Clermont’s formula for success is very simple. They have an abundance of players who are superb individually, but crucially, all of them buy into the Vern Cotter mantra of working extremely hard. The Auvergne-based heavyweights have threats literally everywhere across the field, as well as off the bench. Their attacking game plan is nothing revolutionary, just good players making good decisions at the right time. On form, they can score from almost any situation.
Many of these scores come from moments of individual brilliance in open phase play, which is backed up by their excellent support running. The likes of Fofana, Sivivatu, Nalaga, Chouly and Hines will create chances however you defend against them, and they are excellent finishers. It’s very difficult not to see them scoring tries in Montpellier. That much is obvious, but the big question remains, do Clermont have any weaknesses? I’m going to use Clermont’s most recent match, the 39-17 win over Toulouse last weekend, to look for any potential areas to target.
The loss of captain Rougerie is a blow. While the 32-year-old is perhaps edging past his peak, he is of massive importance to Clermont, not just for his leadership. He’s still a good player, and his defensive game is undervalued. Clermont’s backline like to press up hard in defence, even in the opposition’s half. That places great demands on the 13’s decision making, and Rougerie more often than not gets it right. While King and Stanley are superb attacking replacements, they don’t offer the same security as Rougerie on ‘D’.
One way to beat a rush defence is to try get around the outside edge of it. In the screen-grab above, Toulouse have tried something like that. From a Toulouse scrum, Clermont come up fast and McAlister flings a wide, flat pass to Fickou in the 13 channel. The aim is to get Fickou outside Rougerie , but he reads it superbly and forces a knock-on. Munster might get some success in this situation now that Rougerie is missing. Lualala has great feet and neither King nor Stanley possess quite the same level of decision-making as Rougerie. ROG threw some encouragingly excellent passes vs. ‘Quins and more of the same may reap rewards.
Another obvious way to break down a defense which likes to get up quick is through well-placed kicks. Unfortunately for Toulouse, McAlister either didn’t spot opportunities or executed badly. Below, you can see that fullback Lee Byrne (last player out on the left) has stepped up into the defensive line. This was something that was repeated on several occasions. Contrary to what you might expect, Parra also steps into the line and Clermont have nobody covering in behind. The closest thing to a ‘sweeper’ is outhalf Delany, coming from the other side of the scrum. A good chip or grubber by McAlister for Fickou and it was try-time. Instead, the outhalf did a goose-step and gave his centre a forward pass.
The next example (below) is further out, around the halfway line, but the premise is similar. Clermont’s defence is up quickly, without a winger hanging back. McAlister has spotted the opportunity and attempted a cross-field kick for Huget, who can be seen out on the far wing. Unfortunately, McAlister’s kick was poor, too far ahead of Huget, and bounced badly. But again, there’s try written all over the opportunity. Clermont do seem to repeatedly stack the defensive line. Whatever about his weaknesses, ROG still possesses an accurate kicking game, certainly better than McAlister’s, and he will spot these opportunities. Zebo will be ready and waiting.
Staying with kicking, Toulouse got a lot of change from their re-starts. Clermont are going to score on Saturday, so Munster will need to be precise in retrieving possession from these situations. McAlister dropped every single one of his kicks just over the 10-metre line, above hooker Benjamin Kayser. Clermont seemed unsure of who should claim the ball in that zone and Toulouse won possession back at least 4 times in this manner. The screen-grab below shows exactly where Toulouse targeted (in this case Nyanga wins the ball). It may not be a case of going after the exact same zone for Munster, but in O’Connell, O’Mahony, Ryan and Zebo they have excellent kick retrievers.
Munster will certainly need to mix up their attacking game this weekend, and using last weekend’s game as a guide, they should look to attack the fringes around the rucks. Again, Toulouse had some success here. Louis Picamoles’ try (video below) was the most obvious example, but there were other instances where the big Toulouse carriers made yards. Scrumhalf Luke Burgess sniped intermittently and also made decent ground. Conor Murray’s skills look suited to the task. However, Clermont are usually far more watertight in these areas and they will certainly step up a level for the Munster game.
Putting it all together, attacking and targeting Clermont around the fringes and with kicks in behind may not result directly in tries, but it will challenge Clermont’s stifling defence. They’re extremely strong in the middle, where they’ll come up hard and smash ball carriers. If you play into their hands, they’ll turn you over and score tries from that sort of broken-up situation. It’s an obvious thing to state, but Munster need to play with lots of variety, constantly challenging Clermont to react.
While the scoreline and various media reports suggest that Clermont wiped the floor with Toulouse last weekend, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Outhalf McAlister missed two kickable penalties and turned down a few other chances for kicks at goal. Toulouse also butchered a genuine try-scoring chance (photo at the top) when Nyanga selfishly failed to pass to Fickou. Admittedly Clermont’s 2nd-half display was lazier than usual, having built up a strong lead. That won’t happen again this weekend. They are a phenomenal side, that’s beyond doubt. But they can be beaten. 6 losses in the Top 14 this season show that. The odds are heavily in Clermont’s favour but this match is not a foregone conclusion.
* Apologies for the poor quality screen-grabs. It would be great if people could let me know if they enjoy this sort of piece, where I try to do more detailed analysis. If so, I could look into a better way of highlighting examples in the future, possibly in videos or more detailed photos of play. Let me know what you think.
Keep the screen-grab analysis mate – am a fan!
This is great stuff.
Awesome as always
Great article as always. Jamie Cudmore a potential liability given his discipline record along with his dust-up with O’Connell in Thomond Park 4 years ago. Nalaga isn’t comfortable under the high ball and is definitely something ROG should look to exploit. Will Brock James crack under pressure like he has in the past in big games?
Yeah Cudmore is certainly someone Munster will look to get at. Just the 2 yellow cards this season so he’s probably trying to keep it clean. But Munster can definitely bring out the worst in him. Agree with you on Nalaga, and ROG turning him, but he has to be so accurate with those kicks. Anything into Nalaga’s hands is too dangerous! Brock James gets a lot of stick in Ireland, and probably warranted based on how he cracked vs. Leinster a couple of times. But he’s a quality player on form. The fact that he’s just back from injury could count against him.
Really interesting and enjoyable piece . Quite like this style of analysis!
Great work Murray and well written.
Thanks for the positive feedback!
Excellent stuff. Please keep it up!
Excellent piece once again way better than any of the crap in the indo from guys who never played the game. clermont to win by 7
top work Murray – love to see this level of analysis – ‘mainstream’ Irish media please note!
I’m a big fan of video analysis, I do a bit of analysis of American sports, for some other websites and it is massive, it doesn’t happen in rugby, this is great stuff, keep it up and you can change how we analyse rugby. Noticed the flat defence a bit but thing is can Munster get good enough ball to make that worthwile? I don’t think Clermont have really been dominated in HC rugby in the pack this year if Munster don’t get dominance there then ROG is next to useless. We don’t go anywhere with him there without out pack gaining parity at minimum, games this year show that.
Yeah you’re spot on Conor. Clermont’s pack is so big, strong and aggressive. Very rare to see them lose out. Can Munster’s pack stand up to that challenge?
I’ve yet to see anyone come seriously close to getting dominance on Clermont’s pack, it is a seriously impressive unit (the key to the backrow for me, and a big factor in why Ulster are sitting at home and Munster are in semis, Ulster had more impressive players individually for the game v Sarries but the backrow was horrendously balanced)
This is excellent analysis Murray and the kind of thing I like reading., keep it up!Too often the papers only trot out the same cliches ‘get parity up front’ etc. To add my own tuppence worth, outhalf ( soley on ROGs cup rugby form)and lock are the only areas of the team where Munster approach parity and maybe even are better than their Clermont counterparts so the task looks enormous. However, a second string Munster came within 4 mins of beating a much superior All Blacks team in 2008 by sheer intensity, willpower and getting in their opponents faces at the breakdown so it is achievable.
As an aside, earlier in the week Munster were 11/1 to win outright, today they are 6/1.. interesting shortening of the odds.
Great piece Murray, keep the in depth technical stuff coming. As a non playing rugby supporter, it’s great to get the game explained in this detail. Can’t wait for the game now!