He’s the Racing 92 wing who broke Munster hearts in Bordeaux and who has the firepower to do the same to Leinster in Bilbao on Saturday, so just how do you stop Teddy Thomas?
Irish rugby supporters have the frayed nerves as evidence of the effect Thomas has had on their year so far. From the darting run in the opening minutes of Munster’s losing visit to the U Arena in January to his devastating try for France against Ireland in Paris on the opening night of the Six Nations in February, the 24-year-old from Biarritz had signalled the dangers he posed to opposition defences well before last month’s enthralling first-half display at Stade Chaban-Delmas.
Ahead of that Champions Cup semi-final, this writer had written of the threat: “Forewarned is forearmed and Munster will be on red alert to shackle Thomas at Stade Chaban-Delmas.”
But knowing danger lies in wait is one thing and being able to do something about it is quite another as Munster found to their cost.
As bad as Johann van Graan’s side was in the first quarter of that game, Thomas was the polar opposite, breaching the Munster tryline three times to claim two tries and hand the third on a plate to his surprised captain Maxime Machenaud, who had been closing in to congratulate his wing only to react sharply as the ball was popped to him unannounced.
“I know what he can do. He scared us on the third one when he gave it to Maxime,” Racing backs and co-head coach Laurent Labit said of Thomas after his side had reached their second final in three seasons.
“That’s Teddy, he’s a player who has matured and has an amazing mindset. All players want to score three tries in a European Cup semi-final but he offered a try to Maxime, who was playing in his hometown. He understood he needed to work hard and he’s doing that now. He’s got great examples in the club, Joe (Rokocoko) for one, and they’re trying to lead him to the top level.”
Former All Black Rokocoko had felt that his fellow wing had been on a low flame for a long time before turning up the heat this season, as Thomas heads into the San Mames Stadium tomorrow leading both Racing and Leinster players in the competition for 10 clean breaks, 309 metres gained and 22 defenders beaten (tied with team-mate Leone Nakarawa).
“I’m not surprised at all,” Rokocoko said. “It’s been coming, this opportunity for him playing top rugby. He’s been unlucky with injuries but in the last year or so he has grown mentally strong. We try to encourage him not to settle with his performance, but to keep improving.”
That mental growth of which the New Zealand veteran spoke did not prevent Thomas from losing his place on the France Six Nations squad after an incident in Edinburgh when nine members of Les Bleus squad were marched off a Paris-bound plane just before take-off and escorted to a Scottish police station for questioning as “potential witnesses” to a complaint of sexual assault.
The police determined no crime had been committed and all nine players were free to go home but head coach Jacques Brunel dropped them for “inappropriate behaviour” in going out on the town after their Six Nations defeat.
Thomas had added to his try in the opener against Ireland with two first-half tries at Murrayfield, cutting a swathe through the Scottish defence as he had carved his way through Ireland’s at Stade de France the previous week.
One can only wonder what havoc Thomas would have wreaked on Italy, England, and Wales had he got the opportunity but if there was any pent-up frustration at his presumably temporary Test exile, it has been Racing that has benefited and Munster who suffered most.
Conor Murray has faced Thomas three times this season, once with Ireland and twice in defeat to Racing 92.
The scrum-half admitted blame for a missed tackle on Virimi Vakatawa that allowed the powerhouse centre through in the build-up to the wing’s opening try in Bordeaux and stopping his supply lines is part of the Munster star’s strategy for dealing with his threat this weekend.
“Sometimes it’s really difficult when he gets ball in space. He’s got speed and great feet. It probably starts closer in, with the ruck or the set plays before that and trying to slow down their ball and get width in your D-line,” Murray said.
“We didn’t do that at the start, he got a bit of space and it can be difficult to shut down a player like that.
"Dangerous wingers like that, you have to try and sort out what happens inside first and hopefully not give them too much time and space on the wider channels, but he got that against us and did what I knew he could do.”
Stuart Lancaster concurred when asked the same million-dollar question about how to stop Thomas this Saturday.
“You’ve got to get defensive width, first and foremost, and you’ve got to make sure you’ve got more than enough to deal with his right footstep and then his offload,” Leinster’s senior coach said.
“But he is one of numerous threats. You look at, for instance, Nakarawa up front, (Yannick) Nyanga and then (Pat) Lambie and they’ve got (Dan) Carter on the bench, but that could be the other way around for this game. Who knows?
“It’s the sum of all their parts that make Racing such a dangerous proposition.
“They are second top of the Top 14 now, they are coming right into form and they have rested their players this week for Agen. The key thing in any game is keeping your defence right and your discipline.
“Wayne Barnes will be refereeing. He is an accurate referee. If we respect the breakdown and pick our battles there and we get the right defensive width he can make sure he doesn’t get the space he needs.
“That was the key to the Munster tries. He got the space that he needed to break the line.”
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