Friday 21 September 2018

'It's a really dangerous thing to underestimate a team like that' - Racing still have quality to upset Leinster

Racing 92’s New Zealand prop Ben Tameifuna celebrates at the end of the French Top 14 clash with Agen on Saturday. Photo: Getty Images
Racing 92’s New Zealand prop Ben Tameifuna celebrates at the end of the French Top 14 clash with Agen on Saturday. Photo: Getty Images
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Before last month's semi-final in Bordeaux, there was a sense amongst many of those who had travelled from Ireland that Munster were going to win.

It wouldn't be comfortable, per se, but the feeling existed that the Reds had the upper hand in the pool games between the teams over the past two seasons and that Racing didn't have the strength of a Toulon or Clermont at their best.

Twenty-five minutes into the game, that sense had been replaced by fears that Munster could be on for a thumping for the ages and yet their subsequent revival during the longest garbage time in European finals history appears to have lulled some Leinster fans and rugby analysts into a similar sense of security about the Blues' chances this weekend.

Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster's team travel to Bilbao with the bookies offering a 10-point spread in their favour.

Injuries suffered by Racing's current and former captains Maxime Machenaud and Dimitri Szarzewski has further strengthened Leinster's case as they attempt to win a fourth title and their first since 2012.

But to write the Parisians off would be a mistake given the calibre of player available to them and the levels of performance they managed in Bordeaux.

Structure

It is easy to dismiss French sides as relying on individual excellence, but Racing have a strong attacking structure, an excellent set-piece and a defensive line that suffocated Munster a fortnight ago.

They have been to a final more recently that Leinster and, in 2016, they pushed a Saracens team widely regarded as the best in Europe by some distance at the time to the bitter end.

Leinster fans are right to travel in a confident frame of mind after an unforgettable run to the final.

If they complete the European season unbeaten and lift the cup it will go down as one of the most impressive triumphs in the history of the tournament.

One of the key things they have improved is their capacity to cope with big French sides.

Last season they lost twice and drew once on their three trips to France, but this year they went to Montpellier without some big names and won anyway having been too strong for the Top 14 front-runners at home.

With their twin offloading threats from Fiji, a dynamic, fast-rucking back-row, complementary southern hemisphere out-halves and the best winger in Europe in Teddy Thomas, they possess the kind of threats that hurt Leinster last season - most noticeably in the semi-final defeat to Clermont.

Having been up close and personal with them three times this season, Conor Murray says Leinster should not underestimate the men from the French capital.

"Leinster are flying it this year," he said. "They're an awesome side so I can see the reason behind (the favourites' tag), but I think if you underestimate Racing, they've got such game-breakers and x-factor players that they can do something out of nothing and suddenly score three tries.

"It's a really dangerous thing to underestimate a team like that.

"I don't think that they would have the structure or discipline that Leinster might have in a final like that.

"Just chatting to a few of the Leinster lads, they know how good Racing are and know how good the individuals are, so that kind of talk is really for the outside.

"I think the loss of Machenaud is going to be key for them, so whoever steps in there is going to have to play a big game because he's been inspirational for them this year, so that's a big blow but everywhere else they have big players.

"I think Donnacha (Ryan), particularly set-piece-wise, he's done a really good job with them. They're way more structured, and they have a really good lineout defence. Talking to our forwards, they found it really hard to win ball off them so I'm sure he'll pose a threat for Leinster, definitely."

Before the semi-final, Johann van Graan repeatedly stated that Racing's defensive lineout is second only to the All Blacks in the world game and one wonders if it spooked his players who appeared to second-guess themselves.

Leinster are wary of the threat out of touch.

"They have the best lineout defence in the Champions Cup, Donnacha Ryan's there, who knows us pretty well," hooker Seán Cronin said as he reflected on the job Racing did on Munster's ball.

"They were big pressure moments. Obviously they've Nakarawa as well, they've plenty of threats. I know Donnacha really well, I played at Shannon with him years and years ago, that's how long we go back.

"All he does is trawl through video, even with Ireland, it was video, video, video. He's like Tom Brady in the NFL so he'll be well-versed in what we are doing so we'll probably have to adjust a few things for him."

Leinster, of course, will seek to ask Racing more questions early on than Munster did.

After starting slowly against Clermont in Lyon, they have been quick out of the blocks all season and it will be a focus this week.

Their tight-five will have seen the trouble Munster caused Racing at scrum-time, while their multi-phase attack should ask more questions of the French defenders than Munster's one-out runners who were meat and drink to the chop tacklers.

Machenaud's loss means Racing lose a key cog and influential leader, but 26-year-old stand-in Teddy Iribaren is a decent replacement and the Test-quality out-half outside him will take more responsibility for game-management meaning the former Brive scrum-half will pose his own running threat.

"He's a bit of a different player but really good," Murray said. "A highly rated player - different to Machenaud. Obviously Machenaud is the general goal-kicker, a lot of stuff goes through him, whereas Iribaren, he's more of a running threat, a bit more unpredictable in a way. It'll be a big stage for him but he's got the ability to shine on a stage like that."

Leinster deserve their favourites' tag and have been Europe's best team this season, but that counts for little on finals day and they will need to be wary of the many threats Racing bring.

If the bookies are to be believed, Saturday will be a coronation but the Parisians will be aiming to make it more interesting than that.

Irish Independent

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