So, 11,850 miles away from Bordeaux, in Monday’s small hours, a mother, father and five children will squat down in Christchurch and watch everything unfold, each little break in the game. Not all of the young ones will be roaring Munster on. Some have grown up Racing 92 supporters, and Daddy might have to do something about that. Might have to knock that out of them.
The Champions Cup semi-final on Sunday is an abnormal game for me. Munster is my home club, the one I love, the one that gave me everything. But then I coached for four and a half years at Racing, made proper friends there. The reality is I want Munster to win. That’s where I am from. Home is always home. Where the heart is. But there’s a deep feeling there for guys who will be playing in blue and white as well.
With the quality they have, if Racing get themselves bang on for Sunday, it will take a tremendously good team to beat them. Maybe they won’t get themselves fully right, but if they are at near optimum levels in terms of performance, they win.
What does that mean? What they can’t do is fall into the trap of being inaccurate against an aggressive Munster defence. That’s the key. To employ the language of Rugby League, they’ve got to complete their sets. Traditionally, a lot of Top 14 teams faced with an aggressive team like Munster lose the ball, give it away cheaply, don’t respect it. But if they get that side of the game right, they will put Munster in serious bother.
For all the knowledge one possesses, it’s a bloody hard game to call. It’s great for the Munster brand to be competing at a semi-final on mainland Europe again. It’s going to feel like a home fixture for them. But these Racing lads are not some over-achieving bunch of nobodies. They are serious players there who will find their rhythm in spite of Munster roars. Their boats will be floated by a European cup semi. Dan Carter, Pat Lambie, Donnacha Ryan, Leone Nakawara, Dmitri Szarzweski, Camille Chat, Yannick Nyanga, Virimi Vakatawa, Henry Chavancy. They will rise to this occasion. It might appear trite to describe Sunday as the classic team v individuals, but it’s no less accurate for that. Racing won’t beat Munster playing a system-based game. Munster’s is so much more organised and further down the track than Racing’s game is. That’s not having a go off Racing, that’s just the fact of it.
On the basis of individual threat, Munster are still doing incredibly well to be in the semi-final of a European Cup — considering some of the squads out there. But that’s the error folk make in analysing them. The sum of their parts has always been a lot greater than the individual elements. Munster care for each other and play for each other, and you can never underestimate that in professional sport.
However, the brutal truth at this stage of a season is that everything cranks up a couple of notches in quality. You can’t hide from the fact that Dan Carter coming off the bench against JJ Hanrahan coming off the bench is a seismic difference. That’s no reflection on Hanrahan but that’s what Munster is facing. They are a year older, shrewder than the same stage last year when Saracens schooled them. They have the Irish internationals floating along in an incredible vein of form. In semi-finals and finals, you are looking at very small margins of difference and they usually come from elite practitioners producing something exceptional or forcing an error from the opposition. The Toulon coaching staff were distraught leaving Thomond Park after the quarter-final because they had butchered their victory. It’s a French thing. That’s what I mean by Racing needing to be bang on to put Munster away. Same as it ever was. Eighteen years ago, we hung in there against Toulouse at the same stage in Bordeaux and we all know what transpired.
It would just be so different if you start with a backline containing Murray, Bleyendaal, Farrell, Scannell, Earls, Zebo, and Conway. When you take three/four injuries out of a backline, it’s very hard to maintain the required strength in depth all the way down to No 23, who will be needed to see this Racing side away.
If Racing front up as a team, are mentally strong as units and individuals and are prepared to hang in there when the going gets tough, then I fancy them. But that’s a big ask. Racing will need an A+ game to win it. But a fundamental part of the Munster strategy will be ‘we don’t let these boys play at even 60%’. They’ll need to limit Nakawara and if you are looking to take a team out, you’ve got to go to the heart of them — and who’s at the heart of Racing but Donnacha Ryan.
His prep will be huge, there’s a great understanding of the game there. His capacity to read things on the run separates him from a lot of forwards, and for me, he is the key player. Donnacha will be revved up and aware of what’s coming at him. He’ll be stirring it. Racing’s front row are big units, so Munster must play with tempo for the first hour and take their legs away from them in the last 20. Johann van Graan’s side won’t win this game in the first 20, but they might lose it.
And if you are in the Racing coaching box? You are hoping they listened to the core message: do not give away cheap three-pointers, do not get bullied up front. It’s nonsensical to expect Racing to have their discipline sorted. It’s like saying ‘we are making too many errors’ and not having the understanding to correct those errors. But someone has to be challenging his Racing colleagues: ‘Lads, we need to get our hands out, we need to get set first, need to communicate early’. That takes months.
Some of the rugby they played in the quarter-final in Clermont was blinding stuff. They were 9-0 behind and won by two scores. This thing that they don’t travel is a bit of a nonsense. But they could be spooked by Munster all the same. It’s a 13th semi-final for Munster and their leaders lead.
Leinster showed last weekend against Treviso that for all the supposed strength in depth in Irish rugby, great teams still need captains in the cockpit. Murray, Earls, Stander, O’Mahony. The whole team rows in behind them. That’s the significance of Keith Earls as a starter. It gives the backline belief. They’re huddled there, 12 minutes from kick off, 40,000 people in the stadium breathing down their hopes and dreams. You probably get a vibe there as a player — we are going to do it today, boys.
Or you’re not. With Earlsie there, the boys will just believe it more.
As a rugby fan, it’s been great to watch Dan Carter up close. The guy just has it. It’s an absolute massive weapon in Racing’s favour. It’s very smart to have him come off the bench. His capacity to analyse a live game and see where the spaces are and go in and manipulate the game will be incredible. Without a doubt, he will have an impact on the semi-final. Munster aren’t the only side in Europe without such an ace to produce from the bottom of the deck, but they are the ones facing the All Black wizard Sunday.
Psychologically, Leinster have one horrible problem heading into tomorrow’s semi-final at the Aviva. Playing the Scarlets always increases the possibility of things going spectacularly wrong for a favourite. The further they swim towards the deep end, the more risk and ambition they show. Usually, teams tighten up at this stage of the competition. They seem to do the opposite. Live and die by the sword stuff.
What will serve Leinster well is the brilliant warning shot fired across them last weekend, without any significant repercussions. The whole organisation is on its toes this week after Treviso, which is very different (and more beneficial) than rolling and rocking up to a semi-final in a perfect seam of form. Leo Cullen has the best side left in the competition. It’s an international team, with perhaps a beneficial tweak or two in defence courtesy of Stuart Lancaster and Cullen.
There’s something niggly about Scarlets. They’ve had a lot of competition heartbreak, so they will be unbelievably keen to leave a mark on it. Sending a dud team up to Edinburgh meant they’ve had 14 days’ prep for Saturday and when they play with tempo and rhythm, they are a deadly team to play against.
But Leinster, in all the key moments this season, have mentally looked so sharp. What they did to Saracens after half-time in the quarters. At Sandy Park too against Exeter. They seem to have control of games within their gift all the time, which leaves me wondering how the bloody hell they are doing that?
They look like they have everything within their compass in big games, which is a very rare quality at this stage of the competition. Sarries asked questions in the latter stages of the first half but between the 40th and 60th minute, Leinster blew them away and that’s not happened to Mark McCall’s players often. This was cup rugby, Leinster went up two gears and Saracens couldn’t live with them.
Everyone knows about Carter, Nakawara, Ryan, and Rokocoko. But none of those are the Axel Foley of Racing 92.
He mightn’t do flash, but Henry Chavancy (left) is the heartbeat of the team, Racing poster boy. And he merits that kind of stature. The centre sets the mood in the dressing room. All the French lads are behind him, all the foreigners respect him. He is the one who unites a culturally diverse dressing room. And his mood will dictate everything on Sunday.
Yannick Nyanga is another massive character and figurehead in the Racing dressing room. Very smart, very passionate and a great attitude. He was in floods of tears last Sunday as he returned to Stade Ernest Wallon for the first time to face his old team-mates in Toulouse. With Dmitri Szarzweski unlikely to start, Nyanga is the leader of the forwards.
Racing’s Fijian powerhouse tops the competition’s offload charts this season with 19 and has beaten 22 defenders in the march to the semi-finals, having played every minute of the campaign. Nakarawa’s importance to the Parisians, either in the second or back row, cannot be understated. He is their go-to carrier, 104 carries (for 249 metres) in Europe this season bettered only by Munster’s CJ Stander (105), and the main lineout target.
It is the positive effect Nakarawa can bring to his team that is most devastating, sucking in tacklers to free up strike runners to stretch defences. To their credit, Munster have kept Nakarawa reasonably subdued in their past two meetings at the pool stages this season but they dare not allow the Fijian to build up a head of steam.
Racing may not be among the Champions Cup’s top line-breaking teams but in Virimi Vakatama and Teddy Thomas they have some serious backline threats who between them accounted for a third of the team’s 30 clean breaks during the pool stages with five apiece. French international wing Thomas can be a real handful as Ireland found during this season’s Six Nations when he struck from halfway at Stade de France and carved open a sleepy defence.
Forewarned is forearmed and Munster will be on red alert to shackle Thomas at Stade Chaban-Delmas on Sunday.
Racing and France No9 Machenaud will need no introduction to Munster players or supporters following his man-of-the-match display in the round five pool game at the U Arena.
The goal-kicking scrum-half broke Irish hearts in Paris that afternoon with two late penalties to deliver a 34-30 Racing victory, two of seven successful kicks at goal against Munster under the roof in that game. Indeed, Machenaud’s success rate off the tee during the pool stages was 95%, a competition-best return of those who attempted 10 or more kicks, with 19 from 20. His all-around game, however, is just as impressive and is such that the Top14 club has a playmaking general at half-back as influential and effective as Conor Murray is to Munster.