THERE is a simple formula to winning a rugby game – score more points than the opposition.
However, what’s not so simple is how a team might set about achieving this. For me, the essence of winning rugby is putting pressure on the opposition so that they concede points, through tries, penalties or drop goals. Obviously the avoidance of this pressure and concession of points is half the battle for any team that strives to be successful.
The essence of winning rugby is putting pressure on the opposition
There is no right way or one method to achieve this – if this was the case then all teams would be playing an identical brand of rugby, which clearly isn’t the case in the professional game. Coaches each have their own philosophy and strategy that they believe will lead to a winning performance.
This will be based on a number of factors: Making the best use of the their playing squad; specific tactics to exploit opponents’ weaknesses (or negate their strengths); playing to an underlying philosophy that forms the backbone of every training session regardless of the opposition.
This adherence to a guiding philosophy could be a focus on reducing the risk of self-inflicted errors and looking to pressure the opposition through an effective kicking game and a strong defence. Other philosophies could be set-piece driven, with an aim to exert pressure through forward dominance by getting penalties through scrummaging power or scoring tries through effective lineout play.
There are also many coaches who see attack as their main method of building a score through destabilising the opposition defence in any number of ways – accurate passing, dynamic ball carrying, counter attacking or offloading out the tackle
The most successful teams in the professional game are those that combine all the above elements into their overall strategy to continually ask questions of their opponents in order to create point-scoring opportunities.
Although there are different playing philosophies and nuances among the leading sides in the Guinness Pro12, one thing is certain – the top four teams are equally strong in defence as in attack. The four sides qualified for the play-offs are ranked in the top four in terms of most points scored and fewest points conceded. Given that the four teams play each other this weekend, and again in the semi-finals in two weeks’ time, I thought it would be interesting to look at our rivals for the Pro12 title.
Axel Foley made a fairly substantial change to the way Munster play when he took over as head coach from Rob Penney. The ex-Canterbury coach had established a specific and organised way of moving the ball, which led to the men in red making more passes than any other team in the competition and predominantly playing wide-to-wide rugby.
Munster have gone back to a much more direct approach this season, with the aim of first winning the gainline and creating quick ball. It suits the strengths of their playing squad and gets their world-class scrum-half Conor Murray on the ball more often and gives him an opportunity to run at the fringe defence. Munster have scored the most points of any side in the Pro12, so it’s clear that this approach is having the desired effect in putting opposition defences under pressure.
Munster also have a very organised and disciplined defence – with the ability to have 14 men on their feet when required or flooding the breakdown with numbers to force turnovers from the opposition attack. But probably the key strength for Munster this season has been their lineout. They have scored 32 of their 59 tries from this source of possession (the best in the Pro12) and they combine a strong maul with innovative lineout plays to achieve this. With Paul O’Connell a key figure in their lineout success and at the heart of their overall game, they will be very difficult opponents to face in the semi-final in two weeks’ time.
Munster have a chance to potentially secure a home semi-final this Saturday as they face the team just below them in the league. However, beating in-form Ulster at a sold-out Kingspan Stadium will be a very difficult task. Ulster have the best home record in the Pro12, recording ten from ten wins and 44 points so far this season. This success is largely built on an aggressive competitive spirit that flows through their team. Defence coach Jonny Bell has done an outstanding job over the past few years making Ulster consistently one of the best defensive sides in Europe. They have been excellent once again this season in this area as they have conceded an average of 15.9 points per game – the joint lowest with Munster of any side in the competition.
Ulster’s game is primarily based on pressuring the opposition’s attacking ability through this defence but also through a very effective kicking game. Ruan Pienaar is the dominant figure here with his towering box kicks or intelligent kicks that frequently turn the opposition. Ulster – like the Irish Test side – also have a brilliant kick chase, which allows them to play in the opposition half more often than most other teams. In terms of stats, Ulster also have the joint best scrum (alongside Connacht) and also have the best lineout success percentage in the Pro12. With Tommy Bowe and Craig Gilroy in great form and this year’s final being played at their home ground, Ulster will be confident that they can win their first title since 2006.
In taking on the Ospreys this Friday, we have a similar challenge to that faced by Munster in Belfast, as Ospreys have a great home record. In fact they haven’t lost at the Liberty Stadium in the Pro12 since February 2014 and, like Ulster, are in a rich vein of form. There are a number of similarities between Ospreys and Ulster – aggressive defence, competition for the ball post-tackle and a strong kicking game. They are a well-balanced team, second best in the Pro12 in terms of points scored and also second best in terms of fewest tries conceded. Their half-backs – Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar – have been in brilliant form, the former scoring nine tries in his 12 league appearances this season, and Biggar playing some sublime rugby for both Wales and Ospreys. He is developing a truly all-round game as a stand-off, as his passing and tackling are at a high level, he is prepared to take on the defence with ball in hand and chases his kicks very well. He is also the Pro12’s leading points scorer this season on 146 from 13 games.
We will be on high alert to stop him building too much on this tally tomorrow night. It will certainly be a tough challenge but our players are looking forward to the game and realise not just the importance of what a win would mean to our chances of a home play-off, but also to build more momentum and deliver an improved performance from our previous outing against Connacht.
• A fee for this column has been donated to the Hearts & Balls Charity on behalf of Gregor Townsend.