The dreams of an All Ireland European Rugby Champions Cup final never materialized. They were dashed within the first quarter of this contest as Racing 92 emphatically stamped their ticket to the big dance and a date with Leinster Rugby in Bilbao next month. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.
Emphatic Racing 92 Opening Quarter
Racing 92 utterly dominated the first quarter of this contest. Munster Rugby were immediately on the back foot as soon as Racing 92 decided after only three minutes to hit long down the line. Patrick Lambie who had a stellar game at out-half spiraled the kick deep into Munster’s territory. Cue the Racing 92 pack to build the phases, suck in Munster Rugby defenders and identify a clear mismatch on the outside channel as Teddy Thomas’ pace was too much for Alex Wootton to score with ease after four minutes.
More abrasive physical ball carrying followed from Racing 92. Munster Rugby struggling to slow the ball down at the breakdown; quick ruck ball for Machenaud and Lambie to unleash their back line. Vakatawa who had a standout game at thirteen highlighting his quick feet to evade Murray and Kleyn before passing to Thomas who had already sped past Wootton to finish a regulation score. Munster Rugby were rattled and soon a third try came; more decisive clear out work at the breakdown creating quick attacking ball.
Munster Rugby unable to stem the tide were narrow defensively and again Alex Wootton was faced with a 2:1 defensive scenario. The youngster went to his outside. Thomas evaded with ease and went on the inside, no backup Munster cover as Thomas strode for the try; a cheeky pass to Machenaud to score. 21-3 after twenty-two minutes. Pivotal opening period. The contest was as good as over in the heat of Bordeaux. Racing 92 were clinical.
Nervy Munster Rugby
This result will irk Munster Rugby management and players for weeks to come. Both sides came into this contest pretty much evenly matched; not much between the sides this season in the pool phase but Munster Rugby were nervy and tentative throughout. The defensive line speed and first time tackles were not at the levels required. 66% tackle completion in the first half told its own story. Munster Rugby were struggling at the breakdown as Racing 92 were utterly dominant.
CJ Stander did win an excellent turnover ball but the subsequent kick from Ian Keatley was inaccurate; failed to find touch and then Lambie kicked the ball back forty meters to force the Munster Rugby pack pretty much where CJ Stander had won the original penalty. Momentum for Munster Rugby was in short supply; the line out was an area of huge concern. Niall Scannell and pack missing four line out calls in the second quarter; two of which were extremely close to the Racing 92 line.
Inaccuracy central for Munster Rugby and even the cool Conor Murray was rushing passes from the ruck. Errand passing out wide despite no platform being built by the pack. The scrum set piece at least was a good point for Munster Rugby but it was few and far between in an utterly wretched opening period. The last ten minutes exposed massive failings in Munster Rugby’s attacking game plan.
Racing 92 using the chop tackle to good effect negating the likes of Stander, Kleyn, O’Mahony. One out ball carrying was the order of day as Racing 92 absorbed wave after wave of attack. Arnold was unlucky with his close range effort but the panic had kicked in within the Munster Rugby ranks. Keatley working hard but game management was deserting him; a questionable drop goal decision in the opening period then followed by Rory Scannell indicative of Munster’s spooked demeanor in the opening quarter. Composure in short supply.
Racing 92 up the ante early in the second half
The early exchanges of the second half again exposed the composure and demeanor of both sides. Racing 92 recycling, attempting to offload at every given opportunity. Once the move broke down, Andreu and Murray then had a wrestle; red mist descended as Murray then pushed Vakatawa with his hand; Vakatawa claiming contact to his eyes (nothing in it).
After consultation with the TMO, Doyle awarded the penalty and the ever reliable Machenaud slotted over to give the Parisian club a 27-3 advantage. Cue a flurry of substitutes from both sides as the heat was taking its toll on the starting lineups. The game was over.
Munster Rugby refuse to give up
The Irish province at this stage cleared the bench and credit the replacements for making an excellent impact albeit too little too late. Rhys Marshall provided stability in the line out and was dangerous with ball in hand, unlucky not to get a try in the third quarter only for JP Doyle to be in the way of a Racing 92 defender. Marshall did get his reward with a smart finish on 76th minute. Munster Rugby management hoped that Marshall would come with the game in the melting pot; unfortunately the game had gone from Munster Rugby long before.
Robin Copeland provided sharp running lines and on another day, his ability to evade Racing 92 defensive tackles were to the fore in the final quarter and created good field position. Simon Zebo brought flair and much needed creativity to proceedings; his ability to spot space inside Racing 92 defense was seen for Conway’s try. Zebo did not look to be hindered by his hip injury; ran with gusto throughout his cameo. Grobler was abrasive and physical in the tight exchanges along with Ryan and Cronin. JJ Hanrahan provided good moments from half-back but the damage was done as Racing 92’s intensity levels dropped in the last ten minutes safe in the knowledge that the game was in the books.
Racing 92: Bilbao Bound
A comprehensive opening period. Racing 92 had a game plan and executed it in the first thirty minutes with physicality and work rate. Munster Rugby’s slow start to the game was punished; 21-3 after twenty-two minutes was just desserts for a dominant period of play. Donnacha Ryan and his front five colleagues ball carried with intensity and quick offloading game and ruck clear out gave Munster Rugby little opportunity to regroup defensively. They spotted the inexperienced Wootton as a potential avenue of opportunity and Teddy Thomas given time and space to roam executed magnificently.
Lambie and Machenaud controlled the half-back for long periods as Murray was looking forlorn with a pack going backwards. Keatley was under the cosh from minute one, his kicking game was off and no variation to negate Racing 92 high defensive line speed. This was as good a performance from Racing 92 seen in Europe this season; the first fifty minutes were superb; the intensity levels did drop thereafter and is something that Leinster Rugby will take note with interest. Whether Racing 92 can sustain the level of effort for a longer period against Leinster Rugby is a difficult question? However, given their squad depth with the likes of Claasen, Rokocoko and Carter in tow; they are a live threat for Bilbao.
Munster Rugby: Reflections
Playoff rugby games require a side to be on point from minute one. The flat opening quarter performance from Munster Rugby will have management, backroom staff and players looking for answers. Did the South African tour take more out of the playing group than first anticipated? The effects of playing in altitude last week perhaps a factor? Either way, Racing 92 bossed territory, ball carrying in the first thirty minutes. The platform was built and the result was stamped before Munster Rugby could hit a decisive blow.
The inaccuracies and nervy game management which ensued will pose questions of the playing and management group to evolve further. Munster Rugby are a good side but at the business end of the season, they have being exposed. Time to reflect and see where adjustments can be made. The players on duty could not do anymore, but the classy moments of the game came from Racing 92. Younger players in the squad need to learn and evolve from this experience. For Simon Zebo, the Munster European odyssey is over. For Murray, Stander and O’Mahony, another year to see if they can get over the line and secure an European Cup final appearance.