The Racing 92 performance in their recent Champions Cup Semi-Final win over Munster was surprising to many people.
They looked so comfortable. The result was never in doubt. Racing led 27-3 after 62 minutes. And yet, this game was tactically very intriguing. Munster dominated in many areas, and Racing had to put in a monumental defensive effort, making 184 tackles with a 90% success rate. Racing faded towards the end, and Munster were able to add three tries in the final 20 minutes.
Munster dominate all the statistics
If we look at the table above, Munster should have won this game with plenty to spare. They had an astonishing 77% territory and 69% possession overall. I have been watching rugby for almost 30 years and I don’t remember any team conceding so much territory and possession and yet winning so comfortably.
Racing 92 win the gain line battle
Munster’s main source of go forward is their carrying game off the scrum-half, Conor Murray. Murray made 106 passes, but the Munster 10’s made only 29 passes between them. This ratio of almost 3.7 to 1 indicates how much Munster’s play is dominated by Murray. Remember, this stat is from a match where Munster were chasing the game from early on. In contrast, Racing 92, who might be expected to play more conservatively under the circumstances, had a ratio of 2.7 to 1.
The Munster pack carried the ball 93 times, making an average of 1.7 meters each time. Munster’s best ball carrier is CJ Stander. He carried a monumental 21 times but made only 27 meters. Racing’s pack, by contrast, carried only 47 times but averaged almost 2.5 meters per carry. This gives an indication of just how much more effective Racing were in those collisions close to the ruck.
Munster spent a lot of time on the Racing line. They had a number of pick and goes or runners off 9, where just one dominant carry would have resulted in a try. Racing were able to push them back time and again.
Munster stop Nakarawa and Racing’s offload game
Leone Nakarawa is crucial to the offloading game Racing 92 like to use. His coach Ronan O’Gara has said before that the problem with Nakarawa is his other players believe they can offload like him and they can’t. They are still very good at it though! When Racing offload between their big men they seem to flood forward in an inexorable pale blue tide. They were incredible at home against Leicester earlier this season when Nakarawa made more offloads by himself than most teams manage in a game. Nakarawa topped the offload stats with 19 in the Champions Cup before this game, but only added one to his tally. Racing only managed 6 in the whole match.
Munster would have identified this forward interplay as Racing’s main threat. They surrounded Nakarawa and threatened to hold him up, forcing him to concentrate on getting to ground instead. In the picture we see Nakarawa trying to get over the top of the defenders to offload. Munster shut this down very effectively with their choke tackle.
Munster lack a second playmaker
Racing were able to defend very narrowly around the ruck because Munster often set up in a way that showed what they were about to do. In the picture, we see Munster have a 3 pod waiting to carry the ball. However, Murray has no other option available to distract the defence. Everyone knows he must pass to the man at the front of this 3 pod. Two Munster forwards are standing in no man’s land. They could be forming a second pod or getting behind the backs in support, but instead, they stay where they can add no value.
Ian Keatley (10) is standing a long way behind the pod, next to Simon Zebo (15). There are backs arrayed out of shot, and Racing anticipates the pair moving closer to the 3 pod and receiving a pullback. One Racing player shoots out of the line to pressure the pod and try to tackle the ball carrier before he can make ground. The rest of the Racing line move slowly forward, ready to react to whatever Keatley has planned and stop it behind the gain line.
The ball is spilled and Zebo has to clean up. The phase ends 10 meters behind the gain line with Munster out of position. Munster are crying out for a second playmaker. They need someone to help organize attacking shapes and force defenders to make more decisions. There were only two things that could happen in this play. No Racing defender was made to choose which man to tackle. Racing had both bases covered. Before Conor Murray even passed the ball from the ruck, Munster’s fate was sealed.
It surprised many people that Simon Zebo didn’t start this game. As he was coming back from injury, I assume he wasn’t fit to play the full 80. Zebo is the nearest thing Munster have to a second playmaker, and without him, they can be very predictable. This is exaggerated by Murray dominating play in the style of a French 9. However, Zebo is leaving for Racing next year. His replacement must be able to take on the second playmaker role.
Both teams struggle to attack from set piece
As Donnacha O’Callahan pointed out in commentary, both teams were concerned about the opposition reading their lineouts. The teams played twice in the group stages this year. Racing also had former Munster stalwart Donnacha Ryan in their team. In their very first lineout, Munster tried a trick play. This is a more sophisticated version of something every vet’s team in world rugby attempt when their opposition have the better front jumper.
Munster go for a 5 man line. They put their props at either end and 3 jumpers in the middle. The jumpers are Peter O’Mahoney (6), Jean Kleyn (4) and Billy Holland (5). Munster pulls another potential jumper, CJ Stander, out of the line and place him at the head of a forward pod. They are trying to paint a picture for Racing that they will throw to the middle, take the ball off the top and send Stander running at the Racing midfield. Racing position Camille Chat (2) at the back of their line. Chat will try to get across to the Stander pod to help counter them. This leaves Maxime Machenaud (9) to defend the 5-meter channel.
Racing counter this by placing their own props at either end of the line. In the middle, they have the jumpers Yannick Nyanga (8), Leone Nakarawa (5) and Donnacha Ryan (4). Munster are probably outmatched here. O’Mahoney is a world class lineout forward. He is statistically the best in the Champions Cup this year. However, Yannick Nyanga also operates at O’Mahoney’s level, at least in defensive lineouts. The Racing second rows, on the other hand, are better jumpers than their opposite numbers.
Munster try a trick play. They pretend O’Mahoney will move back and jump in the middle of the line, sending Nakarawa up and committing two players to lifting him. Instead, O’Mahoney darts forward and takes the ball while still on the ground. He throws straight back to his hooker Niall Scannall. The ploy works, and Scannall is left running at a scrum half. Unfortunately for Munster, the return pass is forward and Scannell still has a foot in touch when he caught it.
Over the course of the game, Yannick Nyanga and his replacement Baptiste Chouzenaux disrupted a lot of ball. Munster lost 4 lineouts. However, Munster themselves also pressurized Racing, forcing two overthrows and stealing another.
Racing used their lineout maul effectively and were able to win a penalty and some easy yards. Munster themselves scored a late consolation try from a line out maul. However, neither team were able to launch strike moves from this set piece.
Munster had 12 scrums in all, many of them in very promising positions. They had the edge in this area, like most facets of this game. Munster were not able to win clean enough ball to launch strike moves though. In one case, after a somewhat disrupted scrum on the Racing 92 line, CJ Stander simply picked up and attempted to set up a maul. Racing themselves were unsteady on their own ball.
Racing 92 release Teddy Thomas
In the lead up to the first try, we see Racing have a 4 man pod in midfield. There are backs out of shot on the right, but Racing don’t use them. Instead, they crash up the middle. However, Alex Wootton (11) was left with around 20 meters of space to defend. The defender inside him is looking in at the ball. One pullback followed by a wide pass would have left Wootton in all sorts of trouble. Racing will exploit this poor spacing moments later.
Teddy Thomas beat 8 defenders in this game, far more than anyone else. In the picture, we see Racing have an overlap. Thomas (14) and Louis Dupichot (15) are released by Virimi Vakatawa (13). Thomas decides not to draw and give, but to score himself. He fades off the Vakatawa pass, giving himself a little extra room. Thomas transfers the ball to his outside arm, fending off Wootton with his left hand. He has just enough space to get around the outside and dot down.
For Thomas’ second try, Munster were again very narrow at first. Worried about exposing Alex Wootton on their left wing, they drifted too quickly and Virimi Vakatawa was able to step inside Conor Murray.
The third try was once again due to Munster drifting too fast. This time they didn’t really need to. Thomas stepped back inside several players and then gave the ball to his captain to avoid having to buy a round for the team for scoring a hat-trick.
Once Munster slowed Racing’s ruck ball, they were able to contain Racing’s outflanking threat. Munster became so dominant late on that Dan Carter spent 20 minutes on the pitch at fly-half and touched the ball once. Unfortunately for them, the damage was already done.
Racing 92 have several backs who are excellent over the ball. With his 7s background, Virimi Vakatawa is almost a second flanker. Maxime Machenaud won a breakdown penalty any back row would be proud of. Racing used this expertise to target wider breakdowns. They were successful in winning several key breakdown penalties. This led to Munster becoming even more conservative and playing off Conor Murray even more.
It was interesting that with a Premiership referee there were so many turnovers. Both teams were also able to slow opposition ball down. Munster’s ball in the first half was glacial. Racing showed what they can do early in the game when they got quick ball, but their own ruck speed slowed considerably after their third try.
Conclusions – Can Racing 92 beat Leinster?
In attack, I don’t think Leinster are as reliant as Munster on their playoff 9. They have more deception in their game and that should help their carriers get over the gain line more than Munsters. I think Racing can still stop Leinster here, but at the cost of getting narrow. While Munster couldn’t exploit this, I think Leinster can. The Scarlets were unable to win many turnovers against Leinster, and they are arguably the best team in Europe in that area with Tadgh Beirne, John Barclay and James Davies all starting. I don’t think Racing will win many turnovers either.
Defensively Leinster are harder to get around than Munster. Garry Ringrose at 13 is an excellent defender and also very quick. His wingers are often close to him when he shoots up so it takes two fast passes in a row for the attack to set their own winger free. Racing practised cross kicks a lot in the lead up to this semi-final but weren’t able to execute on match day. There may be a chance to use the cross kick in the final, as the Leinster wingers are so flat. However, overall I think Leinster stand a better chance than Munster of shutting down Racing’s star wingers. If Racing are to win they will need to get their offloading game going.
Racing 92 faded badly and I am not sure how much of that was fatigue from so much defending or a collective mental switching off because the game was won. I think it is a bit of both, and for Racing to win I think they will need a decent lead around the hour mark.
I predict Leinster will win the Champions Cup.
Author: Daniel Pugsley
I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I play for Abu Dhabi Harlequins 3rds and coach the U6s where my daughter plays. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I am new to sports writing, but why should the Quins lads be the only ones to suffer my ramblings!