One of the quirks of the condensed nature of the Champions Cup is that the odds of meeting a pool rival in the knockout stages are greater. Munster already having played Racing 92 twice this season (as well as twice last season) is good and bad at the same time; it has given them a a deep understanding of the French side’s strengths and weaknesses, but it means that Racing know all of their tells and habits, too. It’s probably beneficial that Munster lost to them back in January, because you learn more from a defeat than you do from a victory, and if Munster had beaten them home and away, they might not be as wary of the pitfalls that they will have to navigate this weekend.
The Iron Curtain
Munster’s defensive heroics against Toulon will live long in the memory, but if they are to contain a Racing outfit that are brimming with power, pace and skill, they will have to tweak their defensive system. Whereas Toulon look to create space out wide by having their wrecking ball centres pulverise the opposition midfield, Racing bash holes closer to the ruck with their big forwards and then free their hands after contact to get support runners into space, with Leone Nakarawa being the master of the offload:
The height of Munster’s tackling varied against Toulon; in some cases, they went low to fell the ball carrier as soon as possible; in others, they went high in order wrap their arms around the ball, thereby preventing the offload:
It would be better if they did the latter this Sunday, even though tackling above the waist makes it easier for the Racing forwards to get over the gain line; the alternative is for speed merchants like Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas to get in behind by running a trailing support line off the ball carrier’s shoulder, and hauling athletes like that to ground once they have raced free is difficult for the best of scramble defences.
One area where Munster may have superiority over Racing is in the air. Last week, they frequently put boot to ball against a Cheetahs back three who are aerially suspect, and it reaped rewards. With Vakatawa and Thomas starting this weekend, Munster are certain to use this ploy again. The Racing duo are two of the worst aerial competitors at this level and Irish teams have benefited from targeting them under the high ball before:
Conor Murray demonstrated his all-round class when he came off the bench in Bloemfontein, but his box-kicking was, as usual, first-rate. JJ Hanrahan’s up and unders were excellent in terms of height, distance and hang-time, and Darren Sweetnam, Andrew Conway and Simon Zebo were all proficient in the air. Alex Wootton and Keith Earls are also strong in this department, and as long as the kicks from Keatley are accurate and the chasers time their runs correctly, Munster should be dominant in the air again.
Like any tactic, the key to effective aerial bombardment is not to over-use it. If Munster kick the leather off the ball, then Racing will start to drop extra players into the backfield to protect Vakatawa and Thomas, and that in turn renders the strategy redundant. If they go through a few phases before kicking instead, it will drag the Racing defenders up into the line, leaving Vakatawa and Thomas isolated and vulnerable to garryowens.
The point was made after Munster’s win over Toulon that if they are to go any further in this tournament, then they will need to be more incisive in attack. The expression ‘defences win titles’ is definitely valid, but if Munster reach the final, they’re going to have to face Leinster or the Scarlets, and it’s unrealistic to expect them to keep either of those teams tryless. The same can be said for their next opponents, so from here on out, they will have to be just as creative with the ball in hand as they are stubborn without it.
A week after beating Toulon, Munster showed against the Southern Kings that they do have plenty going on behind their scrum. Ian Keatley pulled the strings expertly, Rory Scannell’s distribution was to the fore and the Munster wingers displayed serious pace:
It was encouraging to see this type of play from Munster because Racing have defensive frailties that Clermont exploited three weeks ago. For all of their attacking prowess, the French club are slow to realign, especially when they have been defending for several phases in a row, and the end result is a jagged defensive line with cavernous gaps:
This issue becomes more noticeable later on in games when the Racing pack really stat to lag. Patricio Fernandez took full advantage of this space in the quarter-finals, skating through the Racing midfield without a finger being laid on him:
The Clermont out-half is fast for a 10 but anyone could have broken the line if they were given that much of an opening. This flaw is compounded by Vakatawa’s poor defensive reading. The Fijian is a nightmare to contend with when in possession, but there is a touch of Laurel and Hardy to his reactions to opposition plays:
If Munster send CJ Stander or Sam Arnold crashing through the Racing midfield off first-phase, they can split their back line defence. If that can be followed up with quick ruck ball and Wootton, Earls or Conway running unders lines off Rory Scannell’s shoulder while Eddy Ben Arous and Cedates Gomes Sa are trying to get back into position, line breaks shouldn’t be hard to come by as the game wears on.
Munster’s European run ended at this stage last season when they came up short against a Saracens team who choked the life out of them. This weekend will be very different; they will be presented with opportunities by the Racing defence, although that brings its own challenges. Being clinical and composed enough to take those opportunities when a final is at stake is pressure that can’t be understood unless it is experienced. This Munster side is still a work in progress, and could be forgiven for losing on Sunday, but chances like this don’t come around too often.