count, they will not win this game.
2. Don’t try to play.
Leinster made the brave mistake of going to France with the freedom to attack from deep whenever the opportunity arose. Unfortunately, on the day Matt O’Connor’s side made far too many handling errors. For their strategy to work Leinster needed to be clinical and to convert any half breaks into 5 pointers. O’Connor’s post match comments that Munster lack the class to beat Toulon may have sounded like a case of sour grapes but it’s hard to argue with the content of what he actually said.
“(Munster) probably don’t have the class that that Toulon side has got and they have big-name players with a lot of Test experience; guys who are performing week on week in the Top 14 so it will be a fair battle but you would imagine Toulon would win.”
Munster simply do not have the quality, particularly in the back line, to compete with Toulon in an open game. If they are going to have any chance of winning this game, they need to make the game as ugly as possible. Munster will kick to the corners and play the territory game. They will try to pen Toulon into their own half. During the first hour at least, Munster will need to slow the game down at every opportunity and try to suck the life out of the game and out of the French crowd. If the game becomes an expansive, high-tempo, attacking rugby game then there will only be one winner- Toulon simply have too much firepower.
3. Set piece dominance.
The main crumb of comfort for Rob Penney’s men in watching Toulon’s victory over Leinster was the fact that Leinster enjoyed some success at both scrum and lineout. The Leinster front row at times struggled against Munster at the Aviva in March but seemed to edge the battle at the scrum against Toulon. The new laws governing the engagement at scrum time have shifted the emphasis from power to technique. While the gargantuan Toulon front row can still be monsters in open play as ball carriers, the Munster front row have the technique to match them in the scrum. If Munster can dominate at scrum time it would give them a vital route to both territory and points scoring opportunities via the boot of Ian Keatley.
While the Leinster lineout at times struggled to win their own ball, they did enjoy success with their driving maul from lineout ball. In fact, their only try came directly from a Munster-style lineout maul. This is an area that Munster know they can thrive. Against Ulster in January they showed their rolling maul could be an unstoppable force. This is something Bernard Laporte is clearly concerned about:
“Their strength in the mauls is a redoubtable weapon. They are equally strong in the lineouts as well”.
The effective combination of lineout and maul will be crucial not just as an attacking weapon but also as a way to control the pace and momentum of the game. A rolling maul, ideally followed by a penalty, can provide respite for the Munster defence and rapidly dissipate any momentum the French side have built up.
4. Keep the scoreboard ticking over.
As much as this is a cliché, in this game it is more important than most. Toulon have lost a total of 10 games this season in all competitions. In those 10 games, the average points scored by their opponents was 21.7 points. Every chance Munster get for points, they need to take. Munster should be aiming to score 22-25 points. I would be very surprised if they scored more than 25 points and equally surprised if 25 points was not enough to keep them within striking distance.
I expect Munster to be losing for the majority of this game but if they can keep the scoreboard moving they will be in with a shout. The French crowd will, perhaps rightly, expect Toulon to comfortably win this game so if Munster can hang onto the coattails of the French side the natives will grow restless. If Munster are within 7 points of Toulon heading into the last 15 minutes it will set the scene for Penney’s men to open up and throw the kitchen sink at the French. But in order to have that opportunity, they cannot afford to turn down any points on offer earlier in the game. The pressure will be firmly on Ian Keatley to be at his best from the kicking tee.
5. Craft and experience.
The general consensus is that Munster will require perhaps their best ever European performance and some luck to win this game. Losing teams will often bemoan bad luck as a reason for defeat but this is rarely actually the case. The Oxford dictionary describes luck as “success or failure brought about by chance rather than through one’s actions”. Many of the aspects of a game, that losing sides put down to luck, are actually within their control to a certain extent. This is where Munster’s craft and experience will come into play. This is Munster’s 11th semi-final. Paul O’Connell will be playing in his 8th semi-final. Toulon can buy all the quality in the world but they cannot buy the history and experience accumulated by the southern province.
One of the areas that this experience will come into play is the performance of the referee. Management of referee Wayne Barnes will be vital. It is an area in which Paul O’Connell can excel. Identifying how Barnes is interpreting the breakdown and the scrum, and more importantly, communicating that to his team will be crucial for O’Connell. Munster need to quickly establish what Barnes is looking to penalise at the scrum and breakdown and adapt accordingly.
As Bernard Laporte and Mourad Boudjellal have been so keen to publicly point out, they already perceive that Wayne Barnes is biased against them. Whilst this is clearly an early attempt to influence Barnes, there is the distinct possibility that it could backfire. It may have influenced the Toulon players too. Instead of listening to why they are being penalised and adapting early on, they may resort to using their coach’s and owner’s comments about refereeing bias as an excuse. Rather than recognising their indiscretions, they may believe they are being penalised based on an apparent bias against them. This would play entirely into Munster’s hands. Whilst Munster cannot control how Toulon will react to referee Barnes, they can control their own reaction. The penalty count is one of the areas Munster will need to win in order to pull off the upset and their craft and Heineken Cup experience will be vital in achieving this.
Can Munster upset the odds and turn over the mighty Toulon? Yes, they can. But in order to triumph, I believe they will have to succeed in all five of the areas mentioned above. They are quite rightly underdogs. Munster are travelling to France to face perhaps the most powerful team in Heineken Cup history. The bookies rarely get it wrong and they make Toulon 8 point favourites for a reason. On paper, it should not be a close contest. But one of the defining characteristics of Munster’s Heineken Cup history is their refusal to accept the odds. The more often this team is told they cannot win, the more determined they are to prove people wrong.
Conor Murray spoke recently of the difference between the view of this Munster squad from the outside and the perception of their abilities from within the squad, “I know Toulon are a fantastic side, they have superstars, but within our squad at the moment we rate each other really highly and on our day we can beat anyone”. This confidence brings me full circle, back to Ali, even when everyone wrote him off against the power of Foreman he had confidence in his own ability and didn’t see himself as the underdog. By choosing the right tactics and implementing them perfectly, he was able to score a famous upset victory. Can Munster follow suit this weekend?
Michael McCarthy, Pundit Arena.
The teams for Sunday’s Heineken Cup clash have been announced:
Munster: F Jones; K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Varley (capt), BJ Botha; D Foley, P O’Connell; CJ Stander, S Dougall, J Coughlan. Replacements: D Casey, J Cronin, J Ryan, D O’Callaghan, T O’Donnell, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, D Hurley.
Toulon: D Armitage; D Mitchell, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, B Habana; J Wilkinson (capt), S Tillous Borde; X Chiocci, C Burden, C Hayman; J Suta, D Rossouw; J Smith, J Fernandez Lobbe, S Armitage. Replacements: JC Orioli, A Menini, M Castrogiovanni, V Bruni, D Smith, M Mermoz, M Claassens, K Mikautadze.