Tuesday 14 August 2018

Analysing how Munster can benefit from Ronan O'Gara's Racing departure

French side will offer up chances in midfield and out wide and if Reds can punish them, they will have final in sight

Keith Earls and Johann van Graan and (inset) Ronan O'Gara
Keith Earls and Johann van Graan and (inset) Ronan O'Gara
Munster coach Johann van Graan. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

If Racing wanted to view a case study of how best to react to losing a key figure in their coaching staff mid-season, they wouldn't have to look much further than Sunday's opponents.

Munster have endured their fair share of changes over the last couple of years, and like Racing, they lost their defence coach (as well as director of rugby), earlier this season.

Ronan O'Gara had become part of the furniture at the Parisian club, before he upped sticks for Christchurch and joined Super Rugby champions, the Crusaders.

Munster on the other hand lost Jacques Nienaber, who had done a remarkable job in such a short space of time, and credit must go to JP Ferreira, and the manner in which he has built on the solid foundations laid by his fellow South African.

Reaching the Champions Cup semi-final and doing what is expected of them domestically is evidence to suggest that both teams have reacted well, but scratch the surface and Racing haven't been all that convincing defensively since O'Gara departed.


Unlike Munster, the Top 14 outfit, did not directly replace the former Ireland out-half, but rather handed extra defensive responsibilities to the current head coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers.

While their first-choice midfield pairing of Henry Chavancy and Virimi Vakatawa are major threats with ball in hand, get them going the other way, and Munster can expose their frailties.

Joe Schmidt regularly targets Vakatawa, but it is interesting to note that France play the Fijian powerhouse on the wing, and not in the centre, like Racing do.

Chavancy started Les Bleus' Six Nations campaign in Paris when Johnny Sexton's last-gasp drop goal set Ireland on their way to Grand Slam glory, yet he wasn't seen again for France after the defeat.

Munster's kicking game in the searing heat in Bordeaux will be crucial. Conor Murray will target the back three with high balls, while Rory Scannell and Sam Arnold will also have major roles to play.

Johann van Graan would love to have Chris Farrell and Jaco Taute fit for the trip to France, but after Scannell and Arnold's excellent performance against the behemoths of Toulon recently, the head coach knows that he can trust his smaller, less experienced centre pairing.

The defeat at the U Arena earlier in the campaign still rankles with Munster, as they know that was one that got away.

Keith Earls' expected return to the starting XV is a major boost and the Ireland winger has already shown this season that he has the ability to scorch the Racing defence.

Since O'Gara left, the spacing issues across the defensive line have been noticeable, and all week Munster will no doubt have reflected on both meetings with Racing this season.

In image 1, Munster have spotted that there is mismatch wide on the left and quick ball, coupled with Earls' (circled in yellow) electric footwork, allows him go straight between Leone Nakarawa and Edwin Maka, who are caught in no man's land. It was a stunning try, and it was one that has set the template for Munster.


Racing didn't learn their lesson in Paris as just five minutes later, the visitors breached their line for a third time in the game, and again, it came off the back of quick ball, moved wide.

This time (image 2), we have highlighted the spacing issues between Yannick Nyanga and Marc Andreu (blue line).


The winger bites in but it's too late as Ian Keatley cleverly delays his pass to Farrell (circled in yellow) for a fraction of a second, which allows the centre to power over.

Scannell (circled in green) has held his width, so even if Farrell doesn't go straight through the highlighted blue line, he can use his midfield partner on his outside, who, too, would surely have scored here.

In their quarter-final clash, Clermont repeatedly targeted Chavancy and Vakatawa in Racing's midfield, and the one time they really got their attack firing, they ruthlessly exposed the pair's weakness.

Clermont win a scrum (image 3a) on the left-hand side of the pitch, and from there, they launch an excellent power play, which Schmidt would have been proud of.


Morgan Parra runs a Johnny Sexton-esque loop off Pato Fernandez (circled in yellow), and then if we follow his run (green line), the ultra-smart scrum-half is looking for space between Chavancy and Vakatawa.

In this instance, the gap (red line) isn't that big, and in fact, you're thinking Clermont might be better off targeting one of the bigger (blue) spaces out wide, but Parra has done his homework and knows how liable Racing's midfielders are to fold.

Image 3b gives a better angle of Racing's problem. Vakatawa (circled in blue) has already turned his shoulder as if to fan out the line, assuming that's where Parra is going, but instead, he exposes the centre on his inside.


Parra makes the line break, then plays a wonderful pass off his right to Peter Betham, who scores a quite brilliant try in the corner.


It's not just in Europe that Racing have had such issues. Two weeks ago at home to Toulon in the Top 14, Mathieu Bastareaud and Malakai Fekitoa caused havoc in midfield.

In image 5, Bastareaud (circled in yellow) is about to find his centre partner Fekitoa (circled in green).


We can see that the apparent 'obvious' gap here is highlighted in red, but instead, Fekitoa is going to cut back inside and follow the blue line, which cuts the Racing defence to shreds.

If Munster are to do something similar, it will take pace and power, as Earls and Farrell already proved earlier this season, but that is not the only way that Racing's midfield can be exposed, as Jan Serfontein highlighted with Montpellier last month.

In image 4, Racing's rushed defence is expertly taken advantage of by a bit of ingenuity from the Springbok centre (circled in yellow), who dinks the ball over their heads and Chavancy (circled in red) is totally caught out.


It will by no means be an easy task on Sunday, but this Racing team are eminently beatable.

The French side will offer up chances out wide and in midfield, and if Munster can punish them, they will take a big step towards Bilbao.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport