Wednesday 14 November 2018

Munster can take leaf out of Racing's play-book to unsettle European champions at the RDS

Simon Zebo during Munster Rugby squad training
Simon Zebo during Munster Rugby squad training
Munster head coach Johann van Graan. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Now that they have the Champions Cup trophy back in their cabinet, Leinster can look forward to being the benchmark team that everyone wants to have a crack off.

First up, it's Munster in a semi-final and as intriguing a match-up as we've had all season.

This rivalry has been crying out for a high-stakes encounter between these two teams.

They may be forced to rotate, but the European champions will field their strongest possible team, while Johann van Graan has had a two-week window and no distractions to prepare his side.

He is an admirer of the way this Leinster team play the game, but the Munster coach's primary focus for the past fortnight has been working out how to limit their opportunities and close their windows into the game.

Munster will want to impose their own style on proceedings, but away from home and against a team that have lost just six of their 30 games this season.

While many didn't appreciate the borderline turgid nature of events in Bilbao last weekend, the South African would have been an intrigued on-looker and has undoubtedly been through the footage several times to see just how Racing 92 halted Leinster's previously unstoppable march.

It was a relatively simple game-plan, well executed, and the Blues coaching staff and players are all too aware that it was highly effective.

"They worked us out and that's what you do," scrum coach John Fogarty said.

"You think about the games we were mentally or physically off in and we've come undone in similar areas when we've been slowed up.

"I watched that Edinburgh (v Munster) game and I think they snagged the scrum-half four times and the collisions, even if they didn't turn the ball over, the collisions; there was a lot of impact.

"Racing had that energy at the weekend and they slowed us up. We really didn't get into a flow, we didn't launch the set-piece effectively off our lineout.

"That's the template and for us and our guys, we've enjoyed the last 20 minutes of some games this year because we put points on the board but for us to be in that position with 10-15 minutes to go, we had to go and win the game and that was important for us as a group. We learned a lot from that."

The rain in Bilbao helped and the forecast for tomorrow's game is for far better conditions which should help Leinster play their own game, but there are lessons Munster can take.

Breakdown war

Unlike most French teams for whom size matters above all else, Racing fielded a side packed with athletic forwards who treated every ruck as an opportunity.

The conditions allowed them to bank on Leinster not being able to shift the ball wide, which meant the French side could throw more bodies into the breakdown, but they did it effectively to make life awkward for Luke McGrath and slow the ball getting out to Johnny Sexton.

Turnovers were at a premium and the work was tiring, but Leinster were looking for lightning-quick ball to release their outside backs but instead they were forced to kick as the slow rucks allowed the men in sky blue and white to reorganise and get off the defensive line quickly.

If Munster can force Leinster into kicking the ball away, they'll know they're succeeding in unsettling their hosts.

Lineout contest

Like most teams at this level, Leinster thrive off their lineout and love nothing more than releasing their threatening runners into the space the set-piece guarantees; but Racing's forwards were brilliant at getting into the air and spoiling.

They picked off two of Sean Cronin's throws, but crucially they also disrupted the setting up of any mauls or transfers by putting pressure on the lifted player who was forced into a messy slap-down or fumble.

That, once again, put pressure on McGrath and forced the backline to re-align. In Peter O'Mahony, Munster have one of the best defensive lineout operators around and a man who will know Devin Toner and James Ryan's cues.

If they can disrupt Leinster at source, they can stop them getting into their rhythm.

Get off the line

Again, the conditions played a part but Racing's ability to get off the line and into Leinster's faces was a telling force in keeping the Irish side try-less in Bilbao.

Although they coughed up a couple of offside penalties that ultimately proved costly, the French side largely stayed on the right side of Wayne Barnes and as a result were able to get off the line and harry some of the most composed distributors in Irish rugby into errors.

On another day they might have gotten more joy with one of their attempted intercept efforts and the progressive pair of Rory Scannell and Sam Arnold will be tasked with leading an aggressive defensive effort.

Throw a punch

As Racing discovered, excellent defensive work and pressure simply isn't enough. You have to make the most of your own opportunities.

With a dominant maul and an ability to win collisions, they might regret not going to the corner with at least one of their penalties; while Henry Chavancy's hesitancy cost them a real chance to make their dominance pay midway through the second half.

Chances will be at a premium, when they come Munster must take them if they are to book a place in the final.

Irish Independent

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