It will take just over an hour by air for the Racing 92 players to fly to Toulouse for Sunday’s important Top 14 game at the Stade Ernest Wallon, writes Ronan O’Gara.
However, it is fraught with turbulence and may prove more onerous than Munster’s ten-hour trek and two weeks in South Africa for a pair of PRO14 games.
When the depth and breadth of Top 14 squads is tut-tutted by those outside France, they overlook the demanding roster of fixtures and the complexity of balancing that with European ambition.
Racing are second in the Top 14, Toulouse third. It will be interesting to see if my ex-colleagues in the Racing coaching set-up pick a side with one eye on the Champions Cup semi with Munster.
Last Sunday’s victory over Toulon at the U Arena was a grueller but it’s given Racing a little bit of a freebie this week and teed up a lovely scenario for the coaches. Rest some players, give others their opportunity to put up a hand for the Munster game.
Marc Andreu started the quarter-final ahead of Juan Imhoff, underlining some places are still up for grabs. Racing spending long periods of the second half last Sunday defending close to their own line.
Donnacha Ryan was not involved, and the Racing pack is not the same without him. Nevertheless, the signs were encouraging again.
Cedate Gomes Sa started at prop, with Ben Tameifuna introduced for the final half an hour. Watch who starts Sunday in Toulouse for Munster clues. Laurent Travers is a big supporter of the giant Tongan. Go as hard as you can for as long as you can.
The trouble is that Ben’s a serious size and 80-minute rugby isn’t really his thing. Munster may target him, go after him next Sunday week in Bordeaux.
Johann van Graan will know if it’s a fast-paced game on a quick track, Ben might be sucking in a lot of air. But is Gomes Sa ready to go up against Dave Kilcoyne?
Tameifuna is a good scrummager, Travers likes that, and with Census Johnson out, the coaches have a big decision.
If Toulon were the architects of their own misfortune in some respect last Sunday, Racing’s honesty in defence was a delight to see for someone intimately involved in that facet of the game there for four and a half years.
There’s a proper culture developing at that club now, and while they still need a lot of things to fall for them to win their maiden Champions Cup, it’s within their compass now. And Jacky Lorenzetti wants it bad.
With Dan Carter and Pat Lambie on the pitch together in the last quarter of games, Racing are finishing with serious footballers orchestrating things. But it’s their work and shape without the ball that might be going unnoticed to some.
Seventeen points conceded down in Clermont (28 scored), only 13 against Toulon. It’s the single biggest philosophical difference between Top 14 rugby and Super Rugby here in the southern hemisphere.
I don’t care much for these basketball-type shootouts, like 63-40 between the Sharks and the Blues, because the Crusaders are not involved in them.
We’ve conceded 14 points here in Buenos Aires, and only eight points the previous week in Johannesburg against the Lions. The Crusaders don’t tend to get involved in you score-we score. It’s a statement of the bleeding obvious: Defence is important.
Any team who wants to win a championship has to be structured and savvy without the ball. It says an awful lot about your standards. Super Rugby is marketed on attack.
Great if you throw points up on the board, but you don’t have to be handing them out at the same time. It’s something I might have an advantage in because I come from a culture where you’ve got to earn your points, no matter who you are.
The job spec of a backs coach includes a massive emphasis on making them better defenders. There’s so much progress to be made from a defensive point of view in how the backs buy into that thought process.
The culture is the strongest part of the package from staff and players in New Zealand.
How much they care for each other and for standards. Defending properly isn’t so easy on the hard pitches. You got a good pitch, dry ball, altitude in South Africa? Sure, play away.
We are four wins from six games but the trick, I’ve learned already, is to build towards July and August for peaking.
Depending who and where you are playing in the southern hemisphere at that stage — remember there’s a 13-hour flight and serious climate difference from Argentina back to New Zealand — we could be playing on a fast-track or the mud and rain.
Either way, setting up to be difficult to break down is fundamental. Whereas the Top 14 is littered with massive units, the focus in Super Rugby is on fitness, athletes and evasion.
And it makes attacking rugby a lot easier psychologically when there is no relegation. That sort of inconvenience tends to focus the mind on good defence!
Because it’s a six month season, Super Ruby feels like a calendar hybrid of club and test coaching. It’s day-to-day, but there is considerable downtime, compared to the grind that is the Top 14.
However, the more I look back at my time in France, the more I see in its domestic fare. There’s a beauty in it.
I know at times it can be bang average, but look at Racing in their recent games with Clermont and Toulon, and you see the amount of good rugby being played too with and without the ball. Half the Champions Cup quarter-finalists were from the Top 14.
The Munster-Racing Champions Cup semi will come down, ultimately, to good defence and structure without the ball.
The difference may be our old favourite, culture. Munster have it, but the Parisians have cottoned on significantly in that regard in the last season or two.
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