No point in looking for victims and scapegoats

Ronan O’Gara breaks down that Racing 92 match you fortunately missed...

No point in looking for victims and scapegoats

There’s every chance, with good reason, most of you were engaged with Munster and Leinster’s European Cup semi-finals last weekend, and are blissfully unaware of how Racing 92 got on in Montpellier.

And that’s no bad thing. If wishing it could make it happen, I’d also erase our 54-3 defeat from the hard drive.

If Munster and Leinster’s Waterloo was last weekend, Racing’s is this Sunday. We are clinging onto sixth spot in the race for the Top 6 play-offs. breathing down our neck, three points behind, are Stade Francais.

I’m sure you are aware we had a little thing with our Parisien neighbours recently, le projet de fusion they called it. A proposed merger of the two clubs that never got off the ground and it would be fair to say, left a sour taste in the mouth of quite a few.

As these things often do, the aborted plan has been manipulated by some people for their own ends. The club presidents Jacky Lorenzetti and Stade’s Thomas Savare had positive discussions but after a week of negative feedback from desk and dressing room, they pulled the plug on the idea.

“Maybe we were right, but just too soon,” Mr Lorenzetti said. Now, it’s being spun like he was attempting a takeover of Stade Francais. That Racing were the bad guys, Stade Francais the victims.

Sunday’s game is at their Stade Jean Bouin, and they won’t lack for motivation. It is the ultimate test of our stomach for the fight, and if last Saturday in Montpellier is a weathervane, we should stay in our own arrondissement.

We embarrassed ourselves and did the exact opposite of what we had done the previous week in Toulouse (a tough fought 10-8 win) to put ourselves back in with a playoff shot. Our attitude was off, and we took a hammering as a result.

We conceded a pushover try off from a scrum, two more from driven lineouts, and then the referee gave a crazy penalty try off a tapped down ball, with a yellow card into the bargain - suddenly it’s 28 points and a humiliation is on the cards.

The more time you spend over here, the more you understand that these away embarrassments get accepted. Again, it’s that culture thing: my home is my castle, but I’m not really expected to win away. I’m not sure how you can do that. We are in sixth, three points ahead of Stade and Lyon.

Lyon have home games against Clermont and away to Grenoble, and will probably net nine points. It means we must win our two games away to Stade and home to Bordeaux-Begles. We lose Sunday, and we’re all but done. Mathematically, maybe not so, but it’s out of our hands then. We are where we are, hanging on by our fingernails.

On the way to the Altrad Stadium last Saturday, the laptop transmitted the encouraging pictures from the Aviva Stadium. For the second half of Munster-Saracens, I was walking around the fringes of the Montpellier pitch sneaking my phone in and out of my pocket, getting more agitated by the minute.

It’s important to call this as it was: one of the most one-sided semi-finals of the European Cup that I can remember. It was 26-3 with 79 minutes gone, that’s the reality of it. I noted early in the piece Munster looked frozen by the occasion. They may have even under-appreciated how good the Saracens defence really is. It’s only when you are spitting out that dirt you understand what they are actually like.

The critics went looking for scapegoats and latched on to Williams and Bleyendaal at half-back, but that’s what line speed can do to you. It makes nines and tens, and their decisions, look cumbersome and slow.

For half an hour, Munster had the momentum, but they never got over the line, they never got to make that 10-3 statement, which would have been huge. But watching the game as a not-even-close neutral, it was patently clear who was going to win that semi-final from an early stage. Even when Saracens were 6-3 down.

Hindsight is a great head coach. Munster went with a low-risk kicking game plan. They kicked the ball 37 times. In their own half, for sure. You cannot be playing ball in your own half against Saracens. But I didn’t understand what Munster was trying to achieve with their kicks in the Saracens half, cross-kicking the ball, putting lots of air on them though little distance. Miskicks? I don’t think they were.

If Munster was playing Saracens again tomorrow, would their tactics be different? I reckon they would, but they mightn’t admit that. They might have to go to the outer channels more frequently and they’d certainly look to improve the accuracy of their attacking kicking game.

You simply have to kick the ball against Saracens when they have 13 or 14 in a line, and Alex Goode behind covering up to 80 metres of space. There has to be opportunities for flat cross-kicks, but not those half half-garryowen cross-kicks.

You are not an entertainer in a Cup semi-final. You do whatever to win it.

Clearly Munster thought that a limited approach was their best shot but they didn’t use the ball enough. When they were within 40m of the Sarries line, they had to spread them more. Because tactics work 90% of the season in the Pro 12 and the early rounds in Europe, was there a reluctance to change tack even though Munster must have realised they were meeting the premier rugby force in Europe?

Munster’s direct game does not work in such a rarefied atmosphere. You cannot play bash forward, bash forward, bashing a centre up to middle for quick ball. Saracens had their homework done, they didn’t commit to the tackle, they had a big line speed, and the more Munster attacked, the more Saracens ate them up.

And their line speed ate Duncan Williams and Tyler Bleyendaal up. Watch how in tune Saracens are with each other, how telepathic they are. Last weekend underlined what we knew - the European champions are up to 30% better than anyone else around.

I felt a full-on Munster would die on their shields, maybe make it a one-score semi, but if Richard Wigglesworth hadn’t dropped that inside pass from Sean Maitland early, it could have been a 40-point game.

Munster bought 15 minutes of competitiveness with that escape alone. And Sarries left others after them as well. Which is why the Munster half-backs criticism is completely disproportionate and simply a consequence of being behind a pack on the retreat. Let’s not be fooled, Saracens won the battle up front too.

Clermont-Auvergne present a different set of problems for the final. If Leinster were expecting a full-on assault from Clermont’s pace and power in the opening 20 in Lyon (as they should have been), they did a damn good job camouflaging it. Using an athletic metaphor, Clermont is a 200m sprint champion.

But they’d blow up in an 1,500m race. They are physically stronger and faster athletes than Leinster over the short course, but not over 80 minutes. Leinster will be frustrated by that appalling start, and that they got themselves back into it but were undone on a refereeing call that doesn’t get flagged nine times out of ten.

But when both teams were fresh, Clermont wiped them off the pitch. I’m not sure anyone in Ireland has given Clermont credit for that. Don’t try saying it was a lack of concentration by Leinster - it was a mismatch in terms of physiques.

It didn’t help Clermont’s two tries came off similar defensive errors, Garry Ringrose caught coming up and in for the first by Yato and Dan Leavy caught for the second. You can’t do that Dan Leavy. It made Morgan Parra’s decision to move the ball - one pass and David Strettle scoots down the short side, try.

At the semi-final stage in Europe, the lessons come fast and hard. If Leinster are frustrated, Munster will be angry that they didn’t get a shot off, that they didn’t give of their best, against the best.

It’s something to take into the away dressing room in the Stade Jean Bouin on Sunday.

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