Munster’s forthcoming tie against Llanelli is an intriguing match-up, in that it looks to test the old adage “forwards decide who wins the game, backs decide by how much”.
Obviously a well-known – and generally well-accepted – statement like that isn’t foolproof; there are exceptions to every rule. On the other hand, it does state in bald terms that the better pack on the day always wins the game.
Going into this game, Munster clearly have a better pack than the Scarlets; the Munster pack have got international caps, Lions tour badges and HEC winners’ medals coming out of their ears, while the Llanelli pack are a relatively unheralded bunch. The Mole would go so far as to say that there are only two members of the Llanelli pack who would make it into the Munster’s team: Lions hooker and former Welsh captain Matthew Rees is comfortably ahead of Damien Varley, and Big Ben Morgan is more of a ball-carrying threat than anybody Munster can field at No8, be it Denis Leamy, James ‘Germany’ Caughlan or rising star Peter O’Mahony. But that’s it.
Munster can call on Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Donnacha Ryan or Mick O’Driscoll – all of them current or recent Irish internationals, two of them Test Lions – in the second row, while Llanelli will likely rely on Sione Timani and Damian Welch. Up front, World Cup-winner BJ Botha and compatriot Wian du Preez go up against the Thomas boys: Iestyn is within touching distance of his 35th birthday, his best days long behind him, and Rhys is a rather heavily-set gent who struggles around the park. Hugely experienced props John Hayes and Marcus Horan [with over 170 caps between them] will sit on Munster’s bench, while Llanelli rely on uncapped nipper Rhodri Jones and uncapped journeyman Phil John as replacements.
In the backrow, the Scarlets fielded uncapped Aaron Schingler and Jon Edwards in their game in Franklins Gardens, while Munster can look to the aforementioned Leamy, Caughlan and O’Mahony, or opt to change it up by bringing in Irish international Niall Ronan on the openside or moving Donnacha Ryan back to No6.
If “forwards win games …”, this one is in the bag for Munster. Their scrum has vastly improved with the introduction of the world-renowned Botha as the tighthead anchor, while the return of O’Connell’s best form and the addition of the spring-heeled O’Mahony have reinvigorated the lineout that terrified Europe for the best part of a decade.
And yet …
… ooh, cheap pop!
And yet it’s not at all as clear cut as that. Doug Howlett’s recent achilles tendon injury has ruled him out for the season; added to the existing casualties of Irish winger Keith Earls and highly-rated young fullback Felix Jones, the Munster back three is absolutely toothless. As mentioned in yesterday’s Mole, Denis Hurley has a pretty pathetic strike rate for an outside back: 6 tries in 80 games for Munster. Johne Murphy is a utility back who has been moved all over the Munster backline since he joined, and news from the camp is that Simon Zebo – an untried but pacey young wing – is a doubt due to a training-sustained ankle injury.
They’re not much happier at centre. Danny Barnes had the proverbial nightmare against Castres, being benched three minutes into the second half, and while Will Chambers performed well as a substitute, there has been no sign of a coherent Munster centre partnership this season. Chambers is brand new to the club and Barnes at 22 is only in his second season; that leave Lifeimi Mafi as your old pro. Mafi is a talented runner who can fork out the big hits, but a wise head? A decided negatory on that count, Ghostrider.
In contrast, the Scarlets have a rare mix of pace, youth, size and familiarity in their backline. Scottish international Sean Lamont is in his third year at the club, and is coming off an excellent World Cup; JJV Davies likewise had a cracking tournament for Wales, but is even more dangerous operating at his preferred No12 for the Scarlets than he is in the No13 for Wales. At 23 years old, this is his fifth season of Heineken Cup rugby, a testament both to his own natural talent and the progressive selection policies of the Scarlets’ coaching staff over the years.
Outside him, 21-year old Scott Williams provides an enormous threat. Williams was another member of the Welsh RWC11 squad, and dotted down three tries against the hapless Namibians. Unlike Davies, who was somewhat shoehorned into the Welsh No13 jersey to accommodate the Big Bopper himself, Jamie Roberts, Williams is an out-and-out [and-] outside centre, a young man with ferocious acceleration off the mark and a keen eye for the tryline.
The fun doesn’t stop there. Wunderkind George North, the enormous try-scoring teen phenomenon and one of the break-out players of the World Cup, will likely take his place on the right wing. The 19-year old differs from most huge wingers in that he has quick feet and great acceleration – he can change direction in a blink, he has a bewildering stutter-step and he’s into his stride very quickly. Beyond those attributes, he’s an excellent performer in the aerial game and is something of a try-scoring machine: he’s already notched up 9 tries in his 16 Welsh caps. Full-back Liam Williams hasn’t made the grade at international level because of the presence of Lee Byrne, James Hook and Leigh Halfpenny, but give him time – he’s only 20 years old, yet another from the Scarlets’ production line of big, pacy backs.
This last point is one of the keys to the game: the Scarlets backline has great size to go along with their obvious pace. Fullback Williams is the slightest of them, at 188cm [6’2”] and 85kg [13st5lbs], and there are some serious ball-carrying monsters in there. North is the obvious stand-out at 192cm [6’4”] and 105kg [16st 7lbs], but Davies 186cm [6’1”] and 106kg [16st 9lbs] and Sean Lamont 188cm [6’2”] and 100kg [15st10lbs] are proven international try-scorers. Scott Williams is no midget at 183 [6’] and 97kg [15st 3lbs]. All the three-quarters are first-rate line-breaking threats at this level; and you’d have to say that they’re all serious line-breaking threats at international level as well.
The size element is crucial. This isn’t an under-sized, over-paced backline that can only kill sides in an open field. To paraphrase Sean O’Brien: if there are no gaps, these Scarlets backs will make them themselves. The Scarlets have scored seven tries in their two games so far, and have shown the ability to take even the smallest of chances. Even if Munster beat them up in the forwards battle, they’re always in with a chance to score breakaway tries: they have linebreakers, they have speed, and they have the cohesion of having played together regularly to make hay through good support lines.
Of course, something that hasn’t yet been addressed is the not insignificant matter of the half-back battle. In any game where one set of forwards is distinctly better than the other, but the opposite situation applies in terms of backlines, the hinges where those units meet are crucial. Tavis Knoyle vs Conor Murray will be a ding-dong battle between two young international scrum-halves, but the meat is in the outhalf contest.
ROG is the acknowledged King of the Heineken Cup, but he was given a lesson in outhalf play by a faultless Rhys Priestland in the Ireland vs Wales quarter final of the World Cup. Who’s going to win the clash of the butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-their-mouthes outhalves?
It’s a tough call. O’Gara recently went on the record about how the HEC operates at a level a second slower than international rugby, and there’s no doubt that he has an incredible influence on games at this level. On the other hand, his defense can be got at, and in Morgan, North, Lamont and Davies, the Scarlets have men who can bust right through him without losing a step. In contrast, Priestland is a stronger defender than O’Gara, and Munster simply don’t have the ball-carriers to open up a lot of holes through him – and they will struggle harder the further out they go.
In terms of attack, O’Gara will be severely hampered by the lack of threat outside him, while Priestland has options left, right and centre – literally. Of course, if he’s not getting the ball, that sizeable advantage is narrowed, but I’m not sure that Munster can control proceedings up front away from home to the same extent that they do in Thomond. You get less marginal calls from the referee, and you don’t have the backing of the crowd to draw from – small factors, but it’s a game of small margins.
Scarlets to win, but will Munster get a losing bonus point? Yes.